A view across the upper pond of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art… (Christopher Reynolds /…)
BENTONVILLE, Ark. — To meet Gilbert Stuart's "George Washington," Norman Rockwell's "Rosie the Riveter," Andy Warhol's "Dolly Parton" and hundreds of other artworks less famous and more subtle, first fly to XNA.
That's right, Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport. Then drive 20 miles north, through farmland, forest and suburbs, to the home of the planet's largest retailer.
That's right, Bentonville. On Central Avenue, if it's autumn, you'll probably roll past 100-year-old houses under a dense canopy of fall colors. In the downtown square, you'll pass the storefront where Sam Walton's Wal-Mart empire was hatched as a five-and-dime in 1950.
Then the road dips into a woodsy ravine and a strange skeletal tree of gleaming silver rises from the grass. It's a sculpture by Roxy Paine, announcing your arrival at the shimmering, occasionally perplexing Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
Crystal Bridges, approaching its first birthday Nov. 11, is this country's wealthiest, most ambitious new art museum. Thanks to its arrival, a visitor to northwestern Arkansas now finds a fascinating jumble of heartland scenery, small-town sensibility, global commerce and American art, along with a measure of irony. After raising big-box stores around the world — and being blamed by many for the decline of Main Street commerce across America — Wal-Mart and its founding family have relaunched their hometown's downtown.
You might not guess this from the Wal-Mart home office on Southwest 8th Street, which shows all the ostentation and assertiveness of a suburban DMV office. But at least seven restaurants and a handful of food trucks have opened around the city's central square in the last two years, and last year Wal-Mart spiffed up its visitor center here. An ambitiously artsy lodging, the 21c Museum Hotel, is due to open early next year. At the recently expanded Phat Tire Bike Shop in the old Hotel Massey building, you can rent a hybrid bike for two hours for $18.
"You've got a little pond, that being Bentonville, that already has a giant alligator lurking in it, that being Wal-Mart," says Dayton Castleman, an artist, educator and bicycle shop salesman who moved here from Chicago during the summer. "And the museum is like dropping a 4-ton boulder in the middle of that pond. Kaboom!
"I think people are going to be studying what happens in Bentonville right now for years to come."
I started with the downtown square: stately courthouse, immaculate flowering plants and a statue honoring James H. Berry, a Confederate officer who became Arkansas' governor in the 1880s. On Saturdays, there's a farmers market, and on some Friday nights, there are acoustic jam sessions.
Not long ago, Crystal Bridges museum director Don Bacigalupi likes to recall, his 6-year-old son pulled out his violin and joined the jammers.
"It's an amazing experience," Bacigalupi told me, "to be part of that indigenous culture even as all of this new culture is arriving."
Good food too. I had excellent organic greens and ravioli at Tavola Trattoria; good guajillo salmon salad at Table Mesa Bistro; a restorative cup of iced coffee at the Pressroom; and a tangy BLT tartine (applewood-smoked pork belly with tomato chutney and arugula) at Tusk & Trotter. None of those restaurants existed five years ago.
The lodging options aren't as varied, so far — too many chain hotels, not enough independents. But I liked the owners' personal touches at the Laughlin House (opened 2011), a four-room bed-and-breakfast in an 1890s Victorian cottage a short walk from the square and Crystal Bridges. I also browsed the gallery space that the 104-room 21c Museum Hotel has set up as its advance office. (Another strong option to consider: the historic Inn at Carnall Hall, a former women's dormitory on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville, about 30 miles south.)
The Wal-Mart Visitor Center claimed me for about an hour with the authorized story of how founder Sam Walton conquered the retail world: After the five-and-dime in BentonviIle came other stores. In1962, he opened his first store with the Wal-Mart name in neighboring Rogers, Ark. In 1970, the company went public. In 1980, the company hit $1 billion in sales in a year. In 1993, it hit $1 billion in sales in a week. And now? More than $1 billion a day in net sales, with 2.2 million workers in 27 countries.
Once you venture beyond the square, it becomes clear that Bentonville is no sleepy Southern hamlet from Central Casting. It's bigger than that (about 36,000 residents), having tripled its population since 1990. When you add neighboring areas, including Rogers (which has its own historic district), Fayetteville and Springdale, you have a metropolitan area of more than 460,000 residents.