The drive out of the Northwest Arkansas National Airport, which serves the tiny town of Bentonville, is defined by flat fields dotted with cows and enormous bales of hay. There are also McMansions lined up in neat rows—a little bit too close to one another, considering their size—industrial parks, at least one “Trump 2024” sign, and a Walmart Neighborhood Market, Walmart to Go, Walmart Supercenter, and Walmart Regional Distribution Center. But the landscape suddenly changes as you drive into the few blocks that make up Bentonville’s quaint Third Street Historic District, the center of which is a plaza filled with trees, flowers, and, in the evenings, a jazz band made up of teens on drums and saxophone. Nearby is the site where the first ever Walmart, Sam Walton’s original five-and-dime store, once stood. It’s now a museum, complete with a soda fountain shop selling $2.25 ice cream floats, and something called a MoonPie Palooza that’s billed as “Sam’s Favorite.”
Nancy Rubin, Monochrome II, 2010–2018.
The entrance to the Crystal Bridges Museum, designed by Moshe Safdie.
One mile north, down a wooded trail that runs alongside a picturesque creek, is an entirely different kind of museum. Emerging from the trees is the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, a swooping structure that appears to be floating calmly above a pond. Erected within 120 acres of Ozark forest and spanning 200,000 square feet, it was designed by the architect Moshe Safdie, with the goal of disrupting as little of the surrounding nature as possible. As you walk the five miles of trails that surround the structure, and take in the sound of birds and the fresh air, you might forget, for a second, that you are visiting a museum rather than embarking on a hike. Then, however, you might come to a clearing and walk underneath Maman, Louise Bourgeois’s monumental spider sculpture, or spot the silver orbs that make up Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus Garden floating in a nearby pond. Elsewhere on the grounds, there is a completely restored Frank Lloyd Wright house, and a James Turrell installation, Skyspace: The Way of Color.
“I think part of what makes Crystal Bridges special is this whole connection between nature, art, and architecture, and the healing space that that creates,” Alice Walton tells me on a sunny afternoon as we walk through the grounds of the museum she founded, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. “I know in my own way, my little watercolors help connect me to nature, and help connect me to myself.” Walton’s interest in art began when she was young: On camping trips in the Ozarks, she and her mother would paint the surrounding landscapes. Today, her museum boasts a “studio,” where visitors of all ages can exercise their creativity. Watercolor supplies are available for people to borrow and take with them along the trails, should inspiration strike.
Dale Chihuly, Sole d’Oro, 2017.
Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.
Leonardo Drew, Number 184T, 2017.
Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.
Walton, 72, is the youngest child and only daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton. She was briefly married, twice, in her 20s, and has no children. Dressed in a patchwork jacket, narrow tan trousers, and bedazzled pink sneakers, her ensemble accented with tasteful yet chunky jewelry, she radiates the energy of your favorite aunt or groovy high school art teacher. As she takes me around Crystal Bridges, she shares the history of certain artworks, the personal connections she had with the ones that once lived with her but that she has since donated, and the imagined stories that all art lovers create when something resonates with them. Her thick Arkansas accent immediately puts one at ease.
Crystal Bridges opened in 2011, but its start—at least in the public eye—can be traced back to 2005, when Walton paid a reported $35 million for the Asher B. Durand painting Kindred Spirits, which depicts the painter Thomas Cole and his friend the poet William Cullen Bryant, and has long been considered a prime example of the Hudson River School. The art world was suddenly ablaze: Who was this woman, and why did she think she could just take this masterpiece to a town in the middle of nowhere? In The New York Times, four days after the sale, the critic Michael Kimmelman expressed cynicism when Walton issued a statement about her desire to lend the painting to New York museums. “We’ll see,” he wrote. “That would be good. So far there isn’t even a Walton museum for the picture to go to.”
“I was so naive,” Walton says now, with the benefit of hindsight. “I figured we’d just put the collection together, build the building, and announce that we’re opening the doors, right? It was a rude awakening for me. I had no idea of the coastal dissension toward the heartland, and the elite beliefs that only educated New Yorkers and Bostonians deserve great art. If there’s a painting that symbolizes the emergence of American culture and American art, then Kindred Spirits is it. I did as much research as you can on a unique piece like this, and we came up with our bid, put it in. The Met and the National Gallery were competitors, and we barely won.”
Soon after, she hired the curator Don Bacigalupi, who was at the time the highly respected director of the Toledo Museum of Art, in Ohio, and asked the professor and author John Wilmerding, long regarded as an authority on American art, to sit on the board of her fledgling museum and act as adviser. And over a decade later, Walton isn’t holding any grudges: “I think if we’ve done anything right, we’ve shown that, yes, all people love great art, and yes, everybody deserves access.”
Robert Henri’s Jessica Penn in Black With White Plumes (left), 1908, on display with William Wetmore Story’s Sappho, 1867.
Louise Bourgeois, Maman, 1999.
As such, being a welcoming place is one of the core tenets of the institution. Entering the main exhibition space, the first work Walton and I encounter is Nari Ward’s We the People, an installation that spells out the first three words of the Constitution with a mix of colorful shoelaces. “When I was growing up, we didn’t have a museum closer than three hours away,” Walton recalls. “I remember my mom taking me to museums, and I didn’t feel very comfortable, because they didn’t feel like places where I was supposed to be, you know? And so I just love starting out with this piece, which is about, who are ‘We the People’? ‘We the People’ are every size and shape and color, and that’s what this country’s built on. I hope it also sends a message from us, as an institution, about who this museum is for.”
Directly opposite Ward’s installation is a group of eight works that expand on that idea. Among them are paintings of a wealthy Jewish woman who lived in New York City; an Indigenous Mexican woman carrying a large bowl of flowers; a citizen of the Cherokee Nation; two portraits of George Washington; and a video of a North Dakota fracker. For some who might expect museums to be full of work by and featuring people who are “old, white, male, and dead,” as Walton puts it, these first portraits are a jolt of electricity.
Although much of the initial press about Crystal Bridges highlighted its holdings in early American art, its modern and contemporary collection includes pieces by Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Tom Wesselmann, and newer artists of color like Martine Gutierrez, Nathaniel Mary Quinn, and Titus Kaphar. “I’m really impressed with how Alice has so consciously added diversity within the curatorial ranks, and how, throughout the institution, you see American perspectives represented from every angle,” says the artist Rashid Johnson. Johnson’s “living sculpture” installation The Bruising: For Jules, the Bird, Jack and Leni, a greenhouse that features a variety of native and non-native plants, as well as a platform where artists can perform, opened this spring in one of the museum’s outdoor spaces. “From its early stages, it has been a place of inclusion and engagement, without politics being at the center of it.”
At a time when talking about American history has become needlessly politicized and fraught with debate, Walton is clear on the true functions and responsibilities of museums as educational spaces. “I really believe in the whole concept of, if you can’t see it and you don’t know it, you can’t fix it,” she tells me. “Our job is not to answer questions, but to ask questions and let people come to their own decisions.” My visit coincides with a special exhibition, titled “This Is the Day.” Organized by one of the museum’s young assistant curators, it focuses on the importance of the Black church throughout American history, and highlights both its moments of beauty and the ways in which it has been a target of white supremacist violence.
A monumental quartz specimen, mined in 1931 in Arkansas and dubbed the “Holy Grail,” was part of a recent exhibition on crystals in art.
Rashid Johnson, The Bruising: For Jules, the Bird, Jack and Leni, 2021.
Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth © Rashid Johnson.
Going into the future, Walton is keen to acquire more works by Native American and self-taught artists. “We cannot be a great American museum without being able to tell those stories,” she says as we stand between Hank Willis Thomas’s multipanel work Zero Hour and Shizu Saldamando’s Martin’s Cincuentañera, an oil painting on wood panel that shows Martin Crudo, an Uruguayan queer punk artist, emerging from a glittery blue wave. “All artists are baring their souls in some way. And when you really understand that, then you understand why you can see the cultural crosses. You can see the injustices through the eyes of the artist, and you can’t get that in a history book.”
Willis Thomas, an artist whose work addresses issues of Black history, identity, and popular culture, joined Crystal Bridges’ board of directors after the museum held a survey of his work in 2020. “I was really impressed by the way they displayed and talked about my work, and the whole process was so smooth and rewarding,” he explains. “I also felt that they are attempting to do something unique in the South, which is beginning to come to terms with the past, while also addressing the changing demographics of the region and the country.”
Walton’s desire to make art more widely accessible was the driving force behind her founding of the Art Bridges foundation, in 2017, which helps smaller, regional museums gain access to culturally significant works of art that they might not generally be able to display, given their resources or location. Walton hates the idea of having art hidden away in storage. “First thing I did when we were designing the museum was cut the storage space by 60 percent. I said, ‘If it’s not on our walls, it’d better be on somebody’s,’ ” she says. “Like 95 percent of all art is in storage, and there are so many parts of the country that don’t have access.” So far, Art Bridges has partnered with some 250 museums, and at any one time, there are about 30 exhibitions traveling around the country. Currently, they include “Black Survival Guide, or How to Live Through a Police Riot,” an exhibition by Willis Thomas organized by the Delaware Art Museum, on view at the Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota, Duluth; “American Perspectives: Stories From the American Folk Art Museum Collection,” a group of quilts, pottery pieces, and mixed-media works, on view at the Vero Beach Museum of Art in Florida; and an installation that celebrates the 75th anniversary of the landmark MoMA show “Walker Evans American Photographs,” currently on view at the Portland Museum of Art, in Maine. “The museum world has always been about ‘mine, mine, mine,’ you know? We’re really trying to break that mold,” Walton says.
Of course, that’s far from the only mold Crystal Bridges is trying to break. Last year, it opened a satellite space called the Momentary, in downtown Bentonville. Occupying a former cheese plant, it is devoted to visual, performing, and culinary arts. And in April, the museum announced expansion plans that will add another 100,000 square feet to house galleries, educational facilities, event spaces, and a café. Looking into the future, Walton believes the museum’s youth, relative to other art institutions, is its biggest asset. “We don’t have a history, and I think that’s been really a blessing,” she says. “Because we didn’t have these presumptions of, ‘This is the way it’s always been done, and this is how we should do it.’ Not everything we do is going to be right, and that’s okay. You don’t find what is right unless you’re willing to test and try things.”