Crystal Bridges Museum Open At Last

Alice Walton, the force behind Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, was greeted with applause, cheers and shouts of “Thanks, Alice,” as she took the podium Friday during opening ceremonies for the museum.

After Veterans’ Day observances on Bentonville’s downtown square, museum executive director Don Bacigalupi introduced Walton, who has said her love of art was fostered by her mother, Helen Walton, wife of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. founder Sam Walton.

Speaking on her family’s behalf, Alice Walton recalled the day four years ago when the land set aside for Crystal Bridges was dedicated to their mother.

“We know Mom and Dad would be pleased that this land is now housing a home for American art where dreams of this community and this region and this nation can grow and thrive and prosper,” Walton said.

After the morning ceremonies, the museum finally opened its doors to the public at 12:30 p.m. Those holding tickets waited in nearby parking lots for shuttle buses to take them to get their first look at Crystal Bridges.

Admission is free, thanks to a $20 million gift from Wal-Mart, but because of the anticipated crowds, the museum is requiring visitors through Jan. 2 to reserve “timed” tickets that allow a certain number to enter every half-hour.

No one is saying how much construction of the 201,000-SF facility on 120 acres has cost. Arkansas Business, in its 2010 list of the state's largest commercial construction projects, made an estimate of $150 million.

The Walton Family Foundation recently said it gave the museum more than $1.2 billion in endowments and grants last year to fund operations, art acquisitions and upkeep, but that is separate from construction costs.

Crystal Bridges spokesman Lynnette Werning wrote in an email Thursday that the museum now employs 130 people, plus an unspecified number of security personnel.

Museum officials have projected up to 250,000 people will descend on this town of about 35,000 to visit the museum in its first year of operations.

Area hoteliers and restaurateurs had already been seeing an influx of visitors over the last week or so for museum preview events and parties.

Jodi Lightner, director of sales and marketing for the 130-room Aloft hotel off Interstate 540 in Rogers, said they've been booked up for the last week and a half.

The region's hotels are generally booked Monday through Thursday with business travelers, but Lightner said they're all hoping Crystal Bridges will boost weekend occupancy rates.

"We're getting calls from all over the U.S. from people specifically coming to see Crystal Bridges," she said. "We're ready to welcome all the new people who come into Northwest Arkansas."

Louis Herrera, house manager at Table Mesa Bistro on the Bentonville square, said the restaurant has seen sales up 30 percent in the last month due to people coming into town for previews and other museum-related activities.

Crystal Bridges architect Moshe Safdie has become a regular at the restaurant, Herrera said.

To prepare for this weekend, he said, they hired more staff, made some changes to the menu and re-arranged tables to accommodate large groups.

"We're not taking any more reservations for [Saturday] night," he said. "Our book filled up two weeks ago."