by Mark Carter
Posted 11/9/2012 11:23 am
Updated 2 years ago
By all accounts, the first year of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art was a highly successful one, and it wasn't bad for the city it calls home either.
Alice Walton's $800 million museum opened a year ago this Sunday in Bentonville, where Walton's father founded what would become the world's largest retailer. Before long, Wal-Mart's corporate headquarters might play second fiddle to the museum, whose impact on both the international art world and Bentonville itself has been substantial.
Diane Carroll, media relations manager for Crystal Bridges, said the public and critical response to the museum has been universally positive. She said attendance has far exceeded initial projections of 225,000 visitors for the first year. As of Nov. 4, the museum welcomed 595,223 visitors, an average of 11,000-13,000 per week, and museum officials expect that number to top 600,000 by Sunday’s first anniversary.
"We didn’t have a good indicator of what to expect," Carroll said. "There was not an extremely relevant benchmark for opening a museum in our region. But we've been overwhelmed with the response."
Carroll said the museum's first-year visitors have mostly come from Arkansas (about 70 percent) and the rest from across the U.S. and even the world. A large portion of that 30 percent visited from states that border Arkansas, she said.
Museum memberships have also surpassed expectations. Crystal Bridges compiled 7,514 member households as of November, well above its first-year goal of 3,000. Memberships range from student ($35 annually) to benefactor ($5,000).
Those museum visitors and members are taking in Bentonville as well, especially its transformed downtown square. While Bentonville was already buzzing with growth and downtown revitalization, the museum has added fuel to the fire.
Daniel Hintz, executive director of the civic group Downtown Bentonville Inc., said the city's hospitality tax revenue, which applies to food and lodging, has increased dramatically on the square over the past two years. It grew by 73 percent from 2010 to 2011 and is up another 42 percent so far this year.
"We've seen significant increases," he said.
The new 21c Hotel set to open the first quarter of 2013 and the continued influx of retail shops and restaurants in and around the square should boost those numbers even more.
At roughly 35,000 residents, Bentonville is adding a cosmopolitan feel to its small-town charm, thanks in large part to the museum.
"It's fascinating how the town has changed, all for the good," said Abby Kiefer, founder of Red Clay, a Bentonville-based startup that crowd-sources design concepts.
Kiefer moved to Bentonville from San Francisco with her husband in 2010, when his work required him to be closer to Wal-Mart. Eventually, his work took him back to California, but Red Clay maintains its Bentonville corporate office and Kiefer splits her time between northwest Arkansas and the Bay area.
She believes the museum's success is an "outcropping" of several things: the positive impact of Wal-Mart; the "symbiotic" relationship it has with Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale, J.B. Hunt Transport Services of Lowell and the region's small-business innovators; and the growing emergence in the region of "thought leaders."
Adding a world-class museum into that mix has helped create a new buzz, Kiefer said.
The museum's first-year traffic already puts it on par with other renowned museums.
"We certainly felt we'd be well received," Carroll said. "But the numbers have been overwhelming."