There are any number of ways to try to gauge the impact — economic and otherwise — Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has had on Bentonville, on Arkansas and beyond since its opening Nov. 11, 2011. Here are two:
When the museum’s executive director, Rod Bigelow, was in London in July for the opening of the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at the Tate Modern, everywhere he looked he saw O’Keeffe’s “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1,” which Crystal Bridges had loaned to the Tate.
“It was incredible to see that image across London, in the Tube, in the newspaper, on books, on banners,” Bigelow said. “It was everywhere.” And on almost every image was the legend “Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas USA.”
The exhibition, the first major exhibition at the Tate after a $394 million expansion, generated dozens of news stories in the United Kingdom, many of them noting that “Jimson Weed” belonged to Crystal Bridges, which had bought it in 2014 for $44.4 million, the most ever paid for a painting by a woman.
Another mark of the museum’s impact is more tangible. All four Bentonville exits on Interstate 49 are undergoing major improvements to accommodate increasing traffic.
Of course, the population growth necessitating the widening of I-49 from four lanes to six between Fayetteville and Bentonville is occurring throughout northwest Arkansas, not just Bentonville. But Bentonville itself has grown from a population of 35,000 in 2010 to more than 45,000 now, Mayor Bob McCaslin estimated. That’s nearly 30 percent in six years.
Bentonville has become a national, even international, tourist destination, the mayor said, and many of those visitors “have decided to make Bentonville home.”
Alice Walton, the museum’s founder, expresses surprise about Crystal Bridges’ popularity.
“I knew this museum was needed,” she said in response to emailed questions from Arkansas Business. “I grew up here and didn’t really have access to art and I knew we wanted to change that. What I underestimated was how much people wanted to have access to that great art.”
When Walton, daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, announced in 2005 her plans to build an art museum, annual attendance was estimated at 150,000 to 300,000 visitors, the museum noted last week.
“Today, the museum has welcomed over 2.7 million people from all 50 states and six out of the seven continents, including places like Brazil, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Russia, Switzerland, and Zimbabwe. Approximately 50 percent of the visitors are new, which means 50 percent are returning.” Last year, 607,948 people visited the 200,000-SF museum, located on 120 acres near downtown Bentonville.
“Our team has done a wonderful job capturing repeat visitors and making it truly a community center,” said Walton, who also chairs the museum’s board. “I think that’s a really important part. I’ve never met anybody in the museum who doesn’t talk about feeling welcomed.”
What Mayor McCaslin called “the transition” began in about 2008, when the city completed the renovation of its downtown square, which is linked to the museum through a series of landscaped trails. He attributed the city’s growth to a number of factors: an abundance of jobs, an excellent education system and a high quality of life.
But Crystal Bridges has also played a significant role in the city’s development. For one thing, the museum every year is bringing hundreds of thousands of people to Bentonville, McCaslin said, an influx reflected in sales tax receipts (see Crystal Bridges: By the Numbers). And many of those people are in the area for the first time.
“If they’ve never been to Arkansas before, most people — I can say as a native-born Arkansan — most people … have perceptions of Arkansas that are usually inaccurate, so when they get here, they’re somewhat blown away. ‘My goodness, this is a really nice place. It’s pretty. The people are nice. They’ve got all the amenities that I would find in a suburb of any major city in the United States.’”
The museum isn’t the clincher in luring businesses to the area, said Mike Harvey, interim president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council. But it helps attract a good workforce, he said, and a good workforce stands atop the list of what attracts businesses to a locale.
Crystal Bridges has created a kind of “cultural gravity” for the region, Harvey said, drawing other amenities into its orbit and generating other cultural opportunities, among them the 21c Museum Hotel in downtown Bentonville and Crystal Bridges’ plans to transform an old Kraft cheese factory in the city into a venue for contemporary art. That project is under the direction of Steuart and Tom Walton, grandsons of Sam and nephews of Alice.
Not mentioned by Harvey but falling into the category of new cultural opportunities is the Bentonville Film Festival, founded in 2015 by Academy Award-winning actor Geena Davis and Trevor Drinkwater. The festival promotes women and culturally diverse voices in film.
“The burgeoning arts community in northwest Arkansas is, I think, directly or indirectly attributable to what Crystal Bridges has brought to the area,” he said. “It’s really kind of one of those game-changers like the museum in Bilbao, Spain.”
Crystal Bridges has “put us on the map as an art destination in the middle of the country,” Harvey said. “It’s one of those things that make people stand up and take notice that ‘Hey, there are some things going on down here that we need to check out.’”
The museum “has helped us with the perception, with the image of the area in terms of people’s thinking about ‘flyover country,’ if you will.”
Tea and Dog Biscuits
The Bentonville square and its immediate vicinity are home to a number of restaurants, all but one of them opened in 2008 or later, and the kind of upscale specialty stores common to much larger cities: the Spice & Tea Exchange and Three Dog Bakery, an all-natural bakery for dogs.
Among the restaurants is Table Mesa Bistro, which was a pioneer on the square, opening in 2008. It joined the only other restaurant then there, the Station Café, which has now been open 19 years.
Table Mesa’s owners, Carl and Lindie Garrett, went on to open Tavola Trattoria nearby. Award-winning chef Matt McClure oversees the The Hive Restaurant at the 21c Museum Hotel. And at Tusk & Trotter, one block off the square, water is served in Mason jars, and the Ozark Cobb salad features free-range chicken.
(Also see: Alice Walton Reels In Flying Fish to Bentonville)
The city’s booming downtown has attracted new apartment developments, among them the mixed-use complex Thrive, a 62-unit complex at the intersection of Southwest A and Southwest Fourth streets.
Christy Walton, a daughter-in-law of Sam Walton, is behind the development of a 1-acre pocket neighborhood on NE A Street, the Black Apple Community, close by both downtown and the museum. Pocket neighborhoods are planned communities featuring smaller homes usually grouped around a common area.
Tom Walton — son of Jim Walton, who is chairman and CEO of Arvest Bank Group Inc. — is the managing principal of RopeSwing Hospitality Group, a hospitality company that focuses on redevelopment of downtowns and which is behind a number of Bentonville projects: Record, a 12,000-SF event space; The Belfry, a restaurant and bar; and the Pressroom, a restaurant. Tom Walton was named Arkansas’ Tourism Person of the Year in March.
So if “hipster” were still a thing, Bentonville would be hipster heaven. But the city has also gained recognition for being family-friendly, with the $21.5 million Scott Family Amazeum, a child-friendly interactive museum just down the road from Crystal Bridges, of particular interest.
‘Something Really Big’
Five years after Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened, it’s hard to imagine Bentonville — and Arkansas — without it. It’s the first thing many Arkansans take visiting family and friends to see. It’s a holiday outing and a school field trip.
The announcements of the latest art acquisitions still thrill: O’Keeffe’s Jasper John’s “Flag,” for which the museum paid $36 million. Jeff Koons’ “Hanging Heart (Gold/Magenta),” no price disclosed but an almost identical piece sold for $23.6 million.
And a $20 million grant from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. announced in 2011 makes admission to the museum free, a boon anywhere, but particularly to a poor state.
Rod Bigelow, the museum’s executive director, echoed Alice Walton in describing the museum as “a welcoming place,” a goal it sought from the beginning.
McCaslin, who became mayor in 2007, was at the press conference where Walton announced her plans. He said he had a good idea from the beginning that the museum could be “something really big,” and by the time it opened in 2011 he was certain that “this was a game-changer for northwest Arkansas.”
McCaslin remembers saying, “I think we will see a transformation in our local area, driven a lot by Crystal Bridges. And I think we’re now seeing that. It is a transforming experience.”