How do you quantify joy? How do you quantify pride? How do you quantify the power of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville to generate these emotions in the more than 5 million people who’ve visited the museum in the last 10 years?
You can’t. You can only record them and note some of the vast changes to northwest Arkansas since the museum opened on Nov. 11, 2011.
Alice Walton herself, the Walmart heir who launched the museum, speaks of joy when asked what her work with Crystal Bridges has taught her.
“Over the past decade, I’ve experienced a new level of joy through seeing people engage with our art collection, building, and grounds,” Walton said in an email conversation with Arkansas Business.
“People from all over the country and from a wide range of backgrounds have found a shared space to enjoy art, architecture, and nature. It’s especially gratifying to see children in the galleries on school field trips. The kids really spend a lot of time looking at the art, talking about it, and asking questions. It’s much more meaningful to me than I could ever have envisioned.”
“I think it’s unquestionable that the museum has fueled a lot of the economic activity downtown,” said Rod Bigelow, executive director of Crystal Bridges. “We can’t take credit for everything that’s happened beyond that or even all of that, but I think it’s a great catalyst to define that arts and culture are a critical piece of creating a community that’s focused on quality of life.”
The 200,000-SF museum, sitting on 120 acres a mile northeast of the Bentonville City Square, “in addition to mountain biking, really created a tourist destination for the region and the country,” he said. “I think that infusion of dollars and engagement has changed the way Arkansans are proud of themselves and their state. It’s brought a huge sense of pride, I believe, to people who live here.”
The population of Bentonville grew 53% between 2010, before the museum opened, and 2020, to 54,000. Benton County was the fastest-growing county in Arkansas in the last decade, its population rising by 28.5% since 2010 to 284,333. Neighboring Washington County was the second fastest-growing county in the state. The population of the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers metropolitan area increased by 24.2% to 546,725.
Northwest Arkansas, of course, is also home to the headquarters of Walmart Inc., the biggest retailer in the world, corporate giants Tyson Foods Inc. and J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. and the University of Arkansas’ flagship campus. And while Crystal Bridges Museum isn’t responsible for the tremendous growth experienced by the region, it has been, as Bigelow noted, a catalyst.
Bigelow said the museum is among the 25 most-visited museums in the United States. The Art Newspaper, in its annual survey, put Crystal Bridges at No. 61 in attendance in 2020 among the top 100 art museums in the world. Last year, a pandemic year, saw attendance at those museums fall 77%, and Crystal Bridges also experienced a decline in attendance, by about 50% to 353,000, compared with 700,000 in 2019. Nevertheless, last year the museum ranked No. 7 among U.S. art museums in terms of attendance, The Art Newspaper reported.
And this year attendance is rebounding as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to abate, with visitors numbering at more than 400,000 so far.
“It’s really hard to overstate the impact on this region of Crystal Bridges,” said Nelson Peacock, president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council. “Obviously, it is borne out by the numbers, 5.6 million visitors. We found over 40,000 media mentions of the museum. Just that kind of visibility for northwest Arkansas is amazing.”
In addition, the museum has spurred growth in performing arts companies, “up 200% since the museum opened. We’ve grown by 110% of independent artists and writers in the region,” he said, adding that the arts sector was the fastest-growing occupation in northwest Arkansas from 2011-21.
That impact is expected to continue, Peacock noted, with the 100,000-SF expansion of the museum, announced in April, and the presence of the Momentary, the museum’s 63,000-SF satellite space dedicated to contemporary art that opened last year in Bentonville.
Bigelow said he expected work on the expansion to begin next year with hopes that construction will be complete by 2025. He declined to provide a cost estimate for the 50% expansion. Funding will come from the museum’s existing capital improvements endowment, Bigelow said when the expansion was announced.
Bentonville Mayor Stephanie Orman, asked to summarize the impact of the museum, said, “It used to be Bentonville was known as the headquarters for Walmart. And although we’re still known as that, what we more and more are hearing is it’s a place that has arts and culture. And Crystal Bridges is a huge part of that.”
The museum plays a big role in contributing to the quality of life the city offers, which attracts people to the region, she said. But its philosophy of bringing access to art to everyone “is attractive to the public,” Orman said. “They appreciate it. So it’s exciting to see what they’ve accomplished in 10 years and then with the expansion plans, what will be accomplished in the next 10 years.”
Admission to Crystal Bridges and its 5 miles of trails dotted with artworks is free, a factor that certainly enhances the museum’s accessibility. Walton, asked what she learned in opening the museum, said, “I knew that Arkansans needed more access to the arts, but I didn’t realize just how much desire there was for access.
“We were thinking we’d have 150,000 to 200,000 visitors a year, but from the beginning, our attendance was way beyond that. In 2019 we welcomed 700,000 visitors, the largest percentage of them coming from our region and state.”
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Peacock said, has helped focus regional leaders on the importance of quality of life to economic development, not just to attracting talented employees but to keeping talented employees.
“Any company that comes here to look to relocate or to make investments here, Crystal Bridges is top on the list of the tour,” he said. “We make sure that we get them there to see that in this small region, in this corner of the country, you can get world-class art, and I think people are routinely impressed by it.”