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Weekending: Crystal Bridges Museum provides unique showcase for American art

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 30, 2012 - Looking for a long weekend trip? We made a triangle to explore relatively new creations by architect Moshe Safdie. We first went to Kansas City and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and then went to see the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Forget the precious name, suspend your skepticism about a museum built with the money that supposedly destroyed small-town America and forgo those snarky comments about interfering with Mother Nature. Just let the beauty of the hills of northwestern Arkansas wash over you as you prepare to be enchanted, educated and exhilarated by both the art and the innovative and creative way Safdie and Alice Walton chose to house it. Alice Walton, of course, is one of the heirs to the Walmart fortune, the youngest child -- and only daughter -- of Walmart's founder, Sam Walton.

First, the outside. A series of nature trails, some of which connect with trails and rustic gardens maintained by the city of Bentonville, provide a lovely approach if you want to get a little exercise prior to your art-viewing experience. It's an easy walk from a parking lot near the town square.

Both art by Mother Nature and art wrought by human hands -- representational and non-representational -- spring up along the trails. Stone benches,  are beautifully incorporated into natural rock outcroppings and on one of the trails we climbed a short distance to see Crystal Spring, whence comes the name of the museum. It feeds into the stream that must have carved the ravine below, the same stream that Safdie dammed to form the pond on which to place the museum.

At the beginning of what the museum bills as the art trail was a large outdoor installation by “light sculptor” James Turrell. He calls it “The Way of Color.” Viewed through an open oculus, it plays the light from the sky against lighting effects from within, or at least that's what is supposed to happen. It was closed the day we were there.

It was hard on this unseasonably warm and sunny day to make ourselves go inside when the nature trails were so pleasant outside. After a short hike we had our first glimpse of the museum, from a scenic overlook on a shady hillside. It was a good overview, showing the placement of galleries and bridges around the pond as well as the upper entry colonnade.

But once inside, it was so worth it, and we soon came to realize we weren't shut up in any traditional museum cocoon, but in a place that blurred the indoors/outdoors distinctions so effectively that, as we moved from one gallery to another, we often found ourselves in a glass-enclosed corridor that afforded closeup views of the clear water where the different “bridges” were anchored.

We could both see the art and view the other parts of museum -- and pond -- from different vantage points, getting tours of the museum and the art inside at the same time.

Crystal Bridges is an engineering as well as an architectural feat. The museum's works are contained in a series of linked galleries or pavilions, mainly on the east and west sides of the pond. Closely spaced laminated wooden beams separated by skylights form the concave roofs that slope toward the water.

In contrast, the convex-roofed sections on the north and south sides are designed like suspension bridges. The roof beams here are covered by copper sheathing. Both the roofs and the underlying glass sidewalls are suspended and supported by four-inch cables anchored at either end by heavy concrete pylons.

The shell-like roofs of copper surely will eventually oxidize and turn a dull green, blending in even more with the surrounding valley. But on the day we visited, the roofs reflected copper in the pools, making the approach from the lower footpath especially magical. As the breezes increased, so did the ripples on the pond and so did the shimmering reflections in the glass walls of the “bridges.” Could the architect possibly have anticipated that?

Although we entered through the lower entrance, because we'd arrived via the hiking trails, most guests descend from an elevator from the top of the eastern ridge where the parking lots are located. On one side of this entry court is one of the best museum gift shops I've seen lately, filled with tasteful and fun objects that won't require the purchaser to take out a second mortgage.

Once inside the light-filled foyer, friendly volunteer greeter-guides provide such vital information as to where to start, where to find the audioguides and where to find restrooms. Did I mention it's free? All of it, even the audioguides, thanks to a $20-million grant from Walmart.


The approximately 400 (and growing) works in the collection are each representative of different periods of American art and also provide a graphic version of American history. Thanks to the excellent audio accompaniment and  perspectives offered by different curators -- including occasional commentary by Alice Walton herself -- I felt I gained a good understanding of what was going on in the country at the time and how the paintings relate to that. I'm not sure I've ever experienced art in such a complete way, and I came to a greater appreciation of even familiar works.

The collection evolves chronologically starting with a 1675 oil painting of an idealized scene of Native Americans in Virginia painted from a lithograph by an Englishman who had never set foot in the colonies. It proceeds through the present; the first two pavilions are for works up to about 1900, next are galleries of early 20th century art including the Ash Can School and then  postwar art of a great variety including Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Louise Nevelson, Robert Rauschenberg and Jackson Pollock.

Among the several works from the Hudson River School, the best-known is Asher Brown Durand's “Kindred Spirits” that Walton bought from the New York Public Library, creating a bit of a stir and putting Walton's new museum on the map even before ground had been broken in Arkansas. That was in 2005 and the $35 million that Walton paid for the painting was a record for a painting by an American artist.

Walton was visiting Crystal Bridges the same day we were, and at one point we found ourselves in the same gallery. She seemed genuinely pleased that we were enjoying ourselves and noted she'd seen us on the trails that morning. When we told her how much we were enjoying the way the museum told the country's history through art, she nodded and smiled, seemingly pleased that we had come to that conclusion. It's what they had hoped to accomplish, she said, adding, “Isn't it wonderful to have something like this right here in the Midwest?”

Arkansas architects

Although this trip was planned with the purpose of seeing the region's work of Moshe Safdie, I cannot go to this area of Arkansas and not pay homage to the late E. Fay Jones, a man whose work influenced and informed not only Safdie, but an intersecting circle of others.

Fay Jones, an unpretentious and beloved man, spent most of his career teaching at the University of Arkansas in the architecture school now named for him. He was also a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, and may have been thinking of the master's Falling Water House when he damned up a creek to make a pond for a house he designed for the family of Sam Walton.

Then came Safdie, who said that when Alice Walton took him to her ancestral home and he saw Jones' work, he had the inspiration for damning up the creek that flows from Crystal Spring and creating the pond for Alice Walton's museum.

On our way home from what we'll call our Safdie Quest, we stopped at Eureka Springs to visit what may be Jones' crowning achievement, Thorncrown Chapel, which sits on a wooden hillside just southwest of the center of Eureka Springs. 

Thorncrown is probably one of the three most inspirational places I've ever visited, right up there with the great gothic Duomo in Milan and Le Corbusier's Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp, France. The wood and glass chapel blends in so well with its surroundings that you hardly see it before you're at the entrance, and once you're there -- well if ever a healing could take place, I can't help but feeling it would be at Thorncrown.

An excellent virtual tour is offered on its website. Not quite as good as the real thing, but better than nothing. On second thought, if you think you might go, forgo the virtual tour. Best to see it with a clean slate the first time.

Another Fayetteville architect and former colleague of Jones, the late James Lambeth, has also made a significant contribution to the architecture of the area, and beyond.

Inn at the Mill was a working mill until the early 1990s, when it fell into disuse and disrepair. Lambeth rescued and restored it, then built a 46-room hotel around it.

It's about 20 miles south of Bentonville and five miles north of Fayetteville, in a tiny place called Johnson. I wouldn't dream of staying any place else if I'm anywhere in the vicinity. Inside, the rooms are comfortable and tastefully furnished; and outside there's the constant tinkling of the water that once ran the mill and has been re-directed by Lambeth into a variety of chutes and streams, all of which come cascading down the hillside adding to the romantic ambience.

If that weren't enough, the inn boasts what must be the region's finest dining space in James at the Mill, also designed by Lambeth and run by his chef son-in-law, Miles James, who has amassed a collection of prestigious awards. I've eaten there several times and each time has surpassed the previous. The last time, my first taste of the restaurant's beef Wellington actually brought tears to my eyes.

Rooms at Inn at the Mill, recently nominated for “Inn of the Year,” by Choice Hotels, start at $89; suites are as high as $279.

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