Bentonville, Arkansas – Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Genie Davis December 20, 2011 No Comments


Okay, so why did we go to Bentonville, Arkansas? Well, we first spent time in Fort Smith, Arkansas. That was a stop after Memphis, Tennessee on a recent coast to coast driving trip. And while we were in Fort Smith, enjoying a relaxing evening of doing laundry at the stylish Marriott in town, I heard from a fellow laundress about how lovely and interesting the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville is.  I’d never heard of it. I looked it up on the ‘net. It’s new and it sounded exciting. And I thought, when will we be in the same state again with such a cool find? At least while I have kids who are young enough to indulge me in any of my road trip whims. So the next day, after a visit to Fort Smith’s fort, which is another story entirely – we drove through pastureland and fast food emporiums to reach the museum.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art – Bentonville

There were also blue hill vistas and sparkling streams and the corporate headquarters of Wal- Mart, which is either corporate evil incarnate or a great place to find bargains, depending on your point of view. Regardless of your POV, the museum is the project of the Wal Mart founder’s daughter, a prodigious collector of art and she knows her way around some of the best in American images.

The museum is huge and designed with spare elegance by famous architect Moshe Safdie. Its spacious beauty and wonderful collection offers an admission fee that’s just right for families: free.

Exterior Crystal Bridges American Art Museum

Exterior of the awesome Crystal Bridges American Art Museum

The setting is lovely, too. The gallery space is contained in over a hundred acres of forest land and gardens, and the kids will love the ability to leave the buildings and stroll through quiet walking trails lined with lovely trees. The trails also lead into the town of Bentonville itself, making for an environmentally friendly museum visit by saving on transportation costs. We took the Crystal Bridges Trail from town, which led us through flower filled Compton Gardens, and allowed a stop at an overlook which let us view the museum’s excellent architecture from a perfect distance.

In a break from exploring the art itself, the kids and I enjoyed the Tulip Tree Trail, a loop that reconnects with the museum’s main lobby. On this route the kids will love the Tulip Tree Shelter, created from a model of the Museum’s pine-beamed roof structure. There’s also a natural spring here that feeds the museums pools.

Inside, we saw works by Rockwell and Sargent, luminous modern art, beautifully realized late 19th century pieces by artists I’d never heard of before. The museum’s galleries include collections that range from the colonial era, to post-Civil War, early and late twentieth-century works, and current artists. Our favorite exhibit was called Wonder World, an exhibit of thirty some contemporary works with thematic nature and illusion organization.

The museum really does offer a great collection, and the kids also enjoyed a thirty minute gallery tour for kids which is offered as part of a home-school-art appreciation program several times a year. We were lucky to be able to participate.

Other Bentonville Attractions

A full afternoon is definitely necessary to experience the museum and its grounds, but what else is there to do in Bentonville?

The original Wal Mart Bentonville

The original Wal Mart

In town there’s the somewhat archaic Wal Mart Visitor Center contained in the building on the town’s main square that once housed the original Wal Mart precursor, Walton’s Five and Dime.

It’s an interesting curiosity, and well worth checking out for an hour. Although it’s told entirely from the Walton point of view, a short film is also interesting to see how this huge conglomerate began. The kids liked seeing Sam’s old pick-up truck, too. And like the art museum, the visitor center is a free attraction.

Accomodations and Dining

While a sleek modern new hotel will be open in 2013, The Museum Hotel downtown wasn’t open for our visit, so we opted instead for the Simmons Suites hotel, easily accessible to both downtown and the museum, spacious, and inexpensive. Absolutely fine for a visiting family on a road trip.

The Simmons Suites hotel

The Simmons Suites hotel

We dined just off one of the paths from the museum, in the town square at Table Mesa Bistro. The square itself is charming to walk around and window shop, and the restaurant far exceeded our expectations both in terms of diet choices and eclectic presentation. Excellent, Mexican/organic dishes, plenty of vegetarian options, a charming view of the square itself, and crisp and delicious sweet potato fries. We liked the tapas menu – as a family, we like tasting small dishes and sharing more than selecting one main entree, and are always happy to find a restaurant that caters to this style of dining.

Concluding our Visit

Before heading back on our original travel itinerary, we stopped at another museum also free: The Museum of Native American History. Inside we found a fascinating look at indigenous tribes in the region, filled with tools and arrowheads, pottery and headdresses. My kids learned a great deal about the making of arrowheads, or stone points, as they are called here.

So if you’ve never thought of Bentonville before, hope you’re thinking of it now.

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Genie Davis is a multi-published fiction author, screen and TV writer, and travel writer. If it was possible, she'd like to spend every day traveling.

Tags: , Reviews, Travel Excursions

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