Mention the words “art” and “Arkansas” in the same breath and the picture that might come to mind is wrought iron yard art, perhaps a horse sculpture asssembled from old car parts.
But thanks to the heiress whose father made low prices the law of the land, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which opened in 2005 smack dab in the middle of Wal-Mart land in Bentonville, provides an altogether different view of Midwestern culture.
Allow me to add here that, having driven through Arksansas this last week, I can unequivocally state that Crystal Bridges is pretty much in the middle of nowhere (apologies to Bentonville residents).
Designed by world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie (who also designed Kansas City’s Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts), Crystal Bridges was founded by Alice Walton, daughter of Sam Walton and heir to the Wal-Mart fortune.
The museum and all that it houses are nothing short of stunning.
Hour after hour we wandered through the galleries, amazed at the breadth of works of art spanning five centuries, from Colonial times to contemporary. According to art historian John Wilmerding, the moment it opened Crystal Bridges instantly ranked in the top six of American art museums.
At the risk of being redundant, this is Arkansas, whose other claim-to-fame, aside from being the birthplace of President Bill Clinton, is the giant poultry processor, Tyson Chicken. (Trucks emblazoned with the Tyson logo are a common sight on Arkansas freeways. I should know.)
There was really more to see than we could take in during one visit, so we returned the next day and walked the landscaped trails before the museum opened at 11.
One of my favorite works was the iconic depiction of Rosie the Riveter by Norman Rockwell that appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in May of 1943, at the height of WWII.
It shows a buff Rosie munching on a sandwich with her foot smugly wedged atop a copy of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”.
The painting must have instantly appealed to Alice Walton, who was the target of rancorous criticism from the art elite when she began purchasing art en masse.
The common woman reigns, both in art and in Arkansas.