BENTONVILLE, Ark. -- The little girl looked down on the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in the valley below, then gave it the supreme preteen compliment: “This is awesome.”
And she hadn’t even been inside.
I felt the same way. Although I planned my trip to see the art collection amassed by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, I found myself equally thrilled by architect Moshe Safdie’s buildings and the landscaped trails winding through 120 wooded acres.
The little girl and I were awed by the copper-roofed pavilions set in and around two ponds fed by a natural spring. The museum’s name is derived from that water source — Crystal Spring — and the bridge-like construction of the buildings.
Inside, the buildings seem organic, with sunshine reflected from the water dappling the walls.
The more than 400 works on display are arranged chronologically and provide an overview of this country’s art history, from the earliest days of Colonial America.
My friend and I chose to go backward in time by starting in the 20th century gallery filled with recognizable names: Georgia O’Keeffe, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Grant Wood. Norman Rockwell’s iconic Rosie the Riveter (1943) hangs back to back with Robert Henri’s 1908 painting of a woman in a long, high-collared black dress, proving how quickly the role of women in this country changed. Moving on, we found Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, Frederic Remington, Winslow Homer, the fabulous landscapes of the 19th century, the famous portraits of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart and Charles Willson Peale.
“I often hear that the size of the museum surprises people,” curator Kevin Murphy said. “It’s much larger, as is the collection, than people expect.”
Not a fan of art museums? Doesn’t matter. Go. See. Experience this place. It’s one of the most unusual buildings you’ll ever enter. And it won’t cost you anything: Wal-Mart gave $20 million so admission to Crystal Bridges would be free. The museum celebrates its first anniversary next month.
They seem to have thought of everything: Rooms with comfy chairs and sofas separate the galleries; you can gaze out at nature and architecture while others in your group are enthralled by the art. An activity center stretches the imaginations of young visitors.
Eleven, the restaurant named after the museum’s Nov. 11, 2011, opening day, spans the ponds, with glass walls and a soaring arched ceiling of Arkansas pine. The restaurant alone, with its fresh menu and stunning views, is worth the trip.
We spent an afternoon looking at art, then returned just after sunrise the next day to walk some of the more than 3.5 miles of manicured trails. Deer grazed near The Way of Color, a James Turrell Skyspace. Set in a hillside near the start of the Art Trail, the stone chamber frames the sky during the day. At sunset, a computer-programmed light show dazzles viewers.
If you have time for just a short walk, take the one-third mile paved Art Trail. The youngsters in your group will get a kick out of the bronze bears and Andr Harvey’s Stella, a large bronze pig. Robert Indiana’s LOVE is instantly recognizable. Instead of an eye-popping red, green and blue print, this three-dimensional version of rusty-looking steel stands 6 feet by 6 feet by 3 feet.
We continued up the slightly more challenging Rock Ledge Trail, making our way back to town along the 1.5-mile paved Crystal Bridges Trail and pausing at a sobering installation. Commissioned for a wooded site along a creek, A Place Where They Cried is a procession of sandstone monoliths. It’s a tribute to the thousands of American Indians who died during the Trail of Tears forced migration of the 1830s.
The Crystal Bridges Trail is part of the 36-mile City of Bentonville Trail System and includes an observation deck on a ridge above the museum. I hope the next time I visit is in spring: More than 500 dogwood trees are scattered along the museum’s mile-long Dogwood Trail.
And I will be back. The permanent collection will rotate; it contains more than 2,000 works.
A multiyear partnership with the Louvre, Atlanta’s High Museum of Art and Chicago’s Terra Foundation for American Art will bring traveling exhibits to Crystal Bridges.