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Crystal Bridges: Nov. 11, 2011

We’re only seven months away from the opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.

Friday, Nov. 11, 2011.


Mark that date on your calendar.

That’s the day a lot of negative impressions about Arkansas will change for the better.

Yes, I’ve long felt that Arkansans spend too much time worrying about what others think of us. That doesn’t change the fact that quality development is important in our state. And no one can deny that Alice Walton’s art museum will be among the most important additions to the Arkansas cultural landscape ever.

Crystal Bridges has the potential of changing not only the way others think of us but how we think of ourselves.

One of the top draws in the northern section of our state will now be a world-class art museum.

Contrast that to the days when I was a child and we were hoping that our Ozarks tourism salvation would be Dogpatch.

In his classic book “The Battle for the Buffalo River,” Dr. Neil Compton touched on Dogpatch.

Compton was the Bentonville physician who joined other conservationists to form the Ozark Society. He then led a decade-long battle to keep the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from damming the Buffalo River.

Under the auspices of the Flood Control Act of 1938, the Corps had begun an aggressive dam-building campaign. The battle for the Buffalo was won by the conservationists in 1972 when President Nixon designated the Buffalo as the country’s first national river.

On Jan. 4, 1967, the Arkansas Gazette had reported this piece of news: “Dogpatch and its hillbilly inhabitants, which have existed so far only in the comic strip world of Al Capp, will come to life as a tourist attraction in the Ozark Mountains near Harrison, backed by Capp and a group of Harrison businessmen.

“O.J. Snow of Harrison announced Tuesday that Capp, the creator of Li’l Abner and other Dogpatch characters, had joined him and nine others in a corporation to develop 825 acres along scenic state Highway 7 south of Harrison into a tourist magnet with the sights, sounds — and even some of the food — of the make-believe community.”

Just after that announcement, Edwin Haefele of the Brookings Institution in Washington and Leon Moses, an economics professor from Northwestern University, said during a policy conference at the Hotel Marion in Little Rock that the project would be a financial and aesthetic mistake.

The Gazette reported it this way: “In this opinion, they somewhat confirmed the expressed fears of two members of the state Publicity and Parks Commission last week that the Dogpatch project might undermine the image of Arkansas as a ‘progressive 20th century state.’ Bob Evans, director of the commission, and Lou Oberste, associate director of publicity, based their complaint on the possibility of such a project reviving ‘a Bob Burns type image’ of the state.”

Compton later wrote, “The estimates of Haefele and Moses would prove to be right on the money, which tender would go down the Dogpatch drain by the millions from that day on. We in the Ozark Society took no great part in this monetary melodrama, being forced to watch the environmental and cultural insult with unease and great misgivings. For one thing, there was absolutely nothing we could do to thwart it.

“The National Park Service had drawn the line at Pruitt, and then there were people involved who were good friends of co-workers in our No. 1 objective, to stop the Gilbert dam. Jim Schermerhorn, our longtime compatriot and cave expert, had assumed the management and development of the big cave, now to be known as Dogpatch Cavern.”

Now, we’ve moved as a state from Jubilation T. Cornpone to some of the greatest masterpieces in American art history. We’ve progressed from Li’l Abner to Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

Rather than scarring the Ozark landscape as Dogpatch did, the design of Crystal Bridges by world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie will blend in with its corner of northwest Arkansas. A series of pavilions set around two creek-fed ponds will house the galleries, the meeting rooms and the glass-enclosed gathering hall.

There will be a cafe on a glass-enclosed bridge overlooking the ponds. There will be a Marlon Blackwell-designed museum store. There will be sculpture and walking trails that link the museum’s 120-acre park and gardens to downtown Bentonville.

As we’ve written before at Southern Fried, downtown Bentonville also will be the home of the incredible 21c Museum Hotel. Conde Nast Traveler in 2009 voted the original 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville as the best hotel in the country and the sixth best hotel in the world.

Sit back and contemplate for a moment the idea that such a development is coming to Arkansas.

Located on the northeast corner of the Bentonville town square, the five-story contemporary building will offer public art spaces, a spa, a fitness center and a restaurant that likely will be among the best in this part of the country.

The first 21c Museum Hotel was founded in 2006 by Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, philanthropists and arts patrons who wanted to not only support the revitalization of downtown Louisville but also engage the public with contemporary art in a new way.

Bentonville is about to become very chic.

Here’s how the Crystal Bridges press kit describes what the public will experience on and after 11/11/11: “Two glass-walled bridge buildings constructed of suspended cable, wood and copper-clad roofs are located at opposite ends of one of the ponds: the northern bridge contains galleries; the southern bridge accommodates reception, dining and hospitality facilities.

“Additional structures are nestled into the sloping terrain on both sides of the ravine and contain galleries, meeting rooms, education rooms, museum library, curatorial spaces and administrative offices. The liberal use of glass throughout the complex provides great transparency and enhances views of the site from within the pavilions.

“Set gently within a public park in a natural ravine, the project’s design aims to protect the natural beauty of the site as well as to emphasize a strong sense of place. Set within a forested valley, more than 100 acres surround Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, offering a revitalizing environment to experience art and cultural events. Three miles of pedestrian and mixed-use trails are planned throughout the campus connecting downtown Bentonville and surrounding neighborhoods to the museum.”

I’m drawn back to the words of Dr. Neil Compton: “Any reasonable man cannot look upon these marvels in their pristine state without feeling an innermost sense of awe and humility. To realize that we are a part of this grand combination of natural forces and basic particles woven on the loom of time comforts the soul and restores our often jaded spirits. With that comes the realization that if we are to survive the unpredictable future, we must not upset this wonderful balance on planet earth.”

I’m convinced that those who designed Crystal Bridges have achieved balance with their surroundings.

Nov. 11, 2011.

It should be a day Arkansans will remember.

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