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Crystal Bridges’ promise

It was difficult to find a parking place on Thursday morning of last week as I drove through the beautifully landscaped grounds of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art at Bentonville.

The Arkansas Economic Development Commission, the Arkansas Highway Commission and the Arkansas Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission were holding a joint meeting at the museum.

But that wasn’t the only reason for the lack of parking.

There were church buses from Arkansas and surrounding states.

There were tour buses.

The place was so crowded that visitors were being asked to take a backward trek through the museum in order to relieve congestion.

The lunch line was more than 75 people deep at one point during the middle of the day.

What wonderful problems for a museum to have after five months of operation.

According to Crystal Bridges director Don Bacigalupi, initial projections were for the museum to attract 150,000 to 200,000 visitors in its first year.

It has drawn more than 250,000 people in less than six months. In fact, Crystal Bridges is on pace to be in the top 10 of American museums in attendance.

Let that soak in for a moment.

Think about the many museums in New York, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Think about the thousands of other museums across the country.

And then savor the fact that a museum in Bentonville, Ark., might make the top 10.

The current issue of Time magazine has Alice Walton on its list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Richard Lacayo, Time’s art critic, writes: “As a rule, major museums emerge in major cities, places where lots of people and lots of money converge. Alice Walton, 62, didn’t have to care about that rule. As one of the wealthiest women in the world, the daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton could put her new museum wherever she pleased. Where she pleased was Bentonville, Ark., the town where she grew up.

“She commissioned a handsome ensemble of connected pavilions by architect Moshe Safdie, set around an artificial lake and nestled in woodlands. And she filled them with a phenomenal collection of art, from colonial times on up to the 21st century.

“With the help of advisers, Walton built that collection smartly and aggressively. (Sometimes too aggressively, as with her hot pursuit of art from cash-strapped Fisk University). With Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, she has placed a daring bet that a small town can become a big art-world destination. We’re betting she’s right.”

I’m betting she’s right, also.

Make the short trip from the museum to downtown Bentonville. View the 21c Hotel (the original in Louisville is rated among the world’s great hotels) going up. Now, consider this: Bentonville already is becoming known as more than a place that attracts vendors from around the world. I expect more boutique hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns will follow to cater to the high-dollar patrons anxious to see what all the fuss is about.

Drive along Walton Boulevard today and you’ll see what was the Clarion Inn and the adjacent Boston’s restaurant empty, victims of the recent recession. There are additional empty commercial properties. I don’t think properties such as those will be empty for long.

“The impact of Crystal Bridges has just begun to be felt in Arkansas and in our nation,” Bacigalupi says. “It is wonderful and appropriate that Alice Walton receive this mention in recognition of her vision and ability to transform our views of American art, culture and history.”

Bacigalupi says the museum has been “bombarded” by requests for group tours. That’s what leads me to guess that hotel improvements and expansions can’t be far behind in Benton County.

At the high end, the four-story 21c will have 103 rooms, a fitness center and what promises to be a world-class restaurant. Like the original 21c in Louisville, there will be lots of art — curated, rotating exhibitions along with live arts events. I expect an entire arts district — complete with small commercial galleries and coffee houses with music and poetry readings — to spring up around the square and near downtown during the next five years.

People will come with money to spend on hotel rooms, restaurants and gift items. Bacigalupi told members of the three commissions last week that business at the museum’s restaurant, Eleven, is 50 percent ahead of projections.

There was symmetry in the fact that the three commissions met in Bentonville on the same day that the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute on Petit Jean Mountain began another in a series of events celebrating the 100th anniversary of Rockefeller’s birth.

What on earth do I mean by that? Bear with me a moment.

The late governor’s son, Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, wrote this about his father back in April 2003: “On June 9, 1953, he set his suitcase down in the old Sam Peck Hotel and began a love affair with Arkansas that would last the rest of his life and into mine. When he arrived, Arkansas was one of the poorest states in the union, and many of its citizens could not see how to overcome its hillbilly image and inadequate educational system. I think merely by his presence, Dad made changes in the state’s self- perception.”

I agree.

And merely by its presence, Crystal Bridges is improving our perception of Arkansas.

Back on the day Crystal Bridges opened — Nov. 11 — my friend Warwick Sabin wrote a guest column for The Washington Post in which he noted how the national media felt compelled to mention the museum’s “unlikely location.”

Sabin, the publisher of the Oxford American (I am a member of the magazine’s board), is a New York native who appreciates Arkansas and the South as much as anyone I’ve ever known.

“With a mix of bemusement, condescension and occasional disgust, outside observers remarked on the treasure trove of fine art that would be far away from the country’s metropolitan areas,” Sabin wrote. “Even when the concept received a nice pat on the head (‘After all, people in the middle of the country should get to see some good art, too,’ Rebecca Solnit wrote for The Nation), there was an underlying sense that this great cultural resource somehow doesn’t belong here — that it is being wasted on hicks who won’t appreciate it and therefore don’t deserve it.

“But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Crystal Bridges resides in a region that has come to define American culture, and the South is exactly where our nation’s most ambitious new cultural institution belongs. In fact, the idea that Arkansans would not recognize the value of Crystal Bridges was being disproved before it even opened.”

Sabin then addressed his decision to attend the University of Arkansas after growing up in Manhattan: “Almost everyone I knew outside the South thought I was crazy to move here and even crazier to stay. And, over the years, I have heard plenty of the same uninformed, snobbish ribbing about the South that has been directed toward Crystal Bridges. In response, I’ve spent countless hours explaining to friends the virtues and pleasures of living here.

“This state, with a population of less than 3 million, has a long history of punching above its weight in business, politics and other categories. I believe there are quantifiable reasons why Arkansas has produced a president of the United States and the largest corporation in the world, and if you look closely, you will see that Bill Clinton and Wal-Mart manifest similar qualities — namely, an ability to compete at the highest levels without being pretentious or elitist. This lack of pretension is disarming and often their biggest asset.

“Crystal Bridges brings the same approach to fine art, and this makes it a particularly excellent place to exhibit and appreciate some of our nation’s most notable pieces.”

Sabin ended the guest column with this take on the South: “This region has provided much of what the rest of the world thinks of as American culture. From music to literature to cuisine and other forms of artistic expression, the South has played a unique role in defining our national identity.

“Ask someone from another country to name ‘American’ foods, and they will most likely begin with fried chicken and barbecue. Or ask them to name ‘American’ music, and they will probably say jazz, blues and rock-and-roll. The short list of essential American writers always includes William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams.

“To this day, Southerners experience and perpetuate their culture in ways that most of us take for granted because it is a part of our day-to-day existence. We are surrounded by it, actually. But we don’t often recognize it for what it is. New York and California are where art goes to be feted and marketed. In the South, it is simply part of who we are.”

Bravo, Warwick.

Bravo, Alice Walton.

Less that six months after opening, it’s clear that Crystal Bridges is changing how others think about us (though I’ve never lost much sleep over that) and how we think of ourselves.

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