Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Day 51/60: Bentonville, Crystal Bridges

Alice Walton, the daughter of Sam Walton, who founded Walmart, has employed her wealth to create a wonderful new museum of American art on a beautiful piece of family-owned land in Northeast Arkansas. The wooded country was so lovely, that I was thankful for the opportunity to be there. We started our day with a walk on the Art Trail. It doesn't have much sculpture of interest yet, but it has a wonderful sky-viewing building by James Turrell, much like the one at the de Young Museum.

The inspiring museum building was designed by Moshe Safdie, who also designed the new wing of the Telfair Museum in Savannah, which we saw in 2010. Like Frank Lloyd Wright's 'Fallingwater,' it is built over a creek, a creek which has been managed to form reflecting pools. Unfortunately, Arkansas has been in a drought so some areas that should have had rippling falls were dry. The complex is composed of four pavilions. I believe the metaphor was an ark, as the pavilions are tapered like boats and their roofs are composed of massive bentwood beams in broad arcs like the hull of a boat, upside down. It is good to have breaks between pavilions where you can enjoy the woods and water through the glass walls, but it adds to the walking involved.

Ms. Walton came into the collecting game rather late, meaning it was hard to get her hands on works by some very important artists. Take Georgia O'Keeffe; her best stuff has long been ensconced in the major museums. Walton compensated by getting a few small but unusual pieces that show something new about her talent. She had only one work by a Californian, but it was a fab piece of a 'supine woman' by Wayne Thiebaud. She also has excellent work by sometimes-neglected artists. She had a knock-out piece by Harriet Frishmuth, a 19th Century sculptor who communicates joy and abandon like no other. She had a couple wonderful figurative sculptures by Alexander Calder's father, also Alexander Calder.

The collection pretty much runs the gamut from Copley to Ursula von Rydingsvaard. There are several masterpieces that we had seen in other big museums.

Admission is free, covered by Walmart, and photography is permitted. The whole endeavor comes from a very generous spirit. Properties abutting the museum have access to trails through the museum's park, and a trail reaches it from downtown. Ms. Walton has long been a promoter of the region—she got the local airport going—and she has tried to integrate the museum into the community, as well as into the site.

The museum was very well-attended, sometimes too crowded; this on a Monday in late October. Most of the patrons were seniors, many quite infirm. Bentonville, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, is actually fairly convenient to St. Louis, Tulsa, and other major cities.  Most patrons seemed to be from the region. They said things like, "Lookee there! Inat weeeird?" Apparently many patrons have never been to an art museum before, because there is a greeter at the door to explain not to get to close to the art work and other courtesies.

One of the pavilions is devoted to a vast eating hall. It has glass walls and projects over a reflecting pool; light patterns ripple across the broad wooden arches. We stood in line 25 minutes to order; the food came out pretty fast. We both had High South Chicken salad, which was excellent roasted chicken mixed with mayonnaise and cranberries, over greens; it was fine. I had a devastating Devil's food cupcake; I don't know how they can make anything that swell in such vast quantities. Dan had a fancy cookie.

We spent most of the time separately, running around trying to cram the whole collection in, taking as many photos as we could. Mostly the lighting was quite good, but a few large pieces had bad reflections. It is notable that in the galleries there is no natural light at all, quite a departure from the usual practice. The artificial light is even and constant, but you do appreciate the breaks between galleries where you get natural light through glass walls. Both of us made a second trip out to see the Turrell sky-viewing building, perhaps a half hour's rapid walk. The upshot was that by 6:00 p.m. I was so tired I could barely move.

Next we went to downtown Bentonville. On the central square is Walton's original Five and Dime store, now a Visitors' Center. It has some old time kids toys and candies for sale up front, then a museum on Walton on Walmart, which had no interest for us.

For dinner we found an Italian place called Tavola Tratorria. Yes, in Bentonville, Arkansas, we found authentic Italian food. The Wedding Soup with turkey meat balls and risotto, a few veggies, had perfect, delicate Italian spicing; so life-giving. It reminds me that the best 'German' food I ever had was in Hot Springs, Arkansas, several years ago; a black cook working to instructions of German chef. We both had the soup with some sort of fancy salad that was fine. Very pleasant place, and nice service.

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