Oct. 31, 2022
How a Walmart heiress built Bentonville into a world-class art town
BENTONVILLE, Ark. — We’d put this pin on the map because of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Moshe Safdie-designed museum created a decade ago by Alice Walton, daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton.
And it doesn’t disappoint: The striking 210,000-square-foot complex, built into a ravine in the foothills of the Ozarks, is a thing of beauty, brimming with the finest American art money can buy — and a Walmart heiress can buy a lot.
But as dazzling as Crystal Bridges is — Rockwell, Warhol, Rothko, O’Keeffe, and a whole Frank Lloyd Wright house relocated from a flood-prone patch of New Jersey — the effect the world-class museum has had on Bentonville is no less impressive.
Long home to Walmart headquarters — Sam Walton opened his first five-and-dime on Main Street seven decades ago — Bentonville has lately become a destination all its own, and not only for tourists. Since Crystal Bridges opened in 2011, the town’s population has grown by more than 50 percent — from about 35,000 in 2010 to more than 56,000 today.
It’s a boom time in this once-sleepy burg in Northwest Arkansas: vegan restaurants; boutique hotels; a trendy all-day diner at Bentonville Municipal Airport, dubbed by Flying Magazine “the coolest airport in the country”; and The Momentary, a visual-and-performing arts space inspired by MASS MoCA that occupies a former Kraft cheese factory.
Oh, and a lot of bike trails. Thanks to millions of dollars from the Walton Foundation, 60-plus miles of first-rate riding trails are threaded through the Ozark forest, leading Bentonville to declare itself, improbably perhaps, the mountain biking capital of the world.
But more than any amenity, what stands out about Bentonville is the relentlessly cheerful vibe. Browsing the peaches and pickled okra at the farmers market one Saturday morning, people are so jaunty I start calling the place “Pleasantville.” Everyone’s having the best time, it seems, including Walmart director Steuart Walton — Sam’s grandson — and his model wife, Kelly Rohrbach, who stroll by smiling.
How much credit does Crystal Bridges deserve for this transformation? Darrell Macaulay, a nurse who lives with his wife and young son in nearby Fayetteville, said the museum, which is free every day, draws them back again and again.
“We’ve been here maybe four or five times,” said Macaulay, wandering “We the People: The Radical Notion of Democracy,” an exhibit with original prints of the US Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Emancipation Proclamation. “We want our son to experience culture as he grows up, and it’s so cool to have a place like this available.”
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