Merging Art and Nature: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

I love living in South Carolina. Almost always. There are those cringe-worthy occasions when our state makes national news due to some antiquated, backwoods, mortifying issue that should have been eradicated decades ago. Sadly, things move a little slowly here, but at least, finally, belatedly—we’re making progress.

One of my biggest regrets, though, in moving from outside of Chicago to Upstate SC is the lack of art museums. Yes, we have museums in the Carolinas…but I miss really good art museums. When I lived in Indiana and Chicago was a mere 40-minute train ride away, I spent many, many hours at the Art Institute. Many. Once, I had the insane good fortune of receiving an invitation to a private showing of a Monet exhibit. I can’t recall who sponsored the party or why I was invited, but all I know is this: there was a moment when I was alone with a gallery filled with Monets, champagne glass in hand, and not another soul sharing my view.

It felt like a dream.

Whenever I’m near a big city, I try to find the opportunity to visit its art museum. The time spent quietly gazing at the work of creative geniuses reenergizes me. Imagine my excitement when I discovered that I was invited to tour a phenomenal museum tucked away in the midst of nature…in Bentonville, Arkansas!

Roxy Paine's YieldRoxy Paine's Yield, 2011

As part of the #ARStory road trip in May following my P. Allen Smith’s Garden2Blog visit, the Arkansas Tourism Bureau planned destinations for each of the blogger teams participating. Our destinations and itineraries remained confidential until the morning of our departure—it was a little stressful, actually! Thankfully, my travel buddy, Robin Horton of Urban Gardens, and I made a good team: she drove, I navigated, and we didn’t get lost on our journey (except intentionally, when we found a scrumptious BBQ restaurant to explore or a chapel in the woods to add into our schedule.)

Crystal Bridges MuseumKeith Haring, Two-Headed Figure, 1986

Truthfully, we scored the best destinations, including the charming town of Bentonville and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Crystal Bridges Overview

I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know much about Crystal Bridges before our trip. Honestly, I didn’t expect a world-class art museum as a destination in Arkansas. New York, LA…sure. However, providing accessible art and culture to the residents of Arkansas is the premise of Crystal Bridges.

Original Wal-Mart
Walton's, the original store and Walmart Museum, in Bentonville.

Founded by Walmart heir Alice Walton, Crystal Bridges opened on November 11, 2011. A long-time art enthusiast and collector, Walton envisioned an architecturally spectacular museum nestled in the natural environment of the Ozarks, where local people could access great works of art. She shared her vision with her family, and the Walton Family Foundation agreed to support the project.

outdoor sculpture

As ground broke in 2006 for the museum, Walton began shaping the collection, along with her advisors. The project wasn’t without controversy: when the team acquired Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits from the New York Public Library, critics characterize Walton as an art vulture, hiding the great American masterworks in Arkansas. However, regional fans embraced her vision, backing bonds to enhance Bentonville’s infrastructure to support the Museum. The locals eagerly awaited the opening of Crystal Bridges.

Nature path

We excitedly anticipated our adventure to Crystal Bridges as well. As garden writers, it seemed appropriate that our introduction to the museum began outside, on one of the many trails established throughout the 120-acre Ozark forest. One of the beauties of Walton’s vision is that the grounds are as much a part of the Crystal Bridges experience as is the art inside.

Bridge over creek

“Stewardship of our natural environment is a key element of Crystal Bridges’ mission and informs our overall philosophy—that art and nature are both vital to the human spirit and should be accessible to all.”

Crystal Bridges sign and tortoiseNancy Schön, Tortoise and Hare, 2009

We arrived at Crystal Bridges, rushing to join our tour of the grounds. We were running a tad late due to an important side trip to see Thornhill Chapel…but more about that in a future post. I’m not quite sure what I expected of our tour, honestly. Perhaps I thought it would be a quick nature stroll, identifying wildflowers and such.

Celeste Roberge, Chaise GabionCeleste Roberge, Chaise Gabion, 2009

I was wrong.

Dan Ostermiller, Shore LunchDan Ostermiller, Shore Lunch, 1999

With more than three miles of trails, meandering through the Ozark forest provided the respite I needed after a harried week. You quickly forget that there’s a bustling, world-renowned art museum just yards away from the tree-lined paths.


Our first foray into the woods gave us an overview of the trails and native plants, with our guide sharing tidbits of museum history while pointing out the cultivars of dogwoods and red buds. In fact, more than 250,000 native plants or cultivars were planted throughout the museum grounds, including 1,600 trees, all to add seasonal interest to the property. From pink dogwoods along the entry drive to red maples along the south lawn, eye-catching seasonal color and texture are creatively incorporated into the landscape.

While we visited the museum in the spring, I’m determined to return in the fall. The fall foliage must be spectacular.

Robert Tannen, Grains of Sand Robert Tannen, Grains of Sand, 2011

One of my favorite philosophies employed by Crystal Bridges’ director of grounds and facilities is the premise: “Leave No Child Inside.” Many gardens are not child-friendly. Trust me, I’ve pulled my youngest son out of a 200-year-old Japanese maple at Biltmore. However, the grounds of Crystal Bridges encourage children to play and explore. It’s OK to climb on Robert Tannen’s boulders, Grains of Sand. Splashing in the water of Cindy Spring elicits shrieks of joy, not reprimands. There’s even a “stump walk” along the Dogwood Trail that tests coordination. (We didn’t try it.) Walton’s memories of playing in these woods with her brothers led her to share that joy with future generations of children, many who have little experience with nature and its pleasure.

Robert Indiana, LoveRobert Indiana, Love, 1999

Well done, Ms. Walton. I’d love to unleash my children into the woods of Crystal Bridges.

Heart in Eleven 11

We left our tour guide to meet Blair Cromwell, Vice President of Communication for the Bentonville Convention and Tourism Bureau, for lunch in the museum’s restaurant, Eleven 11. I don’t know about you, but I have never eaten at a museum restaurant and thought, “Wow. I’d love to come back for dinner.” Typically, museum restaurants offer mediocre, sub-par but pricey hot dogs, hamburgers, and limp salads.

Not Eleven 11. Its chef and menu both delight. In fact, it’s a popular dining and event choice.

After a delicious lunch, lovely conversations, and fabulous desserts (yes, we may have indulged in multiple desserts), we began our journey through the museum.


To be clear, although I love art—I’m not schooled in art. At all. To me, touring an art museum is an extremely personal experience.

Art at Crystal Bridges

I love to learn about the artists, the periods, the various styles and genres, and simply let the inspiration from the artists’ talent re-energize me.

Art at Crystal BridgesJohn Baldessari, Beethoven's Trumpet (with Ear) Opus #132, 2007.

There’s something about immersing yourself in art and allowing the creativity surrounding you to inspire and rejuvenate. While I have exactly no artistic ability—truly, I’ve tried—I love surrounding myself with inspiration.

Crystal BridgesNancy Graves, Fayum-Re, 1982

Whether it’s a wild abstract painting, a fascinating sculpture carved from wood that I have no idea what it means, or a realistic oil painting with amazing attention to details and lighting, I’m enthralled.

The collection at Crystal Bridges impresses.

George Washington at Crystal BridgesGilbert Stuart, George Washington, 1797

It’s the first museum dedicated to American art in more than a generation, according to the museum guide. The collection spans five centuries of American art, from Colonial times to today’s artists. Arranged chronologically, most visitors follow the tour to understand the development of art throughout American history.

Crystal Bridges CollectionAndy Warhol, Dolly Parton, 1988

Of course, we opted to break the rules and begin with the contemporary collection.

I love the quote by Executive Director Don Bacigalupi in the museum’s guide:

“There are at least three levels at which a great work of art must operate. First, is visual engagement, the delight in the eye. This is what draws you to a work of art, the first level of engagement. The second layer might be the intellectual engagement, the meaning embedded in the work. The third layer is much more elusive. This is the emotional content, or the work’s appeal to the heart. In the greatest works of art, the ones that really sustain themselves over time and really are works for the ages, [there’s] evidence of all three of these functions at work: the eye, the mind, and the heart.”

It’s true. I think often about great works that I’ve seen in person, the ones that linger in my memories. When I chaperoned Kristen’s eighth grade field trip to NYC last year, I let my group of girls plan our outings. However, when we visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I took them upstairs after the Egypt exhibit. I told them they needed to see some of the masterworks in person, to stand in front of a Van Gogh and a Renoir, to let the paintings speak to them. I said it’s an important part of forming their intellectual character, experiencing art first hand.

They lasted 20 minutes. At least I tried.

Dress in WindowKaren LaMonte, Dress Impression with Wrinkled Cowl, 2007.

The art is perfectly ensconced in the architecture of Crystal Bridges. The museum contrasts beautifully and seamlessly into the natural surroundings, its spectacular design embraced by the landscape. As I wandered through the museum, views of the ponds and bridges reflected Israel-born architect Moshe Safdie’s genius. Materials used to construct the buildings complement the surroundings, with natural woods and copper roofs. Preservation of the natural landscape took priority in constructing the museum, disturbing as little of the forest as possible and repurposing timber from trees removed from the forest into benches, frames, and even art by local artists.

Green roof

The dedication to environmental issues even can be noted by the installation of a green roof over the museum store.

Curved walls

The flow of the building, with its curved walls, especially enthralled me. I spent many minutes trying to capture the perfect photo, showing how the design allows guests to view many art installations at once. It’s not a concept I’ve seen at the museums I’ve visited.

Sadly, our itinerary’s timeframe didn’t allow us to view all of the collections. I’m hopeful to return to Bentonville sometime soon. I'm especially eager to visit Frank Lloyd Wright's Bachman-Wilson house. Robin and I tried our best to tour it when we visited. However, after much effort to access it from the trails--we realized it wasn't open yet. Oops. The house is scheduled to open November 11.


Not only is Crystal Bridges a must-see museum, the town of Bentonville is full of charm.

Hotel 21c

Art at 21c

Art at 21c

Art at 21c

Our chic, contemporary hotel/museum, 21c, amazed me with its fabulous art collection—and green penguins! You never know where a penguin might turn up.

Tusk and Trotter

Bentonville is quite a foodie destination as well. We were treated to an amazing meal at Tusk & Trotter, a farm-to-table locavore’s dream.

Rob Nelson, Tusk & Trotter

Chef/owner Rob Nelson chatted with us a bit about his amazing menu.

Maple bacon ice ceam

(Let it be known: I ate bacon-maple ice cream…and adored it. Who would have thought?)

As fall creeps closer, consider a weekend road trip to Bentonville. As part of Walton's mission to make fine art accessible to everyone, admission is free to view the permanent collection and enjoy the trails. If you go, please share photos on my Garden Delights FB page—I’d love to see the museum and grounds in the height of fall color! I’m hoping we can find a long weekend to visit again soon.

Thank you so much to our lovely hosts at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Bentonville Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Arkansas Tourism Bureau, and Chef Nelson of Tusk & Trotter. Hope to see you again on future travels!



P.S. Disclosure: the Arkansas Tourism Board and the Bentonville Convention and Visitors Bureau sponsored my trip to Bentonville. However, my opinions are my own. I must admit, though: the bacon-maple ice cream could make me say good things even if I had to sleep in a tent during a thunderstorm!