Alice’s Wonderland


To those who saw Alice Walton pour money and new thoughts into northwest Arkansas, the news came as no surprise. In April it was announced that the already spectacular Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville will be enlarged by 50 percent. The current 200,000 square meter facility will be expanded by almost 100,000 square meters.

“It is wonderful to see our community, region and travelers from all over the country and around the world hugging Crystal Bridges to Bentonville and enjoying the experience of being surrounded by art, immersed in nature and immersed in Moshe Safdie’s architecture,” said Walton. “Given the number of visitors we welcome each year, it is time to expand our building and make sure more people have access to these offerings.”

Construction work will begin early next year with a completion date in 2024. New buildings will house additional galleries, educational facilities, event rooms, a café, and indoor and outdoor collection areas. Safdie Architects said it will continue to integrate “art, architecture and nature”.

The April announcement came just six months after Walton said it was building a six-story parking garage on the east side of the museum campus and north of a children’s museum known as the Scott Family Amazeum. This is not your typical multi-storey car park. For starters, it is designed by internationally recognized architect Marlon Blackwell. And it will include two levels of programming room on the west side.

Blackwell worked on the museum shop, restaurant, and coffee shop at Crystal Bridges. He was awarded the 2020 American Institute of Architects gold medal, the organization’s highest honor. The landscape architect for the project is Michael Boucher Landscape Architecture of Freeport, Maine.

“During the design process, we thought about the role of architecture in presenting a space to the community,” said Blackwell. “This is more than a parking garage. It is an extended threshold to the Crystal Bridges campus and provides a venue for a variety of outdoor programs and activities with an emphasis on art and nature.”

It was also announced that an outdoor playground called Convergence would be developed. The design for this project is funded by the Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program of the Walton Family Foundation.

Crystal Bridges officials describe the convergence as a space that “invites visitors to step off the path and step into a park that uses the natural surroundings to appeal to the senses with interactive features and water features that mimic the landscapes of Ozark.

“Still in the schematic design phase, this project combines the expertise of Crystal Bridges and the Amazeum to create a free, public space to interact with art and nature in a playful way.”

All of these activities are happening on the Crystal Bridges campus as the museum prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary. One of these days we will look back to the day Crystal Bridges opened – November. November 2011 – as a milestone in the history of this state.

Arkansas, a small state that used to be known for its natural beauty (along with talented politicians and the occasional good college football and basketball teams) could now take its place among the states where people travel to to experience the arts.

I vividly remember my first visit to Crystal Bridges. It was one of those “I can’t believe I’m in Arkansas” moments. I remember walking into a gallery, seeing Norman Rockwell’s iconic “Rosie the Riveter” and thinking, “Wow. This important piece of our American culture is now my home in the state.”

During my recent visit to Bentonville, one of Walton’s advisors said of Crystal Bridges, “Alice envisioned it as a gift to the community that includes five centuries of American art, the beauty of the Ozark countryside, and an architectural treasure of a building that unites” Art and nature. In doing so, she shared her love of the region and its landscape, as well as her passion for the arts and how it had helped her understand American history.

“As the museum approaches its 10th anniversary, it has become exactly what Alice envisioned – a place that offers transformative experiences.”

Since opening, Crystal Bridges has:

• Attracted more than 5.2 million visitors, including nearly 300,000 students on school trips.

• Expansion of the collection from 1,500 to 3,300 works.

• Drawn a younger, more diverse population than most art museums.

• Be known as a museum leader in public relations, virtual learning programs, and teacher training for the use of art as a resource.

• Supported the development of a satellite room for contemporary art, the Momentary, in a former cheese factory in Bentonville that opened last year.

In 2017, Walton founded the Art Bridges Foundation to expand access to American art, especially for those who live in rural areas. Art Bridges has its own art collection and works with museums that don’t mind putting parts of their collections on the street.

Art Bridges has worked with 126 organizations in 37 states, funded more than 400 projects, and reached 2.4 million people.

In 2019, Walton partnered with the American Alliance of Museums to diversify museum tour around the country. She later ran a family charity gift that gave the University of Arkansas $ 120 million to start an art school.

Walton’s focus on the arts and their impact on their daily lives led to an interest in wellness initiatives. For example, last year Walton announced the creation of the Whole Health Institute, a not-for-profit organization focused on health care. The institute will be housed in an architectural jewel of a building on the Crystal Bridges campus. Blackwell will design the 75,000 square foot structure.

“With cantilevered sections rising above the park-like grounds of Crystal Bridges, the low building will also provide a large communal space for the institute to showcase a holistic, benevolent public program as well as office space for Walton’s Art Bridges initiative,” wrote Matt Hickman for “It will also provide access to the Chopra Library for Integrative Studies and Whole Health (formerly ISHAR, a subsidiary of the Chopra Foundation), which will be available in 2020.”

“As our newly established institution evolves, the location on the Crystal Bridges campus and the design of this building provide an ideal setting for interactive programs that welcome the community to take care of their health and wellbeing, surrounded by nature and inspiring works of art, “said Tracy Gaudet, executive director of the Whole Health Institute.

Blackwell said, “The focus is on creating a sense of place that is manifested in the curvilinear shapes and native stone inspired by the Ozark forest and karst topography. The openness of the building and access to the natural environment are also important elements and an invitation to actively explore healing in relation to art, nature and architecture at a time when health is such an important local and global issue. “

Crystal Bridges and the Whole Health Institute are described by Rod Bigelow, Executive Director of Crystal Bridges, as “partner organizations with a coordinated vision of enriching life. We look forward to welcoming you to the neighborhood and look forward to the interface between art, nature and well-being through programs, discussions and collaborations. “

So the campus is now becoming an expanded art museum (increasingly recognized as one of the best in the country), a health and wellness institute, a state-of-the-art children’s museum (the Amazeum opened in 2015), hiking and biking trails, outdoor sculptures and even one of Frank Lloyd Wright designed house.

It really is Alice’s wonderland; a place that combines art, architecture, wellness and nature; the kind of place that can change the trajectory of an entire state.

Rex Nelson is the chief editor of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.

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