Alice’s Wonderland

For those who have seen Alice Walton pour money and new ideas in 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 would increase its size by 50 percent. Almost 100,000 square feet will be added to the current 200,000 square foot facility.

“It’s wonderful to see how our community, our region and travelers to Bentonville from across the country and around the world have embraced Crystal Bridges and enjoyed the experience of being surrounded by art, nestled in nature and immersed in in Moshe Safdie’s architecture, ”said Walton. . “With the number of visitors we welcome each year, it is time to expand our building and ensure that more people can access these offers.”

Construction will begin early next year with a completion date of 2024. The new structures will house additional galleries, educational facilities, event spaces, a café, and indoor and outdoor gathering areas. Safdie Architects said he would continue to integrate “art, architecture and nature”.

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

Blackwell worked on the Crystal Bridges museum shop, restaurant and coffee bar. He received the American Institute of Architects 2020 Gold Medal, the organization’s highest honor. The project’s landscape architect is Michael Boucher Landscape Architecture of Freeport, Maine.

“Throughout the design process, we thought about the role of architecture in presenting a space for the community,” said Blackwell. “It’s more than a parking structure. It’s an extended threshold to the Crystal Bridges campus and provides an event stage for a variety of art and nature-focused outdoor programs and activities. “

It has also been announced that an outdoor play space known as Convergence will be developed. The design of this project is funded by the Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program of the Walton Family Foundation.

Crystal Bridges officials describe Convergence as a space that “will invite visitors to step off the trail and enter a park that uses the natural environment to awaken the senses with interactive and aquatic elements 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 place to interact with art and nature through play.”

All of this activity on the Crystal Bridges campus comes as the museum prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary. One of these days we’ll be revisiting Crystal Bridges’ opening day, Nov 11, 2011 – as a landmark in the history of this state.

A small state previously known for its natural beauty (with the production of talented politicians and sometimes good college football and basketball teams), Arkansas could now take its place among the states people travel to to find out. 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 now resides in my country.”

On my recent visit to Bentonville, one of Walton’s advisers said this about Crystal Bridges: “Alice envisioned it as a gift to the community, offering five centuries of American art, the beauty of the landscape of ‘Ozark and an architectural treasure of a building that unified It was her way of sharing her love for the area and its landscapes, as well as her passion for art and how it had helped her understand history. American.

“As the museum nears 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.

• Increase of its collection from 1,500 works to 3,300.

• Attracted a younger and more diverse population than most art museums.

• Become a leader in the museum field in the areas of community outreach, virtual learning programs and training teachers to use art as a resource.

• Support for the development of a satellite space for contemporary art, the Momentary, in a former cheese factory in Bentonville, inaugurated last year.

In 2017, Walton established 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 partners with museums that don’t mind seeing parts of their collections go on the road.

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

In 2019, Walton partnered with the American Alliance of Museums to diversify museum leadership across the country. She then led a family foundation donation that provided $ 120 million to the University of Arkansas to establish an art school.

Walton’s focus on the arts and how they affect his daily life led to an interest in wellness initiatives. For example, Walton announced last year the creation of the Whole Health Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on health care. The institute will be housed in an architectural gem of a building on the Crystal Bridges campus. Blackwell will design the 75,000 square foot structure.

“With cantilevered sections that will rise above Crystal Bridges Park, the low-rise building will also include extensive community space for the institute to present holistic and wellness-oriented public programming. as well as office space for Walton’s Art Bridges, ”Matt Hickman wrote for archpaper.com. “It will also provide access to the Chopra Library for Integrative Studies and Global Health (formerly ISHAR, an affiliate of the Chopra Foundation), which became a department of the Whole Health Institute in 2020.”

“As our newly formed institution continues to grow, the location on the Crystal Bridges campus and the design of this building provide an ideal setting for interactive programs that will engage the community in taking charge of their health and well-being. , surrounded by nature and inspiring works of art, ”said Tracy Gaudet, Executive Director of the Whole Health Institute.

Blackwell said: “The emphasis is on creating a sense of belonging that manifests in the curvilinear shapes and native stone inspired by the Ozark Forest and karst topography. The opening 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 Whole Health Institute are described by Rod Bigelow, Executive Director of Crystal Bridges, as “partner organizations with an aligned vision of a fulfilling life. We are delighted to welcome them to the neighborhood and look forward to exploring the intersection of art, nature and wellness through programs, conversations and collaborations. “

Thus, the campus will now include 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 (l ‘Amazeum opened in 2015), hiking and cycling tours. trails, outdoor sculptures and even a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

It truly is Alice’s Wonderland; a place that merges art, architecture, well-being and nature; the kind of place that can change the trajectory of an entire state.


Rex Nelson is editor-in-chief at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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