Bentonville’s population is around 36,000, but a single destination within the city’s limits, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, can draw as many as 2,000 people each day.
There’s no question that the museum, which offers admittance free of charge, is center in the region’s growing tourism economy.
A fine art museum in Arkansas, with curatorial standards that some say aren’t shy of Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre, just celebrated its 1-millionth visitor.
But, Bentonville already had an economy in Walmart.
That was before, said Blair Cromwell, a Bentonville Convention and Visitors Bureau vice president.
“Our No. 1 traveler has always been the corporate traveler,” she said last weekend over organic War Eagle Mill grits, a Benton County staple milled locally for 180 years.
“When Crystal Bridges came in, more leisure travelers came, even to see the construction.”
Cromwell met Log Cabin writers Becky Harris and I last Saturday at The Hive, the restaurant inside the confusing, contemporary, completely awesome 21c Museum Hotel that is a trail’s walk from Crystal Bridges.
I am told by the Museum Hotel’s general manager, a tall Frenchman named Emmanuel Gardinier (with really great glasses) that I was actually supposed to be confused and lost when I walked in 21c and couldn’t find the hotel check-in desk.
Was I in a museum, a hotel, a restaurant? What are these green penguins doing all over the place?
“Am I dreaming,” was the question I was supposed to ask myself, he said.
The Museum Hotel is a museum first, then a hotel and restaurant second. All aspects are designed so that you can eat, sleep and sometimes play with contemporary art, the art-loving creators’ dream of sharing their interesting home lives with the public.
An old-world town square, a system of trails, parks, amphitheaters, gardens, flourishing restaurants, fun food trucks — strangely the most extensive collection of Indian headdresses. At least one hotel that you’d never expect to find outside of a major metropolitan city, a downtown “splash pad” for little kid water play, a 24-hour contemporary art museum, and of course Crystal Bridges, is the handy work of the Walmart family and citizens who don’t seem to remember they’re from a rural town in a rural state in the rural south.
There’s a lot of history, a lot of culture, and worldwide business you wouldn’t expect in a small Arkansas town.
Spongebob has an office there so that his brand can do business with Walmart.
“It’s not what you were expecting,” Cromwell said.
“Crystal Bridges brought people here who wouldn’t have come otherwise,” she explained. “There are art lovers here.”
Cromwell said before the museum opened, there was momentum in the art community, with studios “popping up” around town.
“This has created a culture and art economy” to go along with Walmart and North Arkansas business, she said.
“Art galleries opened, and 16 restaurants opened in a two-block radius. We knew change was coming,” she said. “This city has prepared for the sophisticated traveler, making sure there are amenities like 21c Museum Hotel.”
Hive Chef Matthew McClure is one of three Arkansas chefs recently invited to cook at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City, which is considered a high honor in the culinary world.
Try the War Eagle grits, the stewed okra toullie with tomatoes and ricotta salata, and at breakfast, the house-made yogurt and granola with local honey.
21c Museum Hotel is just one piece in a chain reaction that followed Alice Walton’s announcement that Bentonville would be home to such a museum as Crystal Bridges.
Bonds were passed quickly for parks, signage and other community amenities that would support events around the museum, and compliment it.
Benton County voters chose to make it a wet county less than a year after the museum opened.
Also find in Bentonville: the Peel Mansion and Historic Gardens, a living display of the period in which the home was constructed and reputedly one of the state’s more haunted places; the Walmart Visitors Center Museum, the site of the first Walton store; the 16-mile Slaughter Pen Hollow mountain bike trail; Compton Gardens and Conference Center, a 6.5-acre native plant collection and the renovated home of Dr. Neil Compton, the physician and naturalist credited with saving the Buffalo National River; and the Museum of Native American History, which houses Native American relics dated back to the Pre-Columbian era.
For more on Bentonville, visit www.bentonvilleusa.org.
Follow links to Crystal Bridges and 21c Museum Hotel.
(Staff writer Courtney Spradlin can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 505-1236, or on Twitter @Courtneyism. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)