Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville logged its 1-millionth visitor in under two years last weekend.
The regional anomaly opened Nov. 11, 2011, with a collection of works privately owned by Walmart heir and museum founder Alice Walton, and other art acquired through Walton Foundation endowments.
Five-hundred pieces, including paintings and sculptures, are displayed at any given time in the museum’s gallery halls, though there are more than 2,000 works spanning five centuries housed at Crystal Bridges.
Collection rotation to protect the integrity of the art and to let paintings “rest,” as well as a schedule of incoming exhibitions through partnerships with global museums like the Louvre in Paris inspire new and repeat visits and draw regional attention to the museum.
The museum structure, suspended by steel cabling in a ravine over Crystal Spring, is also a draw.
Water and priceless works of art don’t mix, so the spring is dammed and levels in pools beneath the gallery halls and flush with grounds courtyards are carefully watched with a system of controls.
The effect of the structure suspended over a natural spring is congruent with the architecture’s overall aim to unite art and the beauty of nature.
Museum spokeswoman Diane Carroll said it was Alice Walton’s wish that the museum blend in with the scenery on her family’s 120-acre favored childhood escape where the Waltons played in the spring and Alice rode her horse.
The careful balance of art and nature was a science.
A series of eight concrete buildings surround glass-enclosed bridges that house the inner galleries, keeping centuries-old art from damaging sunlight.
Architect Moshe Safdie selected concrete for the structure’s walls to mimic natural limestone with time, and copper roofing that would brown and redden to mimic a canopy of fall foliage.
Carroll said Crystal Bridges attendance began before the museum had doors, as tour buses made frequent stops in phases of construction.
The museum was constructed by Conway-based Nabholz Construction and was called one of the most outstanding construction projects of the year by the Associated General Contractors of America.
When the museum finally opened, founders did not expect the regional response that would follow.
The first year numbers in mind were 150,000 to 300,000 visitors, but the museum saw more than 650,000.
“That blew that number out of the water,” Carroll said, adding that the museum board had little information to suggest a benchmark due to the lack of art museums or public collections in the southern United States.
A single Norman Rockwell exhibition pulled 120,000 visitors in 10 weeks.
Visitor information shows people from around the globe have been to Crystal Bridges, but 64 percent of the 1 million visitors have been from Arkansas.
A high percentage of visitors come from “touch states” like Missouri, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Mississippi.
Repeat visits are high for those states, Carroll said.
The museum currently sees from 1,000 to 2,000 visitors daily, six days a week.
The first 21 operational months of a large fine art museum in Arkansas seem to show the region has an interest in art and culture.
But the museum has a way of being very welcoming, Carroll said.
Gallery guides and volunteers number 700 or more.
There is a seven-month training program.
“We’re in a region where many haven’t been to a museum. Whether you’ve been in museums around the globe or you come in coveralls, you’d be equally welcomed here,” she said.
Carroll told a story of young Alice Walton’s first Picasso print and her initial interest in art, though there was little access to world renowned artists in rural Arkansas.
“Most museums are on the coasts,” Carroll said.
“She wanted there to be access for children in this area.”
Young visitors are catered to at Crystal Bridges.
The museum offers year-round programming, a lot of which is geared toward school-age children.
Some professional development for educators and programming for kindergarten through 12th-grade adheres to Common Core standards.
Carroll said the museum sees four to five classrooms of students each day.
The students have uninterrupted access in empty museum galleries, classroom and lecture halls before doors open each day to the public.
Results aren’t final yet in a study conducted by the University of Arkansas in partnership with Crystal Bridges and the museum’s field trip program, but the study has already indicated students who spend at least a day of learning on site show an increase in critical thinking, tolerance and understanding of historical events, Carroll said.
Crystal Bridges is open every day except Tuesdays.
Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Monday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.
The museum is open until 9 p.m. Wednesday and Friday.
The museum’s trails and grounds are open from sunrise to sunset daily.
Crystal Bridges is 185 miles from Conway, and travel time is 2 hours and 52 minutes.
Access to the museum’s permanent collection and many programs is free of charge.
Traveling, temporary exhibitions at Crystal Bridges may require about $5 for access.
(Staff writer Courtney Spradlin can be reached by email at email@example.com 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)