I’m an art historical novelist who was born and raised in Arkansas, so it gives me enormous pride to share so many fabulous things about our museum in the Ozarks.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in northwest Arkansas is less than four years old, but it is already one of my favorite museums in the country — mainly because it’s SO MUCH MORE than an art museum…
It’s an EXPERIENCE mingling art with nature.
At Crystal Bridges, art seems to GROW DIRECTLY OUT OF nature.
Whether you walk in from town, drive in from Missouri, or fly in from California, here are my 11 reasons why you’ll love the trip:
1: Architecture: World-renowned architect Moshe Safdie (for those of you in Los Angeles, he built the Skirball Center) designed Crystal Bridges as a place where “art and nature are experienced simultaneously and harmoniously.” And it does just that: eight pavilions and two bridges cluster around two ponds. Even when you are inside, you are never far from nature. Exit any gallery to find a vista of a pond, forest, or waterfall. WARNING: If you want to escape nature, do not travel to Crystal Bridges; you will be out of luck at every turn.
2: A Masterful Collection. Crystal Bridges has an extraordinarily impressive art collection — it competes with old, established museums, even though it’s only four years old. Georgia O’Keeffe, Jasper Johns, Norman Rockwell, Jackson Pollock, Thomas Cole… All of America’s greatest artists are represented here. Plus, by touring the galleries, you’ll tour American history, from the founding fathers (including an iconic Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington) all the way through post-9/11.
3: Kindred Spirits by Asher B. Durand. This painting gets its own mention because it happens to be one of my favorite paintings in all of history. It’s a tribute to Durand’s good friend, fellow painter Thomas Cole (upon his death in 1848). It shows Cole and his friend, poet William Cullen Bryant, gazing out over the Castkill Mountains. I love how large nature looms and how small man is in the midst of the mountains and trees. I also love that this single painting so perfectly captures the ethos of Crystal Bridges itself — celebrating the American spirit through a combination of art and nature. No work can better capture this feeling than Durand’s Kindred Spirits. This painting alone is worth the trip.
4: Miles of trails. There are more than 3.5 miles of walking paths on the museum’s 120 acres of land, letting you get up close and personal with the Ozark mountains. While you walk, jog, or bike along the trails, you will also experience more art — in the form of sculptures spread throughout the grounds. My favorite (of course, being a girl from Arkansas) is the pig.
5: Springs, ponds and waterfalls. Water is a major part of Crystal Bridges. The museum is named for Crystal Spring — the spring that feeds the two large museum ponds. Plus, rivers and waterfalls appear out nearly every window. I love how the museum has incorporated water — water always flows from one place to the next; it is never in the same place for long. It is always changing; just like art.
6: Upcoming Frank Lloyd Wright House. This fall, the museum will open a new acquisition, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bachman-Wilson House. It originally stood on the Millstone River in New Jersey, but flooding threatened to destroy the house — so the owners went looking for a new location. They found Crystal Bridges. Frank Lloyd Wright always strove to integrate nature with architecture, so it only makes sense that this home should find its new home at Crystal Bridges. (I’ll keep you posted on any updates on the opening!)
7: Special Exhibitions. As with all museums, Crystal Bridges hosts rotating exhibits, but I think this museum does a particularly great job of hosting exhibits that support their mission of combining art and nature. For example, one exhibit going on now is Warhol’s Nature — all about how the King of Celebrity and Pop Art connected with nature. This exhibit is filled with fun and laughter — you can have your own 15 seconds of fame at the selfie station, wrangle silver clouds amongst neon cows, and lie in bean-bag chairs to watch a sunset.
8: The Library. Upstairs is a beautiful library overlooking the museum grounds — and it’s open to the public. It houses an expansive collection of art books; I’m jealous and can only dream of having such a collection in my house one day. You can’t check any books out, but that hardly matters. Pick any book off the shelf, settle into a comfy chair and — while you’re taking a break from wandering through the galleries — just read your day away.
9: Make your own art. Crystal Bridges makes it easy to not only enjoy art, but to MAKE it, too. Like all museums, Crystal Bridges encourages you to bring your own pencil and paper and sketch the works (the best way to become an artist is to copy the masters). But two of my favorite little nooks are the Still Life Studio (where you can arrange your own still life, and then sit down and draw it) and the Experience Art Studio where kids can learn to interact with art. Plus, when you leave the museum, you’ll surely be inspired to go home and create something of your own.
10: Northwest Arkansas. As long as you’re at the museum, you can enjoy the surrounding area, too. There’s the Walmart museum and original store (Walton’s); University of Arkansas (go Hogs!); or nearby Pea Ridge Military Park (a Civil War battle site). There are also great hotels (21c Museum Hotel; Inn at Carnell Hall over the by University), world-class restaurants (The Hive and Eleven inside the museum itself), and a well-trafficked airport to make travel in and out of the area a cinch.
11: It’s free. That’s right, admission to the permanent collection is free — sponsored by Walmart. (You’ll have to pay for admission into special exhibitions). So if you’re in the area, there’s no excuse. Stop reading this blog and go enjoy some art.
This is the first in a series of posts about Crystal Bridges. I was born and raised in Arkansas (and my entire family still lives in the state), so I am happy to see this beautiful museum bring fine arts to my home; I want to celebrate that. Plus, this museum speaks directly to MY mission, which is making art accessible and exciting to regular people. Crystal Bridges does such a great job of combining PEOPLE with ART that I feel compelled to write more about it along the way of my own journey!