Arkansas’ Ozark Originals

 
 

Brian Jewell
Published January 18, 2017

Northwest Arkansas is exploding with creativity.

The wooded landscape and serenity of the Ozark Mountains have long made the area an idyllic getaway destination, complete with postcard charm and a timeless beauty that have drawn visitors decade after decade. But Bentonville, Fayetteville, Eureka Springs and Fort Smith are not places that time forgot; on the contrary, progress and innovation have brought dynamic attractions and great new visitor experiences throughout the region.

The 2011 opening of the famous Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art sent a bolt of creative energy throughout Bentonville and beyond, sparking new developments and concepts that are adding layers of fun and flavor to this region of the state. In addition to old favorite attractions, groups that visit northwest Arkansas today will find ample opportunities to engage the arts, indulge their senses, interact with history and discover the destination in new ways.

Booming Bentonville

Since it made its 2011 debut, Crystal Bridges has quickly become a giant on the Bentonville tourism scene.

“Crystal Bridges has had more than 2 million visitors,” said John Lamparski, group sales manager for the Bentonville Convention and Visitors Bureau. “But it’s not just a museum that rests on its laurels. They keep adding new pieces all the time.”

In addition to a regular schedule of popular touring exhibitions, Crystal Bridges has added several significant exhibits. Visitors can tour a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright that was relocated to the museum campus from its original location in New Jersey. Students at the Fay Jones School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas restored the structure, which had fallen into disrepair. Now groups can marvel at the creativity of America’s most brilliant architectural mind as they experience the home the way Wright intended.

The museum also recently announced plans to open a second facility in a 63,000-square-foot former factory building downtown. The factory was built in the 1940s and used by Kraft Foods until 2012. The transformed space will be dedicated to contemporary art exhibitions and live performance space and is expected to open in 2018.

Groups with an eye for art will also enjoy a visit to the 21c Museum Hotel. The only one of the 21c locations in a purpose-built facility, the Bentonville outpost includes an entire floor of gallery space exhibiting the work of contemporary artists from around the world.

Tours to the city should also include a stop at the Museum of Native American History.

“It’s kind of the hidden gem of Bentonville,” Lamparski said. “It started as a private collection of native and ancient American artifacts. As you walk through the museum, you go through 10,000 years of history and see whole cultures form. We can arrange to have the curator or owner of the museum meet groups and tell them about it.”

Inspiring Fayetteville

Groups can engage with the arts firsthand in Fayetteville, a city about 30 miles south of Bentonville that is best known as the home of the University of Arkansas. One of the most beloved attractions in the area is Terra Studios, the birthplace of the Bluebird of Happiness glass figurine. The studio’s staff recently began offering interactive art workshops for groups.

“It’s not just about the bluebirds anymore — we’re trying to provide a hands-on experience,” said Julie Pennington, group tour manager at the Fayetteville Visitors Bureau. “There are hands-on things that they can make on-site and then take home with them. They can make simple things like pinch pots or more complicated things like ceramic trolls. They do toad houses and silk-scarf-making. If you can dream it, they can do it.”

Groups that visit the studios can also watch glassblowing demonstrations to see how different pieces of art — including the Bluebird of Happiness — are made. Lunch is available on-site as well.

Art-themed tours often also stop at Fayetteville Underground, a downtown art gallery and studio complex where visitors can meet some of the artists and discuss their work. The visitors bureau can also help arrange studio visits and meet-and-greets with George Dombek, a well-known local watercolorist and sculptor who has pieces on exhibit at Crystal Bridges.

Live theater plays a big role in Fayetteville’s cultural scene. The Walton Arts Center hosts major touring Broadway productions, and Pennington works with restaurants around town to create themed menus for groups that come in to see the shows. A smaller organization called Theatre Squared produces original plays and offers interactive active and improv workshops for group visitors.

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