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Northwest Arkansas: A frontier frame of mind

Courtesy Fort Smith CVB

From Wal-Mart to Fine Art
Any discussion of groups traveling to Bentonville can be largely attributed to Sam Walton. While that progressive city has become a destination since Walton’s death, his vision for building Wal-Mart into a global retailing giant remains the source for nearly all that has transpired there since.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art was founded by his daughter, Alice Walton, because she had seen the world’s finest art museums and believed that Arkansas deserved one. Designed by internationally acclaimed architect Moshe Safdie, Crystal Bridges melds outstanding American art in its galleries with equally impressive outdoor art on its grounds.

Crystal Bridges saw its millionth visitor this August, which is remarkable considering that the museum opened in November 2011. It houses instantly recognizable pieces by artists like Gilbert Stuart, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keeffe, Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol. They have at least two by my favorite American artist, Winslow Homer.

On this trip, I found myself most captivated by Maxfield Parrish’s “The Lantern Bearers,” an oil painting done in 1908 that first appeared in Collier’s magazine in December 1910.

“Alice’s vision was that the springs and forest outside should be integral to the design of the museum,” spokeswoman Dianne Carroll said. “She settled on Moshe Safdie for that reason. He felt he could take the setting and come up with an interpretation of that idea. There are four miles of trails here with art and sculpture. The museum is indoor-outdoor interactive.”

Great art begets great hotels apparently, because 21c Museum Hotels, the boutique hotel company that has pioneered the marriage of art, fine dining and hospitality, opened a property in Bentonville this year. John Lamparski, group tour sales manager for the Bentonville Convention and Visitors Bureau, took us there that evening.

Within walking distance of Crystal Bridges, 21c will cater to hundreds of business travelers who meet with Wal-Mart each year but will also see its share of groups as well. Clayton Whitehead, a partner in Sports Leisure Tours in California, told me afterward that his clients would want to overnight in the hotel when they go to Bentonville.

“CNN did a story about seven artsy hotels in the world that you have to see, and the 21c here made the list,” said Lamparski. “Even if a group isn’t staying here, they’re going to want to see it.”

I met a couple in the bar who moved there because he works for a major consumer goods company that does business with Wal-Mart. They said they liked the city a lot and recommended a couple of restaurants to try the next time I was in town.

The Walmart Visitor Center in Bentonville appears to be just another five-and-dime until you go inside. Sam Walton’s old pickup truck is there, looking ready to be driven to a dove hunt. Walton’s personal office stopped me in my tracks because it reminded me so much of my father’s office 40 years ago. Wood-paneled walls, manila file folders and photos of Walton with his bird dogs were too familiar to ignore.

“Groups love the five-and-dime,” said Lamparski. “They’ll finish up with ice cream in the ice cream shop, even if they’ve just had breakfast.”