BENTONVILLE, Ark. — A visitor arriving at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art sees a curved concrete facade with the museum's name and, behind it, a stand of trees on a hillside.
Where's the museum?
Get closer, then look down.
A series of connected pavilions under curved copper roofs stretch through a tree-lined ravine. Two of the buildings serve as bridges over ponds filled from a spring-fed stream that flows through the site.
To get in, just follow the wave of people going downstairs.
Crystal Bridges is regarded as the most important museum to open in the U.S. in decades, and it has done so in a city of 35,000 in the Ozark Mountains that's served by a single interstate highway that terminates in the middle of town, not far from the headquarters of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
More than 175,000 people have made their way to the museum in the less than four months since it opened Nov. 11.
The museum serves a busy corridor of four cities in northwest Arkansas that has nearly 500,000 people, and it's just a few minutes away from the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport. Hotels are plentiful in the area and an upscale 21c Museum Hotel is under construction within walking distance of the museum. So far, zip code surveys of visitors show that the majority of guests – more than 80 percent – have come from Arkansas, according to statistics provided by the museum.
The Crystal Bridges collection was amassed by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, who used her fortune to stock the galleries with paintings and sculptures that reflect the nation's artistic development and its history, from colonial times to the present.
By virtue of a $20 million grant from Wal-Mart, admission is free, as are audio tours of the collection. Some special exhibitions, none of which have yet been announced, may carry a fee.
The regular collection starts with early American paintings and moves forward chronologically. The first view offers a look at a Charles Willson Peale portrait of George Washington, the general in uniform, posed with his hand on a cannon. But in closer view is a landscape by John Taylor and a painting in classical style, "Cupid and Psyche," by Benjamin West.
Farther down is the museum's centerpiece, Asher Durand's "Kindred Spirits," bought by Walton in 2005 for a reported $35 million, removing the ethereal scene in the Catskill Mountains from its longtime home in the New York Public Library.
That purchase and a number of others drew howls from critics who didn't want to see beloved pieces moved to an unlikely spot in the nation's heartland. But many of the works, purchased by Walton from private collections, have never been on public display before.
Organizers noted during previews that the museum's collection is just getting started. Forbes magazine lists Walton as the 10th wealthiest American with $20.9 billion to her name.
The museum has about 1,250 works, and about 440 of them are on display. In the museum's special exhibition area are 33 additional works from the collection, a rambunctious mix of mainly contemporary works that often test the viewer's eye. Mary McCleary's "The Falcon Cannot Hear the Falconer" isn't a painting – it's composed of rolled-up pieces of colored paper.
Devorah Sperber's "After the Last Supper" presents an inverted rendering of Leonardo's masterpiece that rights itself when viewed through a glass globe. The wall-size work itself is assembled of spools of thread of different colors.
The setting for the paintings brings natural light at varying angles, often fluttering in reflection from the ponds over which two of the main buildings are set. The water flows from several springs in the ravine, one of which is Crystal Spring, which gave the museum its name.
Walton has not said how much it cost to develop the museum and 3 1/2 miles of trails through its 120-acre setting.
Architect Moshe Safdie worked to have the pavilions blend into the setting, using local stone and wood to emphasize the ties the museum has with the land, which had been owned by the Walton family for decades.
Visitors experience the landscape, indoors and outside, as they experience the art.
Arched wooden supports are held up by thick cables that are mounted in concrete 10 feet deep. Safdie explained before the museum opened that the downward pressure from the arches, which support the copper exterior roofing, help protect the pavilions from being swept away by a tornado, an unnerving threat in this part of the country.
Safdie's design protects many familiar works, such as Norman Rockwell's "Rosie the Riveter," and an Andy Warhol portrait of Dolly Parton. There is a 1797 Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, one of the most recognizable images in the museum.
It takes about four hours to go through the galleries at a modest pace, plenty of time for young children to become restless. The museum offers a hands-on children's area, and one of the "bridges" is home to Cafe Eleven, where patrons can find the coffee bar or eat a meal.
Across a courtyard is the Crystal Bridges Museum Store, which is stocked with a good selection of books, regional crafts and other items.
The trails outside, which are dotted with sculptures, take additional time. It would be easy to make the museum and grounds a two-day visit, while also catching Bentonville's downtown square, which is about a 10-minute walk from Crystal Bridges.
Downtown offers cafes, shops and the original Walton's 5&10 store, Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton's early retail venture that evolved into the world's largest retailer. The site is now a museum.
Farther afield, there are other sights to see, such as the Pea Ridge National Military Park, which marks the site of a Civil War battle. The Arkansas & Missouri Railroad offers March through September excursion trains between Springdale (20 miles south of Bentonville) and Van Buren/Fort Smith.
About 40 miles east of Bentonville is Eureka Springs, a resort town filled with galleries, restaurants and shops.
If You Go...
GETTING THERE: Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport in Bentonville (XNA) is served by Allegiant, American Airlines/American Eagle, Continental Express, Delta, US Airways Express and United, with flights to many major U.S. cities. By car, use exit 88 from I-540. For GPS and online mapping, use 599 NE J Street. Free parking. Located about 200 miles from Little Rock or Kansas City, and about 350 miles from Dallas or Memphis.