Ever wonder what it would be like if a scion of the richest family in the world built an art museum from scratch in her hometown to house her billion-dollar art collection? Well, now you won’t.
Alice Walton, the only daughter of Sam Walton the founder of the eponymous American multinational retail corporation, personally built Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in 2011 to house her personally purchased collection of American art.
I thought I'd pay it a visit and see how it all turned out.
Made excellent time in gettin’ to Bentonville, most likely because I was drafting on a Walmart tractor-trailer that was putting the hammer down whilst returning to the mother ship. It made the drive that much easier as I didn’t need GPS, I just followed the scent of lazy boy recliner sectionals, solo cups, NASCAR ballcaps, camouflage shorts, and dip (all, of course, at Every Day Low Pricing).
After we arrived I decided to start off this adventure the same way I start off an adventure in any new city I visit, by knocking one back at a dive bar while eating a slice.
Bentonville Dive is centrally located, a block off of Bentonville Square. Slice Bentonville is a pizza truck stationed on the property that according to reviews on Yelp is sometimes open and sometimes closed. During my visit it was unfortunately closed, as Mr. Slice had just become a father - so I'll cut him a little slack . . . this time. So the Missus and I settled in at the bar and had a Yuengling¹ and a Bud Light. Defaced dollar bills had been tacked by customers all over the wall and ceiling, and even after talking with Mr. Bentonville Dive, I’m still not exactly sure why - though it’s an idea I may use for any future business I may open. Then on to . . .
Bentonville Taco & Tamale for three of the thinnest but tastiest pork tamales I have ever tasted. The bar had a split personality, serving a margarita that tasted like it was premade (because it was) but also serving crafted cocktails that require a Lewis Bag².
The Walmart Museum is located in the building where in 1950 Sam Walton opened his second retail store.
The museum tells the tale of two American success stories. The first one is about a man with a singular vision, who through hard work, homespun wisdom, leadership, and a little bit of luck creates a very successful business and becomes obscenely rich. The second one is about the company Sam Walton created, that through terms like cost reduction, SKUs, hypermarkets, VPI, and $SW became even more obscenely rich.
This was all summarized in the seven-minute introduction video, with the first half narrated by former Walmart executives who talk about profitability, earnings, and blah blah blah. The second portion is narrated by President George H.W. Bush giving Sam Walton his Medal of Freedom. The president, who had traveled all the way to Bentonville for this purpose, gets visibly choked up while putting it around Walton's neck. It was a little emotional . . . then the video ended and a slide was displayed that said “Don't Forget to stop by The Café".
There’s a whole cult of personality thing that would make Kim Jong-un or Donald Trump proud. But after what had to be 250 photos of Mr. Sam, his desk, his hunting boots, and a painting of his hunting boots (with an allusion to Van Gogh) it might be a little too much for some people - though the actual car keys to Mr. Sam’s pickup truck were a nice touch.
Bonus: There is a machine that allowed me to print out a personalized Walmart name tag. After peeling the back off and sticking it on my chest I then pretended to be a Walmart associate. Cross it off the bucket list.
The Tower Bar at the Momentary for an aperitivo. It’s part of the Crystal Bridges Museum combine but located 1000 meters directly south of the museum in a modernistic compound. Plenty of parking led to an elevator which led to the top floor, which led to a sleek bar, with 20’ ceilings with views of Bentonville and environs.
Due to a series of misunderstandings that would make Three’s Company look like the Apollo 11 moon launch, dinner reservations had been overlooked. Thanks to previous subscriber feedback, interviews with neighboring cocktailers, and input from our server, it was decided that Tusk and Trotter was the place to dine. Unfortunately, they closed in less than an hour, so my Flackhattan remnant was shot and we were off.
Tusk and Trotter, located a block off Bentonville Square, offers modern Ozark cuisine with such items as Catfish Pastrami, Pig Ear Nachos, and Arkansas Fritters. I had the Porterhouse Chop which was a little too fatty due to all the fat and a little too sweet due to all the muscadine³ fig glaze. The service was excellent.
I became excited when I noticed a photo of Tony Bourdain on the wall holding a pig's head on a plate. My excitement was short-lived, as our server said "oh, that . . . he's never been here" and I thought "there oughta be a law."
The Bentonville Confederate Monument was located in the center of Bentonville Square until events overtook it in 2020. It is now in storage and the current plan is to relocate it to a park located next to the Bentonville Cemetery - I'm thinking dead ideas for dead men?
Only one organization would be up to the task of moving a monument that stands for such values as state's rights, nullification, and slavery: you guessed it - the United Daughters of the Confederacy. In a piece by the local CBS affiliate, it was mentioned that the new location would have security cameras, hedges of different heights, and be in the shape of an Iron Cross. Now I get the desire to associate slavery with an equal-armed cross⁴, which can go by many names: Greek Cross, saltire, or Pythagorean cross, but to use the term Iron Cross with all its Nazi baggage is difficult to comprehend - I guess some people just can’t help themselves.
The monument has been replaced by a flower bed, which makes for better viewing and more patriotic contemplation
The plan was to get some coffee at the Onyx Coffee L̶o̶u̶d̶ Lab, but the place was just too noisy and crowded with a long line of customers waiting to place their coffee experiment. So we quickly cut across Bentonville Square, as we were getting thirsty and it was starting to push 100°, ducking into Tabla Mesa, which has a well-reviewed bakery and a (thankfully) inside table with views of the square. A scalding hot cup of coffee washed down a tasty blueberry scone.
The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is just what it says: a museum filled with American art. But I can't help but wonder why just American art? If someone were to ask me my favorite type of rock music, classical music, architecture, or art⁵, I wouldn't reply American (but then again maybe I'm not as patriotic as the next guy).
Many of the portraits contained inside the museum were painted by Americans who learned their trade in Great Britain. There are three mobiles by Alexander Calder displayed throughout the museum - while Calder was born in America he spent half his life in France. Also, there are no works by Indigenous peoples of the Americas. It all starts to have a tinge of xenophobia.
It's interesting though, that the building was designed by an Israeli architect and a British engineering firm. Its shape is said to reflect the nearby landscape or the indigenous armadillo, but to me, it looked like a pill bug from the outside and Jonah & the whale from the inside.
As mentioned above it does contain three Calder mobiles. Two of which are hung so unartfully, that you can barely see them. The third, which interestingly enough was "fabriqué en France" is displayed quite nicely, announcing the entrance to the Contemporary Art Gallery.
The Frank Lloyd Wright designed Bachman–Wilson House was originally built in 1954 in Millstone, NJ, and sits on the museum property. In 2014 it was acquired by Crystal Bridges and shipped to Bentonville brick by brick. You can tour it for free or pay $10 to get a guided tour, which is what I did and recommend you do.
Bottom Line: It's a fine museum, but if I was forced I'd sooner go back to the Des Moines Art Center, the Nelson Atkins, or the Cincinnati Art Museum. Quality over quantity.
Classic Italian cuisine at Tavola Trattoria, which is located next door to Tusk and Trotter. I had some freshly made pappardelle washed down by a Negroni, followed by an alliterative Peroni. Mrs. AAR had freshly made spaghetti accompanied by two damn good meatballs. A subscriber who is a paisan from The Island dined with us and found her entire meal from the Lavender Cosmo to the delicious Antipasto Misto thoroughly enjoyable - which is high praise indeed.
Mrs. AAR had deftly planned for us to stay at the best hotel in Bentonville, but due to unforeseen events, the 21c Museum Hotel Bentonville was not to be ("next time" I consoled her). Instead, I did what I always do when I can't stay at the best hotel in a city I am visiting . . . I had a drink at the bar.
You have to give the 21c Museum Hotel Bentonville credit, located a stone's throw from Crystal Bridges, they have the temerity to have their own museum thoughtfully located in a space adjacent to the bar. And the museum is as extensive as it is excellent. A number of dynamic pieces with electric fans, a half a ping pong table, and an homage to Hong Kong cinema.
* Based on recent events, the quote written on the bottom of this painting may be apocryphal
During our stay, my wife wanted to have a "nice" meal and recommend numerous steakhouses, sushi joints, and seafood restaurants, but I refused as I wanted her to dine at the #1 Restaurant in Bentonville (as I always say, "the best or do without"), so it was Crêpes Paulette for breakfast. It's not as good as the crêpe I had overlooking Grand Case Beach in Saint Martin, but we shared a fine crêpe. The adjacent Heroes Coffee may be an option for those suffering from Gallophobia.
Comfort Inn Bentonville booked directly through their website for $97/night + tax. It is a very good but typical Comfort Inn. By that, I mean a reasonably priced, clean accommodation located directly off the highway, and not within walking distance of anything you’d like to walk to.
It has a bar off the lobby, which is something I’ve never seen before at a Comfort Inn. The place is named The Vendor Club, which I found confusing until a subscriber explained it to me. Basically, it’s named after all the other guests who stay at this hotel whose sole purpose in life is to entice Walmart to buy their wares; i.e., lazy boy recliner sectionals, solo cups, NASCAR ballcaps, camouflage shorts, and dip.
Endnotes: I wanted to provide some very specific details which while vaguely interesting did not contribute to the overall narrative. Perhaps just wait until the end to read.
¹ Yuengling Traditional Lager is the flagship beer of D. G. Yuengling & Son, the oldest operating brewing company in America, established in 1829.
² A Lewis bag is a canvas sack that was once a staple in 19th-century bars. It’s meant to be stuffed with cubed ice and then pounded by a wooden mallet into crushed ice allowing the bartender to control its size. The more one pounds the smaller the ice. Very useful when making a mint julip.
³ Muscadine is a grape species native to the southeastern and south-central United States. They are typically used in making artisan wines, juice, and jelly.
⁴ The moving of the Bentonville Confederate Monument is not the first time slavery has been associated with the cross. The first time was possibly documented by Matthew 18:23-25:
Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.