Until now, Bentonville, Arkansas, has been famous for one thing: it’s the home of big-box retailer Walmart. But Alice Walton, youngest heir to the empire, is using a large share of her wealth—estimated by Forbes at $21 billion—to transform the region into a world-class cultural destination. The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (479/418-5700), opened in November, is a showcase for Walton’s impressive collection—and an audacious gamble that a large-scale arts institution can thrive in the Ozarks.
To hedge her if-you-build-it-they-will-come bet, Walton hired architect Moshe Safdie to design the museum, set on 120 wooded acres just outside town. He created a series of gently curving pavilions hovering dramatically around and over ponds fed by natural springs. Walton also approached 21c Museum Hotels—which put Louisville, Kentucky, on the art-world map—about opening a property in town. (Designed by Deborah Berke, it’s due next January.) Her biggest investment may be the collection itself, bought at often eyebrow-raising prices and covering the full sweep of American art, from Colonial portraitists Gilbert Stuart and John Singleton Copley to 19th-century masters Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins, with a splash of contemporary art (Andy Warhol; Roxy Paine; Jenny Holzer) thrown in.
The museum is already being touted by some as a countrified Guggenheim Bilbao—and Walton herself as a latter-day Morgan or Frick, digging deep into her pockets and dreaming big. This may be enough to attract culture seekers from around the country, if not the world. But there’s another enticement. In true Walmart spirit, they’re rolling back prices here, too: admission is free
Add a stay in Eureka Springs at Heart of the Hills Inn a luxury B&B to the trip and you will be smiling all the time.