No Need to Search for Made-in-America Label at Crystal Bridges Museum

I have a love-hate relationship with Walmart. I hate that the company puts corporate profits above American manufacturing jobs. I won’t even get into the lack of customer service. If one more Walmart manager tells me they don’t have something and I find it  right on the shelf, I’m going to scream.

But I love Crystal Bridges, the museum that Walmart money built. Opened on 11-11-11, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is a gem in the Ozarks.  But unlike the mass-manufactured products Walmart buys from foreign countries like China, the museum offers only one-of-a-kind creations by American artists.Digital StillCamera

The museum is located near Walmart Corporate Headquarters in Bentonville, a small town in northwest Arkansas that has mushroomed over the past three decades. Tourists meander in and out of Walton’s Five and Dime and Visitor Center and sip cappuccino in coffee shops. On summer Saturday mornings, shoppers hit the old-fashioned town square where venders sell a variety of produce, fresh meat and trinkets. A new water park adds to the excitement for families seeking a vacation destination.

I travel to Bentonville, Ark., several times a year. A good friend of mine lives with her family in that hilly corner of the state, and every I visit something deliciously wonderful happens. (Last time she surprised me with an authentic Chinese tea ceremony!)

So when she called to tell me about the opening of Crystal Bridges, I marked my calendar. This I had to see.

According to Wikipedia, Crystal Bridges is the first major museum (with an endowment over $200 million) to be built in the United States since 1974. Alice Walton, daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, donated more than $317 million of the project’s costs.










Designed by Israeli Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, the museum’s setting is a lush deciduous forest. A stream-fed pond reflects the dome of sky overhead, and dirt trails lace through the rough hewn landscape.


This spring I made my fourth pilgrimage to the museum – just in time to catch the Norman Rockwell exhibit, which ended May 28. I did the headphone tour and loved listening to the “back-stories” on so many Rockwell paintings. I’d been to the Norman Rockwell Gallery and Exhibition in Arlington, Vermont, where many of the docents  once modeled for the illustrator. At Crystal Bridges I was able to see original artwork not frequently on display.


In two exhibit halls hung a chronology of Saturday Evening Post and Look magazine covers, evidence of  Rockwell’s decades-long association with the  publications. His last cover for the Post was his pre-election portrait of John F. Kennedy on Oct. 2, 1960. His first Post cover came out in 1916 – a span of 47 years.

After viewing the Rockwell exhibit, I went back to the museum grounds the following day to spend time in the gardens.  A light drizzle and gray sky provided a neutral backdrop for the softly flowering dogwoods and flowers whose names I did not know. I wanted to pitch a tent.


I got to see the museum while it was still under construction, when it was still an excavation site. My friend had taken me walking on some wooded trails in the fall of the year.  “Look over there,” she said.

Only a few feet from the path amid the trees and fallen leaves stood an observation deck overlooking an enormous construction site. Off in the distance it looked as if a  moat were going in. PENTAX Image

And indeed the museum does seem to reach out over water and over time, from the colonial period through modernism. One of my favorites from the colonial period is a portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart made during the President’s final year in office (“The Constable-Hamilton Portrait,” 1797).

The natural setting of Asher Durand’s “Kindred Spirits” (1849), a tribute to Hudson River School founder Thomas Cole, takes my breath away.

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In the foreground, the rugged, wooded landscape features Cole standing on a jutting rock ledge in the Catskills with his friend, poet William Jennings Bryant. In the background, a sliver of shining waterfall flows from somewhere in the hazy mountains, giving birth to a stream. A single black bird seems to float somewhere between the two, signaling the encroachment of man upon nature.

I’m continually captivated by Mary Cassatt’s “The Reader” (1887). Reclining in a comfortable chair, eyes fixed on her book, Cassatt’s young subject is perhaps symbolic of the coming changes the artist envisioned for women.

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Another of my favorites is Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter.” Taking a lunch break against a backdrop of the American flag, Rosie’s loafered foot rests on a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf.  In spite of her wartime obligations, the proud, work-shirted Rosie has soft red curls; and what I believe is red nail polish visible on a single digit.

On one occasion I joined a tour focusing on female artists. When we arrived at a Georgia O’Keefe painting of a New Mexico landscape, I overheard a woman in the group say to her companion. “Well, that can’t be realistic.”Digital StillCamera

Having spent most of my life in northern New Mexico, I knew otherwise. The landscape depicts the rich earth tones of the mesas and mountains near O’Keefe’s home in the village of Abiquiu, New Mexico. My kids would have said the “chocolate chips” are missing, because that’s what piñon trees look like from a distance.

I can take or leave the modernists. Maybe I just don’t “get” it. But I do like Andy Warhol’s fanciful portrait of Dolly Parton. It makes me want to wander through the gallery singing, “Here I go again…”

If Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art was a meant as some kind of peace offering from the Walton family, it will never make amends to all the smaller retailers and moms and pops discounted into oblivion by the corporate colossus. Nor will the museum act as a poultice for all the unemployed Americans who lost jobs in the manufacturing sector when companies like Walmart began importing more cheaply-made foreign goods. After the passage of international trade agreements in the mid-1990s, the abrogation of protectionist tariffs simply made it more profitable for U.S. companies to manufacture overseas.

But unlike the largely reneged-upon “made in America” mantra Walmart once trumpeted, Crystal Bridges remains true to American art. Digital StillCamera

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is located in Bentonville, Ark. The museum is free and open every day but Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., with extended hours until 9 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays. For more information on upcoming special exhibits, go to FFG

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