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Crystal Bridges offers a world of art in Arkansas' backyard


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

John Yang: The Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and one you probably haven't heard of, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.

It's perhaps an unexpected spot for such a first-rate collection. But that's the museum's goal.

And, as Jeffrey Brown reports as part of our American Creators series, it's a mission that's helping to reshape the entire region.

Jeffrey Brown: It's not uncommon to see school groups at a museum, but the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, sees part of its very mission as serving young people in this largely rural area who might never otherwise get to a major collection.

This class was from Pierce City, Missouri, a town of about 1,300. It's just 60 miles from here, but the trip was a first for many, including fifth grader Lanie Skocy.

Lanie Skocy: It's a small town and most of the time it's like, OK, we're staying here, not going to Arkansas and coming to something like this. It's cool. There's a lot of cool, fun art here, and it is just beautiful.

Laura Still: In a lot of respects, we are worlds away.

Jeffrey Brown: Laura Still is Skocy's art teacher.

Laura Still: Some of them get to travel to places like the larger areas like Kansas City, and a lot of them do go to Springfield, but there's quite a few of them. They just -- they have got parents that are hardworking parents and don't have a lot of time to take them to places like this.

Jeffrey Brown: Crystal Bridges, designed by architect Moshe Safdie, was founded by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, who purchased the art and opened the museum in her hometown in 2011.

It sits on 120 acres of land in the Ozarks, surrounded by more than three-and-a-half miles of sculpture-dotted nature trails. Admission is free. The collection, highlights from many periods of American art.

Mindy Besaw: These are iconic objects that are part of an American art 101 class.

Jeffrey Brown: Mindy Besaw has been a curator here for three-and-a-half years.

Mindy Besaw: The first and foremost thing we look at when we're thinking about art is the best.

Jeffrey Brown: The best?

Mindy Besaw: The best.

Jeffrey Brown: That's a high bar.

Mindy Besaw: It's a high bar, but that I think goes to the mission of what we're doing. It's not making art, any art accessible for all. It's making the best of American art available and accessible for all.

Jeffrey Brown: One example, Asher B. Durand's Kindred Spirits. Walton bought the painting from the New York Public Library for a reported $35 million, stirring controversy in traditional art centers.

It was just part of the skepticism and concern the museum drew early on about Walton's deep pockets and where this new collection was being housed. Seven years in, the museum continues to make its case.

Attendance is up, a total of nearly four million to date, and the curators are pushing the envelope more than they dared in the past. The museum recently unveiled a redesign of its early American galleries.

Mindy Besaw: If access is our mission, then we need to be accessible and open, maybe even questioning that established story of American art and making room for more interpretation and more stories.

Jeffrey Brown: To that end, works from different eras hang side by side in a kind of conversation, an iconic George Washington painted by Charles Willson Peale next to a contemporary video portrait of a North Dakota oil fracking worker by Susie J. Lee.

Mindy Besaw: This is the kind of subject that would have never been painted in the 19th century. And so here in the 21st century...

Jeffrey Brown: You mean like a common man, a worker.

Mindy Besaw: A common man, a worker wouldn't have been given this grandeur, this attention.

Jeffrey Brown: Wall texts now tie older art works to contemporary issues. For George Pettit's 1865 painting of union refugees in the Civil War, a digital label draws a direct connection to today's Syrian refugee crisis.

Another part of the new American story being told here emphasizes Native American art. Bobby Martin, a local artist, professor and member of the Muscogee Creek Tribe, served as an adviser. He pointed to a colonial portrait set next to native moccasins and cradles.

Bobby Martin: It expands the story. It's not just about a European sensibility of here's what people look like in 1600s or whatever. Here is also what was going on at the same time. So it brings in, again, a whole 'nother thread, a whole 'nother story that is often set apart.

Jeffrey Brown: The museum's contemporary galleries have also expanded, with works by artists like Titus Kaphar, Vanessa German, and Ruth Asawa.

Earlier this year, the museum hosted the American debut of the exhibition Soul of a Nation, which showcased works by black artists in the 1960s through '80s.

Lauren Haynes is the curator for contemporary art.

Lauren Haynes: I think a lot of museums all across the world sometimes underestimate their audiences or think they know what people want to see or think they know what people want to engage with.

But one of the things, particularly working in contemporary art, is you're always asking people to push boundaries and to think a little differently. So, to me, this feels right at home here in Bentonville.

Jeffrey Brown: Now Bentonville itself is pushing boundaries. Home to the original five-and-dime Walton's store and eventually Wal-Mart's headquarters, Bentonville's always been a company town.

It still is, but with Crystal Bridges and big investments from a younger generation of Waltons, the town has taken on a new look practically overnight. Its downtown is now filled with street art, trendy restaurants, and bike shops that feed a burgeoning mountain biking scene.

The population here in Northwest Arkansas is one of the fastest growing in the country.

Mike Abb grew up in Bentonville before moving to Austin, Texas, for more than a decade. He came back in 2013 and now works for the Waltons.

Mike Abb: We had a leadership team at Wal-Mart and the corporate offices that were coming from urban cores and they were missing what they had in larger cities. They were missing that cultural momentum that they were getting out of the coasts.

Jeffrey Brown: But Abb acknowledges the extreme growth and its accompanying rising costs can cause tensions.

Mike Abb: They're afraid their identities being taken away from them or that they're just holding space for a new future resident. We are actively trying to change that mentality.

Jeffrey Brown: As for Crystal Bridges' next venture, it's turning an old Kraft cheese factory into a venue for contemporary exhibitions, music, theater and film. The 63,000-square-foot space, called the Momentary, is set to open in 2020.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Bentonville, Arkansas.

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