Crystal Bridges: Wal-Mart’s Lesson to Itself

Crystal Bridges Museum

If you haven’t heard of the Crystal Bridges Museum, it’s a world-class collection of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas–the hometown of Wal-Mart. In fact, it was assembled by Wal-Mart fortune Heir Alice Walton.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American ArtThe collection is housed in a landmark building by Boston-based Moshe Safdie and is a work of art in itself. It’s located in a wooded ravine, a short distance from the town square in Bentonville, where Sam Walton’s original 5-and-10 sits as a museum and mini-tribute to the empire (and in a way, to small town America). The town square and museum are connected by a network of hiking and biking trails.

Crystal Bridges adds a lot to Bentonville.

Nothing was open when we arrived at the square in Bentonville on a recent Sunday morning. Some cyclists were circling the square or sitting on the steps of the century-old buildings and chatting each other up. A new hotel is rising just off the square, and it’s clear that additional businesses, including a seafood restaurant, will soon open. Despite the sleepy Sunday ambiance, this is clearly the social center and the mind of the city. It’s the place you think of when you think of Bentonville.

Across Walton Boulevard there’s also some activity. It’s the location of a Wal-Mart Super Center, slightly hidden behind something called the Peel Mansion Museum. There is some community here–mostly retirees and employees chatting over breakfast at the McDonalds located inside. A café on the square that served to facilitate these activities, even on Sunday morning, would go a long way.

Wal-Mart is a big corporation, but one located in a remote place. And there was a lot of contention over bringing important American Art to this location. Undoubtedly people faced with moving for a job at the corporate headquarters face similar concerns about moving out into the hinterlands. Richard Florida is just one who has noted in recent times that companies will locate in places where talented people want to live. That’s how they attract the talent they need to grow and exceed.

Downtown BentonvilleWal-Mart may have an advantage in production and distribution, but this is one area where it can’t easily compete. And there’s more than dollars and cents in play in peoples decisions. If you log into one of those wage-comparison cost-of-living scales at Bankrate or elsewhere, places like Bentonville come out looking pretty good. If nothing else, it’s affordable (although we did notice houses near the square are priced higher than those near the Wal-Mart). Nevertheless, those whose services are in the most demand in the employment market usually choose places like New York and San Francisco. Their effective income may be less than in Bentonville, but in many ways, their lives are richer. There’s a web of ideas, not to mention culture, start-up capital, and potential friends of a similar, or more importantly, different, mind, available in first-tier cities.

For the people living in rural Arkansas, Crystal Bridges is a great thing. One security guard told us he had never seen art and had spent his life on a farm before finding a job at the museum. A lot of people see the great art of the nation who wouldn’t have otherwise. To me, there’s nothing wrong with having this collection in Arkansas. The New Yorkers, for the most part, have the means to come to Bentonville to see it–and they have come. I don’t have numbers, but I suspect this is a record year for visitors to Bentonville from coasters.

The location of Crystal Bridges can serve to connect the country through its cultural and artistic history and bring art to people who may never otherwise have the opportunity to see it. That’s in the great tradition of America’s art-collecting philanthropists (and say, anyway, how did all the European art get here?)

The role of the museum, however, may be more in the vein of making Bentonville a place more people, accustomed to the stimulation of larger cities, want to live in. Part of this is a focus on downtown Bentonville, and I suspect more money will be invested there to make it a better, more livable and likable place. Art galleries are opening, the new hotel is rising, and a parking garage will be constructed. Can apartment housing be far behind?

Wal-Mart in BentonvilleAt the same time, king of suburban retailing Wal-Mart is eying urban areas elsewhere for stores. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has signed a lease to open its first grocery in Los Angeles County, on the outskirts of Chinatown. According to a Los Angeles Business Journal article, the new strategy is to move quickly into already-entitled retail spaces, allowing it to avoid the legal battles and community opposition.

Let’s go back and visit Crystal Bridges for a moment. It fits into the landscape in the vein of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. During construction, it had only a six-foot clearance from the edge of where the building ends to the edge of woods. The trees that were taken down were recycled. You can buy wooden plates made from them in the gift shop. One segment of the building incorporates a green roof. And, as previously mentioned, the museum is connected to downtown Bentonville by hiking and biking trails.

The focus in Bentonville is on making it a more visually and emotionally attractive place to live.

So the question to pose now is, If here, why not everywhere? If concentrating development in downtown Bentonville and adding hiking trails and cultural amenities makes Bentonville a better place to live, why not Dallas? Why not Fresno? Why not Phoenix?

Wal-Mart has at last discovered what urbanists from Jane Jacobs to Rick Risemberg have known for a long time: unique neighborhoods, public spaces, third places and the like go a long way towards making a place liveable. Adding a Wal-Mart to the town, encouraging suburban development and car-driven culture may bring lower prices, but it doesn’t add net value to the community. Opening a grocery store in an urban area that didn’t previously have convenient access does add something, but ti’s something that may have been lost following the opening of a nearby suburban Wal-Mart.

The lesson from Crystal Bridges and Bentonville, for all of us, is that public spaces, downtowns, squares, art museums, third places like coffee shops, art museums, recreational trails, and the like all serve to enrich our lives. Even Wal-Mart can operate in a way that serves to enrich our communities. Let’s not hollow out or neighborhoods in the name of the almighty dollar, but build real places that people want to live in. The dollars will follow, and the people won’t want to leave for someplace more alive.

Text and Photos by Eric Miller

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at ericmiller.me