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How a sleepy corner of Arkansas became a destination for art lovers

A member of the Walmart family put Bentonville on the map for travelers with a world-class museum.

Crystal Bridges Museum with its arch-roofed pavilions that appear to float above the water

Dero Sanford/crystal Bridges museum

Crystal Bridges Museum with its arch-roofed pavilions that appear to float above the water.

When my husband and I first dated, he showed me a sculpture of a family of bears beside a house he once rented in Lanesville, a Gloucester village. The creation of famed Art Deco sculptor Paul Manship, best known for Prometheus in New York’s Rockefeller Center, the three bears overlooked an abandoned, water-filled granite quarry at Manship’s summer home and studio.

The next time we saw that sculpture it was guarding the rear entrance to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. The life-size bronze bears, recast in the 1990s, were draped with laughing children, who apparently love to climb on the sculpture’s polished surfaces.

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That sums up the spirit of America’s newest world-class museum: Welcoming, egalitarian, beautifully designed, and displaying a superb collection, Crystal Bridges provides a compelling reason to visit the northwest corner of the Natural State.

Before the museum opened in 2011, Bentonville was known, if it was known at all, as the birthplace and headquarters of Walmart Corp. Its classic Southern courthouse square includes the Walton Museum, located in the original Walton’s 5 &10, the little store that launched a worldwide retail empire. Located just a block away, Crystal Bridges is the brainchild of Sam Walton’s only daughter, Alice. A lifelong collector of art, she spent six years and a reputed $1.2 billion from the Walton Family Foundation to bring it to life. Additional grants from the Walmart Corp. allow the museum to be free to the public.

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“I get hundreds of thank you notes, and these kids say, ‘I’ve never been to a museum. I thought only rich people went to museums,’ ” Walton has said. “To me, people everywhere need access to art, and that’s what we didn’t have here, and that’s why Crystal Bridges is so important. It’s important that it be located here.”

For the site, she chose a wooded ravine set in a 120-acre parcel owned by her family; for the design, she turned to Moshe Safdie. The Israeli-born architect first came to international attention with his Habitat 67 at Montreal’s Expo 67 and more recently for his design of the sprawling Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.

Safdie conceived Crystal Bridges as a series of arch-roofed pavilions that appear to float above two ponds at the bottom of the ravine. When I peer down, the astonishing structures reveal themselves as gray concrete outcrops banded in raw red cedar and curved to echo the shape of the hillside.

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“The concept of ‘going down in’ and ‘not looking up’ was a key part of the planning of the museum,” Walton has said. “You explore something that unfolds a little at a time.”

The museum’s collection, which encompasses American art from the Colonial period to the present, is arranged chronologically. Highlights include a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits, Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter, and Andy Warhol’s Coca-Cola. The artwork is beautifully displayed in spacious, well-lit galleries overlooking the ponds’ clear blue water. The central pavilion houses the museum restaurant, Eleven, which serves reasonably priced modern American comfort food with an emphasis on traditions from the “High South” region.

More than 3 miles of walking trails meander through the Ozark woods that surround this deep gully. Along the way, Robert Indiana’s pop art icon, LOVE, and pieces by James Turrell, Louise Bourgeois, Roxy Paine, and Keith Haring transform the forest into a sculpture garden. On a rise beside the Crystal Spring, one of the creeks that feeds the ponds, stands the Bachman-Wilson House, a Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian house moved here from its original location in New Jersey, where rising river waters threatened its survival. North of the museum building, beside the Town Branch Creek, is Pat Musick and Jerry Carr’s A Place Where They Cried, an affecting sculptural tribute to the thousands of Native Americans who perished during the forced migration of the Cherokee Nation, known as the Trail of Tears.

Visitors can follow up that experience with a stop at the Museum of Native American History, which houses an immense collection of artifacts, tools, crafts, and artwork assembled from several large private collections of Native American art and artifacts.

An exterior view of the 21c Museum Hotel.

21c hotel

An exterior view of the 21c Museum Hotel.

Exhibits from across North and South America are divided into five different time periods and grouped chronologically, covering 14,000 years from the Paleolithic period to the late 19th century. Treasures include a complete mammoth skeleton and the Sweetwater Biface. Thought to be a tool for butchering animals, the large flint artifact is worked to an extraordinary thinness, a demonstration of great knapping skill. Like Crystal Bridges, the museum is free to the public and boasts a large research library that is available for visitors’ use. There are ongoing programs for kids; on the day our family visited, there was even an arrowhead-making workshop for youngsters.

Children, not always happy in traditional museums, are in their element at the Scott Family Amazeum, an interactive and hands-on museum located less than half a mile from Crystal Bridges. It’s squarely aimed at kids, with art, music, science, interactive, and physical activities. Admission is $9.50 for adults and children; kids under 2 get in free.

Thanks to hosting the headquarters of the world’s largest retailer, Bentonville offers a bigger selection of lodging and dining options than typically found in a city of its size. One of the most stylish and appealing hostelries is the 21c Museum Hotel.

Located on the northeast corner of the courthouse square and one block from the art-lined path that leads to Crystal Bridges, the 104-room boutique hotel is one of a growing chain founded by historic preservationists and contemporary art collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson. Their concept: a chic hotel that includes a trend-setting restaurant and functions as an art gallery as well.

The hotel has several pet-friendly rooms, bicycle rentals, a 24-hour fitness center, and The Hive, a chic restaurant headed up by Arkansas native and James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist Matthew McClure. Menu items include standards like rib-eye steak and diver scallops, with emphasis on Southern staples like pimento cheese and fried chicken. For bourbon lovers, The Hive offers an especially large selection, a nod to the chain’s Southern personality.

But what really sets this place apart is the 12,000-plus square feet of exhibition space. It begins on the sidewalk outside the hotel , where Monica Mahoney’s Making Change — a 1962 Cadillac Fleetwood limousine covered with thousands of nickels, dimes, and pennies — sits. The piece is a whimsical nod to the Walton family’s original 5 &10. Artwork is everywhere in the 21c Hotel — the lobby, the guest rooms, even the elevators.

The 21c Museum Hotel features 12,000-plus square feet of exhibition space.

21c hotel

The 21c Museum Hotel features 12,000-plus square feet of exhibition space.

About an hour and a half’s drive east, the rolling agricultural land around Bentonville rises into steep Ozark hills. With a population of just over 2,000, the Victorian resort village of Eureka Springs has an outsized presence in the American imagination as a popular vacation destination unlike any other. The entire place, once called the “Stairstep Town” because of its steep terrain, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Eureka Spring’s vertiginous, winding streets are filled with Victorian-era cottages and manors; the historic downtown is home to a number of grand hotels, including the Crescent, built in 1886, and the 1905 Basin Park.

Long before it was known as Eureka Springs, local tribes would visit the area for the waters of the Great Healing Spring. Later, European settlers, too, believed that the area’s springs had healing powers and flocked to the town’s bathhouses for spa treatments. Of the more than 60 springs that brought all those hordes of 19th-century tourists, most are unusable today due to pollution and mismanagement.

The springs may have dried up, but tourism has not. Today, the largely intact Victorian village is ringed with swaths of motels, barbecue joints, souvenir shops, psychic studios, nail salons, and fast food restaurants. Most people come for the history and the charming architecture — but others come to commune with ghosts.

The Victorian-era town of Eureka Springs

Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

The Victorian-era town of Eureka Springs.

Any town with a collection of large old hotels is bound to harbor a ghost story or two, but Eureka Springs embraces its stories with a passion: This is one of the great ghost-hunting destinations in the United States. There are moonlit (and daytime) tours galore, and lots of supernaturally themed products are for sale in the shops. When I mention to the desk clerk at the Basin Park Hotel that strange late-night sounds had come from the floor above, she confidently (and perhaps a bit gleefully) attributed them to spirit activity.

For those seeking a more spiritual experience, there is the seven-story statue, Christ of the Ozarks. Erected atop Magnetic Mountain, the statue is comprised of 24 layers of white mortar on a steel frame and weighs more than 2 million pounds. Nearby, The Great Passion Play greatpassionplay.org is staged in an amphitheater. Patterned after the original in Oberammergau, Germany, the outdoor performance runs through October and features a cast of 170 actors and dozens of live animals. To date, an estimated 7.7 million people have seen the production.

Back in Bentonville, we walk the sculpture trail in the waning light toward the pavilions of Crystal Bridges. They glow, the lights reflected in the still waters of the ponds. We pay another visit to the Manship bears, thankful that they are displayed where so many people, especially children, can appreciate them. By building her assemblage of art and architecture in this overlooked corner of Arkansas, Alice Walton demonstrated to the world that this is exactly what great wealth is for.

Regina Cole writes about architecture, design, travel, and gardens. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.
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