High art in middle America 

Alice Walton opens Crystal Bridges.

On the square in Bentonville, Arkansas, the morning of Nov. 11: Folks from Bentonville, Rogers, Springdale, Fayetteville, Bella Vista. And Little Rock, North Little Rock, Sherwood. Hot Springs. Etc. Texas, Tennessee, Missouri, Oklahoma. From Los Angeles. And who knows where else.

A woman whose wizened face and wary look suggested a hard life in the Ozarks. A little boy with curly hair and a white bow tie named for the artist Philip Guston. The Lubavitcher rabbi from Rogers and three of his children, two of them with carrot tops complementing a clear blue sky. The lady who raises Australian shepherds, her blue windbreaker said; a man who taught Alice Walton in junior high and who recalled her bouncing into class one day with a peanut-filled Coca-Cola and asking him if he wanted to see what it would do if she shook it up.

Museum curators, bicycle enthusiasts, doctors, politicians. Artists. The manager at the bar just off the square. Veterans celebrating Veterans Day. A small "Occupy Bentonville" contingent. A trio getting a better view of the festivities from the roof of Sam Walton's original Five and Dime store.

Strains of Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools" and Randy Newman's "My Country" ("This is my country, these are my people./This is the world I understand") played from the platform, decorated with huge Crystal Bridges banners set up on either side, until the astonishingly beautiful voices of the Bentonville High School choir began their performance with "Do Lord," the peal of the sopranos' refrain as beautiful as any heard on any stage ("you ought to hear the high school symphony," the shepherd lady said).

Leona Mitchell, a Chickasaw and African-American soprano from Oklahoma, sang the national anthem; Iroquois singer Joanne Shenandoah sang the "Eagle Cries."

You couldn't get more American than that to open Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Alice Walton's billion-dollar-plus gift to the Ozark town she grew up in, home of the largest retailer in the world, home of one of the planet's wealthiest families.

Architect Moshe Safdie, designer of grand facilities in Singapore, Jerusalem, Los Angeles and now Bentonville, praised Walton as "a force of nature." Then Sam and Helen Walton's daughter took the stage to a standing ovation and said, "This is it! 11-11-11." The opening was following three earlier ones, one an all-nighter for members, the others for dignitaries, artists, art dealers and friends.

Walton announced her plans for the museum in 2005, but she said recently it was an idea born in the 1990s. Opening two years past the expected date on Walton family land just off the downtown square, the museum's total worth — in building, art and endowment — is on its way (if not there already) to $2 billion.

A comic video with a Mission Impossible theme — a briefcase being handed off first to a black SUV, then to a Tyson truck, a J.B. Hunt truck, a Walmart truck, a bicycling crew headed by pony-tailed Tom Walton (Walton's nephew), museum Director Don Bacigalupi and finally to Alice Walton, who opened it to reveal a neon "Open" sign — and streamers shooting out from the stands ended the small-town ceremony and the University of Arkansas Razorbacks marching band struck up the William Tell Overture. Hi-yo, Silver! Off to the museum, anything but small-town. Attendance on Friday: 4,236. Counting the attendance at the pre-opening galas and reservations for Monday, 19,004 people will have been through Crystal Bridges before you've read this.

In the Tusk and Trotter the night before the opening, manager Rick Lambert — who'd moved to Bentonville from Williamsburg, Va., seven months ago to be near a new baby granddaughter — served up a dish of Trot On Over Here ice cream (sticky pudding cake flavored with coffee, medjol dates and brown sugar and shot through with a toffee-maple bacon brittle) and talked about how down-to-earth he finds the Waltons. (One of them, Tom, was in the bar that night with friends and yakking about his new-found upper lip — he'd just shaved off his mustache — with a reporter from the Benton County Daily Record.) Lambert said Alice Walton and her two brothers dined in Tusk and Trotter recently and he took the opportunity to tell them how much he loved living in Bentonville. He said Alice reached across the table, covered his hand with hers and said, "We're so glad you're here." These are genuine people, he said. No pretense about them.


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