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Biggest art event, ever 

The opening of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

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Taylor Swift, hot; "Ring of Fire" at the renovated Arkansas Rep, great; "Judgment at Nuremberg" at the Weekend Theater, moving. But the biggest art event in Arkansas this fall has nothing to do with the performing arts: It's the opening of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Alice Walton and family's billion-dollar investment in Bentonville.

Even if portraits of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart and Charles Willson Peale don't make your heart beat faster or bring you to tears, they are part of American history and treasured works of art. And the sweep and beauty of Asher Durand's "Kindred Spirits" just might make you sob a bit (folks in New York have definitely wept bitter tears over their masterpiece going to Arkansas, Alice Walton having outbid, at $35 million, the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the painting).

The museum won't be all portraits of significant figures in history, but a broad look at the history of American art, from rare 17th century portraits to the Hudson River School, early 20th century art to contemporary installation pieces. So there will be plenty to see at Crystal Bridges when it opens Nov. 11, 2011, or 11-11-11 (which happens to be Veterans Day) and for years to come. The museum puts Arkansas on the map.

The opening day celebration is sure to be accompanied by much as yet unpublicized but sure to happen hullaballoo. Having no facts, let's suppose: One of the museum's acquisitions is a Nick Cave "Soundsuit," which is just as it sounds: A sculptural costume crafted to make sound when the wearer moves. Naturally, dancers have choreographed performances for the suits, and what better way to tie performance art and the CBMAA collection together than to have dancers in soundsuits swishing and swirling about the spring-fed ponds the museum bridges?

Alice Walton announced she would build the museum in 2006, then expected to be a three-year project. Her vision for the museum continued to grow, and she ditched the planned 1950s cut-off date to expand into contemporary work. The Moshe Safdie-designed complex began to grow too. A rectangle of connected buildings, tucked into a ravine that recalls "Kindred Spirits," bank the reflecting pools fed by Crystal Springs. Six galleries showcase the art chronologically; one of the bridges contains the restaurant. A library holds manuscripts and other ephemera Walton has collected to support study of the collection, an amphitheater (nicknamed "the turtle" for its shape) will accommodate public gatherings, classrooms will be available for students and studios for artists. Of course, there will be a gift shop. More than three miles of trails crisscross the 120-acre site and they, too, are galleries of sorts, passing through Ozark uplands and wetlands, by cultural features, all dotted with sculpture.

So what's on the walls? The museum has made periodic announcements of acquisitions, crumbs that Arkansas's art lovers will follow to Bentonville. Paintings, drawings, sculpture. The work, bought at auction and privately, is by such American masters, besides those already mentioned, as John Singleton Copley, Thomas Eakins, Thomas Moran, Benjamin West, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Maxfield Parrish, George Wesley Bellows, Marsden Hartley, Norman Rockwell. Romare Bearden. Thomas Hart Benton. Jacob Lawrence. Andrew Wyeth. Ground-breaking modern artists Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky and Adolph Gottlieb. Pop artists Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Marisol and Claes Oldenburg. Hyperrealist Chuck Close. Silhouette cutting artist Kara Walker. Contemporaries we won't have to travel to the coasts to see: Sculptor Karen LaMonte. Installation artists Jenny Holzer and Devorah Sperber. Weird naturalists Walton Ford and Tom Uttech. Social commentator Kerry James Marshall. You get the picture.

Walton has collected work by Arkansas artists as well — Carroll Cloar, George Dombek, Pat Musick, Doug Stowe. If there's not sculpture by Anita Huffington, I'd be surprised.

All of this is richly supported by the Walton Family Foundation, which announced a staggering $800 million contribution to the endowment last spring, the largest gift ever made to an American museum at one time (according to the Wall Street Journal) and a sum that puts the museum in the big leagues. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a billion-dollar endowment, but it's been around awhile.) Northwest Arkansas businesses are making donations to the museum as well.

Admission to Crystal Bridges is free, thanks, the museum says, to a $20 million contribution by Walmart. Memberships (whose costs range from $35 for students to $5,000 for benefactors) bring certain perks, including free admission to special exhibits and store discounts. The first 3,000 to buy memberships were rewarded with invitations to preview the museum Nov. 9; the museum will be open around the clock to accommodate them. Museum hours are still to be determined.

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