Greg Thompson has faced his share of challenges as an art consultant in Arkansas.
Gilbert Stuart’s 1797 portrait of George Washington was one of the early acquisitions in the museum’s permanent collection.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, from 1932, was acquired by Crystal Bridges for $44.4 million, a record price for a female artist’s work.
Redbuds bloom in April at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. About 2.7 million people have visited the center designed by renowned architect Moshe Safdie, who wanted to blend nature into the overall construction.
Norman Rockwell’s Triple Self-Portrait was part of a 2013 exhibit of Rockwell’s work that drew crowds to Crystal Bridges.
Assistant curator Chad Alligood describes a piece during a media tour of the “State of the Art” exhibit at Crystal Bridges in September 2014. The collection of 227 contemporary works by more than 100 artists drew 175,000 visitors.
The executive director of Greg Thompson Fine Art in North Little Rock said that when he contacted art dealers in New York in the past, inquiring about paintings by renowned artists like Claude Monet or Pablo Picasso, his calls were not taken seriously because he was calling from Arkansas.
But, Thompson said, the stigma about the state's place in the art community has largely disappeared in the five years since Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened in Bentonville.
"Now when I say I'm from Arkansas, everybody knows where we are and why we're significant," Thompson said last month. "It's because of Crystal Bridges."
Thompson's experience is one example of the impact Crystal Bridges has had throughout the state and the art community in the five years since it opened to the public on Nov. 11, 2011, completing founder Alice Walton's dream of building a world-class museum in her hometown.
While the ambitious project was designed to provide museum access and art education to all in an area that was sorely lacking, Crystal Bridges faced plenty of skepticism early on from critics who felt that it was merely a vanity project for the Wal-Mart heiress.
Officials and others in the museum community are confident that those impressions have subsided as Crystal Bridges continues to gain traction in art circles and establishes Bentonville as a must-see destination for American art.
"It's kind of hard to believe it's only been five years because they've been a game-changer," said William Randolph, chief curator and curator of American art at the San Antonio Museum of Art. "It's clear that when you go to Crystal Bridges, that five years in, they really have become a major museum in America and a major museum of American art."
James Yood, an associate professor of new arts journalism at the School of Art Institute of Chicago, said five years is a "blink of an eye" for an art museum. But it has been a "long and successful blink" for Crystal Bridges, he said.
"It's a great model for fast-tracking a museum and its reputation -- deep pockets, a thoughtful master plan, smart people, and a sense of creating just enough buzz about its doings that Bentonville is becoming a must-see destination, sort of like Bilbao [Spain] became when Frank Gehry built the Guggenheim Museum there in the 1990s," Yood said in an email.
Not everyone agrees that Crystal Bridges has reached the level of a major museum in the United States. But Crystal Bridges has attracted millions of visitors -- whether they're art professionals or first-time museumgoers -- who have been able to judge that for themselves the past five years.
About 2.7 million guests have wandered through Crystal Bridges' galleries since opening day, shattering expectations for the museum designed by renowned architect Moshe Safdie.
Sandy Edwards, deputy director of the museum, said Crystal Bridges originally set a lofty goal of hosting 250,000 visitors the first year. At the time, museum officials thought that would be a "remarkable achievement."
At the end of its first year, the museum had seen more than 600,000 visitors.
"We thought this is what it's going to be like for a week maybe," Edwards said. "And it went on to be a month and two months and three months."
Arkansas residents make up about 55 percent of the museum's visitors, while 25 percent of guests live in surrounding states like Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas. The final 20 percent are from the remaining states and six continents. There have been visitors from locations like Brazil, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Russia, Switzerland and Zimbabwe.
Attendance has been -- and will continue to be -- supported by a $20 million donation from Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which established free admission to the permanent collection's galleries.
Rod Bigelow, the museum's executive director, counts the gift as a significant moment because it removed some of the barriers from those who may not have been able to visit otherwise.
"We were founded on the idea of creating broad access and a welcoming environment," Bigelow said. "So when you take away that barrier, it changes the dynamic and opens you up to the experience."
As a result, Crystal Bridges has been one of the primary catalysts in Bentonville's transformation into a culturally significant destination, according to state tourism director Joe David Rice.
"They have introduced Arkansas to a whole new audience," Rice said. "Many of the art patrons would never have Arkansas on their list prior to the establishment of the museum."
Guests who have roamed the halls have taken in portions of a permanent collection that has grown from 1,500 objects to 2,300 in the span of five years.
Some of the museum's work in building the collection has been in response to critics, who believed that the Walton-financed museum had a strong base of early American works but was lacking notable pieces from the postwar period.
The criticism was fair, but Crystal Bridges officials said it was important to remember that when the museum first opened, it was just the beginning of the collection.
"It was not only historic that they were coming to the museum in the first day, the first week, the first month, the first year, they were coming and seeing the beginning of the collection," Edwards said. "Just look at what has happened since."
Crystal Bridges has strengthened its holdings with attention-grabbing acquisitions in the past five years, including the $44.4 million purchase of Georgia O'Keeffe's Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1. The cost was four times the asking price for the piece, which is the most expensive painting by a woman. It is one of 40 works in the permanent collection out on loan.
The museum also acquired notable works like Mark Rothko's No. 210/No. 211 (Orange); Andy Warhol's Coca-Cola (3), Jasper Johns' Flag and Felix Gonzalez-Torres Untitled (L.A.).
"Their collection just exudes a sense of patience and good planning," Yood said. "When a superb work comes up, they are flexible enough to move on it, and I've appreciated how well they've thread the needle of both a historic and a modern and contemporary collection that gives a good -- and growing by the month -- overview of American art since the 18th century."
There have been other notable accomplishments, including the acquisition of a home designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The Bachman-Wilson house was taken apart piece by piece at its previous location in New Jersey, moved to Arkansas and reassembled on the museum's grounds.
Former executive director Don Bacigalupi and curator Chad Alligood also spent months on the road scouring the country for contemporary art for an exhibition called State of the Art. The result -- a temporary exhibition with 227 works from 102 artists -- drew 175,000 visitors and showed that the museum was capable of putting together a significant exhibition.
"I'm proud that one of our nation's newest art museums took on such an unprecedented project, and that it reached -- and continues to reach -- such a large and varied audience," Bacigalupi said in an email. He left the museum shortly after the exhibition opened in 2014 to become founding president of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Chicago.
Opportunities remain for Crystal Bridges to strengthen a permanent collection that will never be "done," according to Bigelow. He stressed that the museum is 5 years old and he knows that it has a long way to go when compared with other institutions.
And while the museum's reputation has been relatively positive over the past five years, Bigelow said, Crystal Bridges can't stand still. He said embracing a "constant rate of change" is critical to remaining a relevant destination for visitors.
"I never want someone to think of Crystal Bridges as, 'I've seen that once so I don't need to see it again,'" Bigelow said. "The collection installation always leads to change. The conversation and the stories that we tell always need to change. We need to continue to challenge our guests to see things differently and challenge ourselves to present the unexpected."
The philosophy is evident in Crystal Bridges' plans to turn the former Kraft Foods plant in Bentonville into a contemporary art museum. The plant, which is expected to open in 2018, will serve as an experimental space that Bigelow said will "challenge the whole concept of what a museum is like."
Crystal Bridges also is building a north entrance and elevator tower at the current museum, which will further connect the museum to its outside spaces and trails. Guests will have better access to the north lawn, which has been underutilized as an art space in the museum's five years.
Museum officials also are rethinking ways of presenting the museum's collection, considering changes to the chronological order of the permanent galleries. Bigelow said "interventions" -- like displaying Roxy Paine's Bad Lawn in the Colonial to Early 19th Century gallery -- could provide new ways to tell stories as the museum moves forward.
"It's easy to get someone to come to a museum once. It's much harder to get them to come back," said Rob Stein, executive vice president of the American Alliance of Museums. "So it's great to know they're thinking that way because they'll be able to shake it up and, even around the same objects, tell a completely different slice of the story."
And Bigelow believes the museum's reputation will continue to evolve over the next five years.
"I think in the beginning there was a real fear that we were a vanity project and that we would just be all about a single person," Bigelow said. "We've proved that wrong inside and out. ... We've lived what we've believed and we've lived the mission, and people get it, they feel it."
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