March 19, 2017
Tonight, I’m in Jay, Oklahoma, a sleepy county seat town that seems in danger of drying up and blowing away. It stands in stark contrast to Northwest Arkansas just 11 miles to the east, where the economy is booming. I asked my hosts in Siloam Springs, Karen and Charles Tucker, what accounted for the once almost forgotten two counties in the northwest corner of the state that have become Arkansas’s second-largest metropolitan area, home today to about half a million people. I understand the recreational opportunities of a four-season (winter is brief) climate in the relatively attractive Ozark Mountains, as well as the draw of the state’s major university. But those factors alone don’t account for what has occurred there in the past 30 years.
Karen, who is a Realtor, takes a local approach to the resurgence and growth of Siloam Springs. She attributes it directly to a vote in 2012 to make the community “wet” by allowing the sale and serving of alcohol. She says her clients who move to Arkansas from other places expect to be able to drink when they go out; selling the appeal of the area is now much easier. For example, it has allowed establishments such as the Creekside Taproom to open and flourish.
Karen’s mother lives in their garage apartment and has been in Arkansas since the early 1980s after growing up on the South Side of Chicago and ultimately marrying an Arkansan who returned to his home state. The answer “is simple,” she said. “It’s three good old Arkansas boys who made it big.”
It’s difficult to argue with the success of Sam Walton, John Tyson and J.B. Hunt. If you don’t know those names, you are almost certainly aware of the companies they founded: Walmart, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt Transportation. Each of these giant firms has its roots and headquarters in Northwest Arkansas. Walton opened a five-and-ten-cent store in Newport, Arkansas, soon after the end of World War II. Of course Walmart is now the world’s largest retailer and second-largest employer, exceeded only by the People’s Liberation Army of China.
John Tyson was an Arkansas chicken farmer who wanted to control all aspects of his poultry business, from the chicken eggs to their feed to the processed birds ready for consumption. Today Tyson Foods is the largest meat processor in the U.S. and a major provider of beef and pork as well as poultry. J.B. Hunt was a truck driver who by the late 1960s owned several tractors and trailers. Among his customers was John Tyson. The company he founded now has more trailers than any other U.S. transportation firm.
The success of these companies has brought nearly uncountable wealth to the region. Walton’s three living children control a total of $160 billion and are each listed among the world’s 21 wealthiest individuals. That kind of money can make a huge difference, which leads to the rest of this story.
Karen and Charles, my Warm Showers hosts, were very apologetic about an unexpected trip that would mean their absence for my second night in Siloam Springs. Charles is an industrial power control specialist, who is sometimes called to customer sites when they are shut down for maintenance. This was one of those occasions, and Karen had agreed to come with him to Council Bluffs, Iowa, for an impromptu getaway. They decided to leave Saturday before noon. What would any reasonable hosts have done with a short-term guest on such an occasion? Obviously, apologize and send him on his way.
But Karen and Charles are not ordinary hosts. Instead they turned over their home to me, providing the keys to both the house and their truck, and telling me to enjoy the rest of my stay. Karen strongly suggested that I should visit the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, some 30 miles away. And so I did, unprepared for what I would find: a world-class art facility and the first major new art museum to open in the U.S. since the late 1970s, all tucked into a stunning location of wooded ravines and spring-fed ponds in “forgotten” Northwest Arkansas.
Crystal Bridges is the soul and spirit of Alice Walton, the only daughter of Sam, who dreamed of, and had the means to create, a major museum in her hometown. Conceived, designed and built to be second to no art facility in the world, it opened in 2011. The cost has been a matter of some controversy, and the exact figures are unreleased because the Walton Family Foundation is a private trust, but a conservative estimate is a total of $1.1 billion, $650 million for the facility and $450 million for the acquisition of the artwork.
It is simply spectacular, and not quite like any other art museum I have ever visited. For one thing, there is no admission charge; the cost is underwritten by Walmart Corporation. And the hours are long: on weekends from 10:00 to 6:00. The museum’s “security guards” are educated in the collection and trained to interact with patrons.
Describing the museum does not do it justice, however. It must be experienced. I had to pinch myself to remember I was not in New York or California, but instead in Bentonville, Arkansas. The collection is extensive, covering the history of American art from the mid-1600s to about 1980, if not quire exhaustive.
I suppose, as much as anything, the museum is a testament to what can happen when a huge amount of wealth is devoted to a cultural end. Did I—or should I—feel any different about Walmart after I exited the museum grounds? Who’s to say?
The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art strongly discourages interior photography. Here are images of the spectacular exterior and setting:
The mostly deciduous trees of the Ozark Mountain region are just coming into leaf: