Bentonville’s world-class museum has fostered a blossoming arts & culture sector across Northwest Arkansas.
Nearing its eleventh birthday in November, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art—a repository of some of our country’s most valuable and important artworks—has become more than just an art museum for its home city of Bentonville, Arkansas. Founder Alice Walton wanted to bring art to an underserved region, specifically Northwest Arkansas and nearby counties in Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri. Looking at the region’s growth over the past decade, particularly in the realms of art and culture, reveals the impact of that aspiration.
It is well-known that the Walmart retail behemoth is headquartered in Bentonville, where it began as Sam Walton’s (Alice Walton’s father) dime store on the town square in 1950, rapidly expanding twelve years later with the first official Walmart in nearby Rogers. In addition to this corporate legacy, a short drive south of Bentonville finds the headquarters of Tyson Foods in Springdale and J.B. Hunt Transport Services in Lowell—which hold, respectively, the slots of first and fourth largest companies in their industries.
So, in what was once rural Northwest Arkansas, we now have the butcher, the trucker, and the retailer, all of multi-billion dollar proportions. Chances are, two or three of these entities are responsible for those chicken strips and sausage links in your shopping cart. Naturally, with that level of international business, plus The University of Arkansas flagship campus in Fayetteville just thirty miles south, the market pegged as Northwest Arkansas has grown significantly in population. In 2021, the U.S. Census documented Bentonville’s population as 56,734; in 2010 it was 35,301—a sixty-one percent growth.
The new population is a decidedly young one. As a point of reference, the youngest major city in the U.S. per the Money Talks News is Salt Lake City, which the U.S. Census Bureau lists as having a median age of 32.5 years. Bentonville is actually younger, with a median age of thirty-two. So, it isn’t surprising that a college buddy and fellow boomer visiting from Dallas last October reported that when he and his wife stepped into the trendy Onyx Coffee Lab off the Bentonville Square, the average age in the room increased immediately.
Has it been the Crystal Bridges museum driving the demographics? In a way, yes, but even Alice Walton herself, in an April 2022 interview with Martha Teichner of CBS, offered an appropriate Ozark highlands metaphor.
“I don’t really look at it like Crystal Bridges is responsible for this,” she told Teichner, “but what I do look at is if you were sitting around a campfire and someone had to light it, you have to have the spark.”
In addition to the employment opportunities offered by Walmart, its vendors, fellow corporate giants, and incubated start-ups in the region—that spark has ignited, on a grand scale, a rise in initiatives within Bentonville’s art, cuisine and mountain biking sectors. The climate and natural, scenic surroundings are also contributing factors to the region’s draw; it’s an environment unexpected by tourists who, prior to their first trip to Bentonville, had never been to Arkansas. Many such visitors, who came to Bentonville to see the art, noticed everything else and returned home to pack a U-Haul.