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Frontier State of Mind in Northwest Arkansas

Nestled in the rolling, wooded landscape of the Ozark Mountains, the cities and towns of northwest Arkansas enjoy the scenic settings and postcard charm that can make time seem to stand still. But Bentonville, Fayetteville, Eureka Springs and Fort Smith are not destinations that time forgot; on the contrary, progress and innovation have brought marquee attractions and great new visitor experiences throughout the region.

The 2011 opening of the famous Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art sent a bolt of creative energy throughout Bentonville and beyond, sparking new developments and concepts that are adding layers of fun and flavor to this region of the state. In addition to visiting old favorite attractions, groups that visit northwest Arkansas today will find ample opportunities to engage with the arts, indulge their senses, interact with history and discover the destination in new ways.

A Boom in Bentonville

Before the opening of the Crystal Bridges museum, Bentonville was best known as the birthplace and headquarters of Wal-Mart, and its location there led to this midsize town having more millionaires per capita than any other place in the country. But since the Crystal Bridges museum made its 2011 debut, it has quickly become a giant on the Bentonville tourism scene.

“Since it opened a little over four years ago, Crystal Bridges has had more than 2 million visitors,” said John Lamparski, group sales manager for the Bentonville Convention and Visitors Bureau. “But it’s not just a museum that rests on its laurels. They keep adding new pieces all the time.”

In addition to a regular schedule of popular touring exhibitions, the Crystal Bridges museum has added several significant exhibitions. The most notable is a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright that was relocated to the museum campus from its original location in New Jersey. Though it had fallen into disrepair, the home was restored by students at the Fay Jones School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas in Bentonville, and it is now open for tours.

The museum also recently announced plans to open a second facility in a 63,000-square-foot former factory building downtown. The new space will be dedicated to contemporary art exhibitions and live performance space and is expected to open in 2017.

Groups with an eye for art will also enjoy a visit to the 21c Museum Hotel. The only 21c location in a purpose-built facility, the Bentonville outpost includes an entire floor of gallery space that exhibits the work of contemporary artists from around the world.

Tours to the city should also include a stop at the Museum of Native American History.

“It’s kind of the hidden gem of Bentonville,” Lamparski said. “It started as a private collection of native and ancient American artifacts. As you walk through the museum, you go through 10,000 years of history and see whole cultures form. We can arrange to have the curator or owner of the museum meet groups and tell them about it.”

Hands-On in Fayetteville

About 30 miles south in Fayetteville, groups will find a number of opportunities to engage with the arts firsthand. One of the most beloved attractions in the area, Terra Studios, known as the birthplace of the Bluebird of Happiness glass figurine, has recently begun offering interactive art workshops for groups.

“It’s not just about the bluebirds anymore — we’re trying to provide a hands-on experience,” said Julie Pennington, group tour manager at the Fayetteville Visitors Bureau. “There are hands-on things that they can make on-site and then take home with them. They can make simple things like pinch pots or more complicated things like ceramic trolls. They do toad houses and silk-scarf-making. If you can dream it, they can do it.”

Group experiences at Terra Studios last up to three hours. In addition to the workshops, which are led by experienced artists, visits can include glassblowing demonstrations and on-site lunches.

Art-themed tours often also stop at Fayetteville Underground, a downtown art gallery and studio complex where visitors can meet some of the artists and discuss their work. The visitors bureau can also help arrange studio visits and meet-and-greets with George Dombek, a well-known local watercolorist and sculptor who has pieces on exhibit at the Crystal Bridges museum.

Live theater plays a big role in Fayetteville’s cultural scene. The Walton Arts Center hosts major touring Broadway productions, and Pennington works with restaurants around town to create themed menus for groups that come in to see the shows. A smaller organization called Theatre Squared produces original plays and offers interactive active and improv workshops for group visitors.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.