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Northwest Arkansas: An Artists Enclave

For generations, visitors would come to the picturesque northwest corner of Arkansas to enjoy Ozark Mountain vistas, hike forested trails, fish for trout in various lakes and rivers, or simply relax in nature’s beauty.

They still come for those reasons, but for almost a decade now, something else is pulling people to this part of Arkansas in numbers that delight tourism promoters.

It’s an ever-growing trove of art experiences. There are paintings and sculptures by world-famous artists, bold outdoor murals, intellectually challenging contemporary creations, live performances and a group of photogenic penguins.

Observers often point to the 2011 opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville as a catalyst.

“I recall that the first year’s anticipated attendance was 200,000 to 300,000,” said Kaylene Griffith, president and CEO of Visit Bentonville. “The reality was that 500,000 came, and that validated everything.”

Crystal Bridges was the first major art museum to open in the U.S. since 1974, and its $200 million endowment allowed benefactor Alice Walton to make quite a statement. The facility itself is stunning. Architect Moshe Safdie, whose buildings are around the globe, made sure of that, and inside are wide-ranging works by artists such as Gilbert Stuart, Mary Cassatt, Thomas Hart Benton, Maxfield Parrish, Georgia O’Keeffe and Andy Warhol.

Bentonville was already on the map, of course, because its leading hometown business is a little outfit named Walmart. Alice Walton, the business-savvy, philanthropic and art-loving daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, only added to its fame.

Regional Ideas

Bentonville, Rogers, Springdale and Fayetteville are practically in a straight line only 25 miles long on U.S. 71, and tour leaders can structure activity-filled itineraries with minimal time on the road. Add a one-hour jaunt east to the mountain town of Eureka Springs, and you quickly identify more destinations than you can cram into a single itinerary.

“We have the visual arts by day and performing arts to fill your evenings,” Griffith said, speaking of the whole region, which she said works very cooperatively to help groups.

Visible public art is abundant: If you don’t notice the more than 100 sculptures, murals and artistic neon signs in Bentonville or the many colorful murals in Fayetteville, you’re not looking. Watch for Fayetteville to blossom even more in the coming years with development of the 50-acre Cultural Arts Corridor in the heart of the city.

Right now, your group can take advantage of a Fayetteville Art Walk interactive map. Walk, bike or ride in your motorcoach to view some of the 60 public art installations. A whimsical one is “Bearly Legal,” a mural that shows bear cubs perching on the side of a building. A somber one is the World Prayer Peace Fountain sculpture, an 8,000-pound globe inscribed with “May peace prevail on earth” in more than 100 languages.

An Art Hotel and a New Museum

Art even has a famous forum in the lodging sector because of the 21c Museum Hotel, which opened in Bentonville in 2013. Located on the town square, the 104-room boutique hotel also is a contemporary art museum, a culture civic center and a penguin sanctuary.

The penguins — green plastic critters, not feathery ones — are emblematic of how art can play a role in a visit and directly involve people. The penguins aren’t anchored in place, so guests and staff often relocate them. You might see one peering out of a guest room window, waiting for a treadmill in the exercise room or standing beside a table in the Hive restaurant.

The art inside 21c is by living artists, and that same spirit prevails at a new Bentonville attraction that opened in early 2020: the Momentary. It is a contemporary art space satellite to Crystal Bridges housed in a 63,000-square-foot building that was once a cheese factory. It’s not your ordinary museum experience, with its offerings of visual and performing arts, artists-in-residence with whom you can chat and even culinary arts experiences.

Even as the Momentary is still basking in the glow of its opening, Crystal Bridges is readying for a celebration of its own. Next year marks its 10th birthday, and an exhibition called “Crystal Bridges: The First Decade” will be a major reason to schedule tours here. The exhibition will feature 10 experiences that will invite you to see more than 40 works of art from the museum’s collection.

Other major exhibitions in 2021 are “Crafting America,” a diverse presentation of craftsmanship that even includes a custom electric guitar designed for Prince, and “In American Waters,” a look at maritime scenes from artists including Georgia O’Keeffe, Norman Rockwell, Thomas Hart Benton, Winslow Homer and Kay WalkingStick.

Art and History

Art exists in many forms, a fact born out by looking to the past at the Museum of Native American History in Bentonville or the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in Springdale.

The Museum of Native American History houses more than 10,000 artifacts from the many cultures of the first Americans, dating back 14,000 years. From ancient hunting implements to decorative pottery to intricate beadwork, the talent of their makers is obvious. Whether the artifacts were originally utilitarian, ceremonial or decorative, they are another element of an art tour in northwest Arkansas.

The Shiloh Museum of Ozark History examines a more recent period. It starts with some prehistoric artifacts and then focuses on the settlement of the Ozarks through six historic buildings, including a log cabin, a general store and a country doctor’s office. The folk art of quilting is in the spotlight every September at the Ozark Quilt Fair.

Although the aforementioned locations have museum shops and galleries, an hour’s drive through the mountains takes you to Eureka Springs and myriad opportunities for art purchases, possibly even from artists you get to meet.

Much of Eureka Springs perches on hillsides that provide a great setting for the Victorian architecture of its earliest years. It was founded in 1879, but Native Americans knew the area for centuries because of its supposedly healing natural springs. It developed as a Victorian resort city with a peak population of almost 10,000; a classic reminder of that era is the 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa. In recent decades, Eureka Springs evolved into an artcentric community of about 2,000 people.

You won’t find big-box stores, malls or factory outlets here. Instead, there are shops, galleries and studios around almost every bend in its winding streets. Two popular examples are the Quicksilver Art and Fine Craft Gallery and the Zarks Gallery. Pop into them or other galleries and studios, and you might not leave empty-handed.