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Northwest Arkansas loves its artists and outlaws

There’s an old folk saying that describes Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains: “It’s not that the mountains are so high, but that the valleys are so low.”

Some of the South’s most stunning vistas can be found there, which is why when you mention northwest Arkansas, most people’s thoughts automatically turn to the Ozarks. As beautiful as the Ozarks are, northwest Arkansas has much more than scenery to offer visitors. Groups can find a Wild West town that refuses to give up its wildness, an alpine town that is as serene as its Swiss counterparts and a growing city built on the legacy of Sam Walton and his daughter Alice.

If you are planning a trip to that scenic part of the state, here are three destinations not to be missed.

For many, the small town of Bentonville is synonymous with Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retail operation, and Sam Walton, the man who founded it in 1962. Townsfolk speak reverently of “Mr. Sam,” and the Walmart Visitor Center in the town square is a must-see for most who go there.

Housed in Walton’s original Five and Dime Store, which he opened in 1950, it is something of a homage to the man himself with its display of photographs and memorabilia. With antique items such as the original soda fountain, still operational, the store is more reminiscent of a scene from “Andy Griffith” than the Wal-Mart we know today.

While the memory of Walton may reign supreme in Bentonville, it is his daughter, Alice Walton, who is likely to make the greatest impression on the world — certainly the art world. In 2011, the Crystal Bridges Museum, which she funded and stocked with some of the best American art to be found anywhere, opened to great acclaim and great controversy.

It was the very quality of the work she so singularly pursued that was the cause for both. Art-lovers around the country let out a collective gasp when she purchased Asher Durand’s “Kindred Spirits,” which had hung in the New York City Public Library since 1904. From the Big Apple to Bentonville — What was she thinking? Who would see it?

Undaunted, she continued to pull out her checkbook in acquiring the country’s best, adding to her shopping cart such works as Winslow Homer’s “The Return of the Gleaner,” Thomas Hart Benton’s “Ploughing It Under,” Frederick Remington’s “Cowpuncher’s Lullaby,” Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Mask With Golden Apple” and Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter.”

Walton’s clever concept has been to place the works in a linear fashion so that visitors trace America’s history through the art. Beginning with James Wooldridge, who painted the Indians of Virginia, and Gilbert Stuart, who painted George Washington, and continuing to Andrew Wyeth and Andy Warhol, the museum offers a retrospective of both country and craft.

So to answer the question “Who’s going to see it?” it seems a lot of people. Attendance figures for 2012 show 556,000 visitors passed through the doors.

The spectacular collection is housed in an equally spectacular museum building. A symphony in stone and glass, it was designed by noted Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie and overlooks 120 acres of forests, gardens and trails, winding around Crystal Springs.

Such a magnificent museum deserves an equally magnificent hotel, and that’s just what Bentonville got when Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown, the Louisville, Kentucky, husband-and-wife creative force behind that city’s 21c Museum Hotel, decided to open another property there.

Bentonville’s 21c, for “21st century,” has been described by Wilson and Brown as “a contemporary art museum with rooms.” The 3,000 pieces of art from their impressive collection rotates every six months, and each of the 104 rooms is furnished with art personally selected by Brown.

The Hive Restaurant displays another kind of art — culinary art — in such regionally inspired dishes as ham-brined pork chop with sweet potato puree, braised greens and pecan relish.

Finally, like at the other 21c hotels, guests can request one of the iconic bright green plastic penguins to sleep or shower with. A symbol of the 21c brand, the whimsical penguins were created by the Cracking Art Group and commissioned by Brown and Wilson for their hotels.
And, in case you are wondering, no, you can’t buy them at Wal-Mart.