Copyright 2011 Ben S. Pollock
I. Crossing the Line
DATELINE MIRTHOLOGY — Should her museum-progress trek be now or wait till it’s further along? My client Crystal Britches calls Fayetteville and Washington County home. For her, Bentonville and the rest of Benton County are places to visit. Unlike, say, Springdale, which she sees as merely one town up.
Fayettevillians know exactly what she means. Vice versa surely applies as well.
At Miss Britches’ bidding, I went to inspect the progress of the world-class museum that’s being built up there. Fayetteville is a classic college town but offers little art. We have a few galleries, artists open their studios sometimes and the university has some exhibit space, but no public or private art museums.
Bentonville has none at the moment, but that will change this year.
While I drive beyond the Benton County line a few times a month, I hadn’t taken time for the museum project of Alice Walton and her family. It’s been under construction a few years, with many opening date revisions. To keep onlookers away, its eventual roads either are blocked or unfinished at the points they join existing streets.
Instead, the art lover has to walk the one footpath to approach the proverbial knothole in the construction fence.
Now that the opening date 11/11/2011 has been set in concrete and mortar — unless it’s changed — the connected buildings are taking final form. The news media report that progress can be seen through that knothole.
Crystal Britches travels to Benton County far less than me. Mainly it’s to drive through and north to Kansas City for ballroom dance competitions, of which she is fond and why she wears over her clothes heat-retaining rain pants, an old-fashioned and perhaps wrongheaded way to keep her legs looking good.
Yet she has great love and pride for the entire area. Miss Britches not only gives money, but time and labor. With her personal plastic, she is a walking drop cloth. Yet her efforts are strictly behind the scenes. She hires me for public relations work precisely to avoid relating to others publicly.
Crystal Britches and Alice Walton have some things in common. They’re brilliant, personally and in business. They’re both wealthy enough for their personalities to not only be tolerated in their respective communities but celebrated. Still, Ms. Walton is a billionaire, Miss Britches but a millionaire, so the former’s quirks are much better known.
“Heard of ‘Sweating to the Oldies’? Ben, for me it’s ‘Sweatin’ by the Oldies.'” We were sitting in Jammin’ Java on the Fayetteville Square. A walkabout personal sauna or not, Crystal saw my flushed face so we were inside, not on the patio. She wore a loose white top and colorful Capri slacks, the latter under the vinyl. “So, go on up to central Bentonville. Advise me on whether the museum trail and the site are worth the trip.”
II. Worth Singing About
As it happened, I didn’t have to travel solo. The Northwest Arkansas Jewish community went as a group this past Sunday. Joining them reduced the chance of me getting lost, and increased the opportunities of learning from others.
First observation: What’s the difference between the Fayetteville and Bentonville downtown squares? The former has a handsome old post office turned retail space at the center of its square, Bentonville’s has a statue of a Confederate soldier. The “Old Post Office” is mostly unrented, while the Johnny Reb seems to be kept polished.
The trail of perhaps three-fourths of a mile begins a block from the statue, with signs pointing it out.
The local newspapers have reported on many, many details of the museum, its campus and the trail system to course through it. By their remarks it seemed that my companions had read little about it. I know most are subscribers; several have been eager over the years to share with me the mistakes they find.
Yet the first revelation, I told Miss Britches the following Monday morning, was the downtown trail. It’s been announced that its landscaping is complete, the concrete trail meandering from the long-established Compton Gardens. Each plant thus was expertly situated. All prominent plants (not just some) had small descriptive signs. The labeled plants generally were native to the area.
As we progressed down the winding trail, we saw the first outdoor sculpture, an iron tree by George Dombek — a Washington County artist of national renown. The “tree” had a bicycle among its branches.
Around a corner, we came upon the “skyspace” of James Turrell. It’s three-dimensional art, not a shed shaped like a round barn.
It might be a stone and concrete version of a native American healing hut, with the glassless round roof opening to which “skyspace” refers. From the outside, it’s abstract yet calming. Earth is bermed around the installation, titled The Way of Color, so it appears built into a hill. Think of the houses in the Shire where hobbits live, but with no adornment.
This was a hot July day. I dreaded entering the little house, anticipated it would be like my car parked in 98-degree heat back on A Street.
The skyspace was, however, comfortable. The dirt-backed walls provided good insulation, and between the doorway and skylight-like ocular, a slight but steady breeze moved.
Under the ocular was a circle of black sand. Night and day symbolism, and for practical reasons, rain falling would drain through the sand. Parallel to it was a continuous concrete bench set against the round wall. We were told the ceiling around the ocular lights up at dawn and dusk.
Spontaneously, the representatives of the three area synagogues, children to retirees, began singing Psalm 133 in Hebrew, “Hine Ma Tov,” slowly, softly.
The melody and words, how appropriate, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in peace.”
“I bet that sing-along was a first, for a Turrell work, and Ms. Alice,” I reported back to Miss Britches. “It was the sweet 12/8 melody, not the bouncy 4/4.” The Gentile Crystal had no clue what I meant by either, and YouTube had no example of the former to play for her.
If she heard me try to sing it, well that would be the end of that.
Walking further we soon were completely out of sight of the Turrell. The terrain is only slightly sloping, but the trees are that dense.
“Suddenly we arrived at the knothole. Actually it’s a wooden observation deck, down a 20-yard gravel trail. Looking past a chain-link fence, the buildings of the museum were finally in plain sight, perhaps a quarter-mile away. Many of the gray walls curved sensually. Those that didn’t had non-right angles. The copper roofs shined in the clear sun like new pennies.
“Set against the green of the mature trees and the blue sky, well, you had to pinch yourself at the beauty of it.”
The art experts and marketing spinners hired by the museum keep saying how the Moshe Safdie-designed complex is “nestled” among the forests of an Ozark valley. I gave Crystal an alternate take.
“Miss Britches, it is breathtaking. I admit to tearing up, and with sweat as well my eyes stung as I gazed on the buildings and the vast horizontal expanses of concrete where water would rest and flow. That was my first impression.
“My first thought, though, was: ‘Nestled in steep terrain,’ my foot. This cool modern construction sits low in a ravine amid Ozark scrub.”
Crystal Britches smiled.
“We are where we are,” I told her. Yet my subsequent conclusions were, “Gorgeous. Our corner of the state will be known worldwide for the museums and the major art hanging in it. I will find reasons often to make the 35-minute drive from downtown Fayetteville. Central Bentonville moves to the top as to where My Beloved and I will take out-of-town visitors — for us it will tie the the University of Arkansas campus, though it’s just 10 blocks from the house.”
She had a comment. “Pictures, Ben, would’ve been helpful for me, your client.”
“Here’s the thing, Miss Britches. Drawing you a picture in words may fall short, but photos do, too. We’ve both seen the pictures. Look through the website of the museum. But construction progress shots and Safdie’s architectural renderings don’t do justice to it, any more than sentences.
“You have to walk down the Compton Garden path, as it were, carrying the history of the region and state, as well as memories of growing up here then visiting major museums in Fort Worth, Chicago and places like that. I did. Then when you look over and there this massive presence arise from a creek bed, then you see it for the prize it is.”
“So, Ben, what happened, did you forget your camera?”
III. What Bridges, Crystal?
“Friend, “I began to confess, “you and I have made sport of this museum project for years. Now, satire seems impossible. Remember how we called it MOPA, Museum of Other People’s Art? I am so happy this is here, and you will be, too. I’ll drive us. Now?
She paid for refills of our coffees to carry with us.
Though predictably not a sentimental woman, Crystal Britches choked up, like me, standing on the deck at noon Monday. Then she spoke.
“Raveenia Museum is perfect for it,” she said, as if the museum hadn’t already a name. “There’s a conflict, though. Ravinia is a music festival outside Chicago. I’ll phone Alice on how it needs the phonetic spelling so folks understand. This museum lies in a ravine amid brush, oak and pine once thought too rough and steep to be developed economically. There’s no pussyfooting around that. But Safdie set it as a hidden treasure, down there in the bottoms. So pronounce it and spell it Raveenia.
“Arkansas is nothing if it’s not run by honest brokers,” she added.
I gave her a look.
Minutes later, as we enjoyed a moderately priced yet gourmet lunch at the Bentonville Square’s Tusk & Trotter, I realized Crystal and I should converse as equals for a moment: She could help me.
We’d both seen the Promised Museum.
“Miss Crystal, now I’m in the jam. How can I write satire about you and about the great museum? You’re funny from the get-go, but the Raveenia Museum isn’t funny, now that we’ve seen how grand it’s going to be.”
“Yes, sonny jim, but that’s always been true. Look at what you’ve been writing about it. The site, the plans, city rivalries, classic and new artists, the incredible expense — all that was just good for a few jokes. Those you’ve told — and usually clumsily.”
“Starting in a few weeks, though, you’ll discover a mother lode of satirical targets for an Ozark grand art museum,” Crystal Britches said.
“The people around Raveenia Museum will be a hoot. Like you’ve inferred, first there’s staffers speaking ‘art school.’ Some will be wondering how they ended up in the sticks despite their degrees and internships.
“Then you have the area mavens, people like me, frankly. The parties, darling, the parties and openings and receptions! Which I’ll avoid. You’ll find me at the Raveenia at 11. I bet the light from the windows is perfect in the morning. Just like you did living in Little Rock, frequenting the Arkansas Arts Center.”
The memory of those 13 years in LR made me smile. And gave me a last insight.
“Crystal, there’s one more topic: All the folks who live here, how will they react, year in and year out, to a standout museum in their midst. Just wait till some big shot pronounces a work of art as obscene or un-American. Whoo-ee!”