When the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened in November 2011, it made for a convincing vanity project. Walmart heiress Alice Walton had spent years studying up on American art and millions on the finest American art to be found at auction and, more controversially, through distressed sales from institutions such as Philadelphia's Thomas Jefferson University and Nashville's Fisk University. Crystal Bridges was the first big art museum to open since 1974, and it opened in the historical Walmart home of Bentonville, Ark.: population 35,000.
Crystal Bridges has since met its early controversy with unambiguous success. Several Bentonvilles' worth of people poured through the doors of the Moshe Safdie–designed museum, with first-year attendance exceeding 600,000 visitors. Now the 21c Museum Hotel chain is banking on that success: Contemporary art collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson just announced the opening of the third 21c Museum Hotel, in downtown Bentonville: population 35,000.
The city's tiny population is an order of magnitude smaller than the populations of the two other cities where 21c has recently opened hotels: Louisville, population 253,000, and site of the first 21c Museum Hotel, founded in 2007; and Cincinatti, population 296,000, where the company opened the second 21c Museum Hotel last year. But the Bentonville bet is an easy one for 21c. According to a 2010 report from The Wall Street Journal, the Walton family is picking up the $28 million tab for the 104-room hotel. Sure financial footing helps a project that otherwise might not happen. In fact, plans for a 21c Museum Hotel in Austin failed in 2007 following the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
Sure design is also key to the Waltons' improbable effort to transform Bentonville—population 35,000, and a four-hour drive from Little Rock—into a world-class art-world destination. In order to make the project stick, the design by Deborah Berke Partners includes some 12,000 square feet of "art-filled event space," according to a release. Berke has designed several hotel gallery spaces to accommodate art programming (to be curated by Alice Gray Stites), including art vitrines on three guest-room floors, art installations inside and outside the building, and limited-edition "Green Penguin" sculptures by art collective Cracking Art Group.
Berke, who in 2012 became the first recipient of University of California at Berkeley's Berkeley-Rupp Architecture Professorship and Prize, is also designing the guest rooms and interiors at Bentonville's 21c Museum Hotel. (She was the designer for the 21c Museum Hotel branches in Louisville and Cincinnati as well.) Inasmuch as 21c is betting on the continued draw of Crystal Bridges for its continued success, Crystal Bridges is betting on Berke to cement the destination status of Bentonville. (Bentonville: population 35,000.)
This post has been updated.