The Museum as Tourist Attraction – in Arkansas.

17 Jun

We all know that museums are, for better or worse, tourist attractions.  One tends to associate visiting art museums with large cities, however.  You go to Paris you visit the Louvre.  You take a trip to New York you see the Met.  Cultural offerings are one of the main reasons people travel to the larger metropolitan areas for vacations rather than sitting on the beach with a mai tai.  Some people like to use their brains as well as their livers on holiday.  Now smaller cities are catching on to the idea.  Most experts will say that it all started with Bilbao.  The opening of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum there put the city on the map.  In the first 10 years it opened tourist numbers in the city grew to about 20 times where they were before.  It was a resounding success.

But the phenomenon is a bit older than that.  Fans will go to great lengths to visit a place of importance.  The best example I can think of is the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.  The town has fewer than 2,000 residents, yet it gets about 350,000 visitors a year to see the Hall.  You have to want to go to Cooperstown, too.  To put it mildly, it’s in the middle of nowhere. (Look at this map if you don’t believe me.)  It’s a trip in and of itself, and it was popular long before the idea of art museums in smaller cities took off.

There are plenty of similar examples.  Obviously sports fans are a bit zealous, but even in art it’s a common to travel out of your way for something interesting.  People will take a trip to Arles to be able to follow in the footsteps of Van Gogh or a day trip from Paris to see Monet’s house in Giverny.  The Centre Pompidou recently opened a satellite branch in Metz, no doubt hoping for a similar effect as seen in Bilbao.  The artist colony of Taos, New Mexico was a tourist destination long before Julia Roberts added to its fame.  Where art is, tourists often follow.

The next place that’s hoping to become a destination for art is Bentonville, Arkansas.  If the name sounds familiar it’s because the city is the headquarters of Walmart.  Love it or hate it, the company has made more money than most of us can imagine, and now a member of the Walton family is using all that money to open an American art museum in the city.  By all accounts the collection is outstanding and Alice Walton, the main force behind the museum, is still working to build it.  It seemed a bit odd at first, though.  Who would want to go to Arkansas to see art?

I asked a friend from the state about the idea and was reminded that there is already a decent amount of tourism in the region owing to the Ozark mountains.  The combination could end up attracting people who like outdoor activities as well as culture.  I really hope it does.  Ms. Walton has put together a collection that is not only wonderful artistically but is also a great tool for teaching American history.  I firmly believe there’s something to the idea of having such a collection surrounded by lush green mountains rather than the concrete and noise in large cities.  American history is so closely linked to the wilderness of the country that viewing the art in such a context can open up new meanings to visitors.

Now I am aware of my own eccentricity, but I’d drive 6 hours from Dallas for that.  People shouldn’t be afraid to visit these out-of-the-way places for art.  The rewards of going somewhere a bit off the beaten path are wonderful, and such institutions can transform an entire region.  If you don’t believe me, just look at what the Getty Museum managed to do to the cultural wasteland that is Los Angeles.  If a place like that can become known for culture, Arkansas certainly can.

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