Crystal Bridges Museum surpasses 2 million visitors, launches new campaign

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 289 views 

It took just 21 months for Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art to welcome one million visitors to Bentonville and now two years later two million people have come through the doors since the museum’s Nov. 11, 2011 opening.

Roughly 500,000 visitors make their way through the museum each year. Through the first two years around 64% of them had come from within a day’s drive, but that stat is likely somewhat out of date today according to Beth Bobbitt, public relations manager for the venue.

“Today I would say our highest concentration of visitors come from Arkansas, then touch states, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Texas. But, we are starting to see more visitors from the east and west coasts, as well as internationally. In fact, we’ve had visitors from six out of seven continents, representing 30 countries including Brazil, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Russia, Switzerland, and Zimbabwe,” Bobbitt added.

The two million guests include 89,000 students who have participated in the museum’s school visit program and more than 200,000 participants in lectures, performances, classes or other public programs. Bobbitt said another 240,000 people visited the museum’s 3.5 miles of art trails on the museum grounds. She said the museum recently unveiled a mobile app — CB Outdoors — designed to inform and engage those on the trails with works of art along the pathways as well as native plant species and other nature elements they may encounter.

She said the new Frank Lloyd Wright Bachman-Wilson House is also expected to draw thousands more visitors when it opens Nov. 11. It will be the only Frank Lloyd Wright home in the state of Arkansas, Bobbitt said.

“We look forward to welcoming all to celebrate the American spirit in a setting that unites the power of art with the beauty of nature, particularly new visitors with an affinity for architecture, who will experience the museum and the inspiring landscape of the region for the first time as part of their visit to see Frank Lloyd Wright Bachman-Wilson House,” said Rod Bigelow, executive director. “As we embark on the next chapter in the museum’s history, we invite visitors to immerse themselves in the rich story of how a major American art museum emerged deep in the Ozark woods and attracted two million visitors in less than four years.”

Keeping the museum fresh and exciting for repeat visitors and the 9,000 paid members is a constant priority. Bobbitt said the temporary exhibitions have been some of the biggest attendance draws over the past four years. The massive “State of the Art: Discovering American Art” exhibition that ran from September 2014 through January drew more than 175,000 visitors from the world. The second largest exhibition draw was the Norman Rockwell exhibit which drew in 122,000 people during its 11-week showing in the spring of 2013.

The Andy Warhol and Jamie Wyeth exhibitions will wrap up Oct. 5. To date, more than 41,000 people have viewed the exhibits which require an $8 admission fee for the two for non-members. The exhibit is free to students under age 18. Bobbitt said general admission to the museum remains free, and is underwritten by a $20 million contribution made by Wal-Mart Stores in 2011. 

While American art remains a constant theme at Crystal Bridges, the curators continue to look for ways to expand toward a broader audience. In November, Bobbitt said the museum will feature a temporary exhibit of landscape paintings from the Americas stretching from the Arctic Circle to South America. In conjunction with this exhibit the museum will host an international summit Nov. 13-14 for art enthusiasts from Germany, United Kingdom and Brazil.

During September, Crystal Bridges is celebrating this new attendance milestone with its 2 Million & You campaign. (See a video for that campaign at the end of this story.)

As part of this promotion, yard signs will be distributed to members and local businesses. A memory booth will be displayed in the museum lobby that will allow patrons to share their favorite Crystal Bridges memory over the past four years. Also in appreciation of the patronage the museum is offering free admission to the Warhol and Wyeth exhibition on Sept. 18. Members who join in the month of September also get two free months.

Bobbitt said memberships start at $35 annually for students, with individual adult memberships costing $55, and dual adults at $75 rising all the way through the director’s guild level which is a $20,000 annual commitment. She said the museum founders and leadership want to ensure that memberships are affordable because everyone should be able to enjoy art in its various forms.

Over the past four years the museum has grown its employee base to 215 full-time workers. Another 600 volunteers donate 20,000 hours of service per year at the museum. Bobbitt said the ramp up has been gradual over time as the museum continues to expand programing and partnerships.

One of those new employees is Kelly Zega, who is joining Crystal Bridges later this month working on the museum’s advancement team. Zega has been a public affairs manager with Cox Communication for the past nine years.

Bentonville Mayor Bob McCaslin told The City Wire that just because the general admission is free to the public it’s a mistake to assume the venue doesn’t generate  revenue that adds to the city’s budget via hospitality taxes.

The hospitality tax amounts collected from Crystal Bridges is not available to the public since the passage of Arkansas’ Act 1102  which exempts hospitality tax records from disclosure under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

“Between the gift shop, restaurant and banquet hall the amount of sales tax generated for the city is significant and material to the Bentonville city budget. I am very grateful for this venue,” McCaslin said.

He expects that over time there also will be industries that align themselves with the art segment sprouting wings in this region.

“It’s incredible to think that two million people have visited our city in just under four years, many for the first time and others after a long time. I continue to hear stories from folks who went to school here in the 1960s who have returned since Crystal Bridges opened and boy are they surprised at the changes across this region,” McCaslin said.

He said the growth in an around downtown Bentonville has largely been influenced by Crystal Bridges and the art and nature scene active with bikers and pedestrians enjoying the trails just off the square out to the museum. McCaslin said Crystal Bridges has helped bring a more cosmopolitan feel to Bentonville and likes to say that the city behaves much like a suburban center to Chicago or Atlanta with its level of amenities.