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Bentonville: The Bilbao of the Ozarks?

Million-dollar art, imaginative hotels, and top chefs.

The 2011 opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art cued a cultural shift, bringing Walmart heiress Alice Walton’s unrivaled collection (Gilbert Stuart’s “George Washington,” Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter”) to this northwest Arkansas town better known as the birthplace of the big-box empire.

“Historically, art communities started with artists, then galleries, then—maybe—world-class museums,” says local artist and curator Dayton Castleman, explaining how Bentonville has turned that model on its head.

Near Crystal Bridges, the art gallery in the 21c Museum Hotel captivates passersby 24 hours a day (à la chandeliers in wigs), while native chef Matthew McClure (a James Beard award winner) preps updated favorites like pudding cake and rabbit and dumplings at the Hive.

The Crystal Bridges effect is rippling throughout the region: New sculptures line the Arkansas River in Little Rock, Fort Smith has unveiled its own art museum, and creative galleries thrive in between.

Insider’s Tip: At Crystal Bridges, dine on a glass-enclosed bridge at the museum’s restaurant, Eleven, and explore gardens and Ozark woods on 3.5 miles of on-site trails.

This piece, written by Steve Larese, appeared in the October 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.

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