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BENTONVILLE, Ark (Reuters) - Art should be accessible to all people. That's the concept behind a massive new museum in small-town Arkansas that is the brainchild of the heiress daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton.
When the 217,000-square-foot art Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opens on November 11, it will be the first major museum in 50 years dedicated to an immense collection of American art.
It's also the first time in the modern era that such a museum has been built in a small town like the northwest Arkansas town of Bentonville, population 35,301.
The town is home to Wal-Mart's headquarters. Heiress Alice Walton, 62, a billionaire who is not involved in Wal-Mart's daily operations, splits her time between here and her Texas ranch, where she breeds cutting horses.
"Alice Walton could have chosen to go anywhere in the world with her museum but she gave the city of Bentonville a gift," Mayor Bob McCaslin told Reuters.
From the modern silver tree sculpture at the museum's entrance by Roxy Paine to paintings by Colonial-era artists, the museum takes a visitor through U.S. history via art in 12 spacious galleries, with more than 400 pieces on view.
"You walk through history as you would through the art, as it is told chronologically," said David Houston, director of curatorial, during an interview in the museum.
"It tells American history from wars to peaceful times through art themes such as landscapes, mythology, portraits and even sculpture."
Walton hired Boston architect Moshe Safdie to design the museum, a wood and glass creation of bridges nestled in 120-acres of woodlands. It sits on land with a natural spring that feeds museum ponds. A series of trails, when complete, will meander around streams, plants and a sculpture garden.
"Many of the people who will visit may have never been to a major museum," said Houston, who previously worked as curator and co-director of New Orleans' Ogden Museum of Southern Art.
"We wanted to make it accessible to people with large, open spaces, have simple information about the art and for the museum to have a focus, which is the story of America."
Visitors first enter a pale blue gallery that holds two portraits of George Washington and examines the birth of the nation. Inaugural temporary exhibits include photogravures from an extensive collection of Edward Sheriff Curtis' photographs of Native Americans and the American West from the early 1900s.
As visitors emerge into the 19th-century galleries, they see a world transformed from rural to a gentile bourgeois lifestyle into gritty realism by the early 20th century.
The collection includes George Wesley Bellows' "Excavation at Night," which shows the darkness of industrialization and Norman Rockwell's "Rosie the Riveter," which created a new image of the American woman in 1943.
The post-War era collection includes abstract expressionism, pop art, minimalism, and New American realism. One of the most talked-about pieces is Andy Warhol's 1985 "Dolly Parton."
The museum is designed to appeal to a broad audience, seeking to attract anyone from Bentonville residents to schoolchildren from Arkansas and nearby Missouri and Oklahoma.
Admission is free, thanks to a $20 million grant from Wal-Mart, the world's largest private employer and retailer.
Little Rock mother Sylvia Blain said she can't wait to make the three-hour drive to show her two sons the museum.
"I am excited to have a collection of this magnitude and importance in Arkansas," Blain told Reuters. "It will allow my kids an opportunity to be exposed to a world of art they may not have had the opportunity to see otherwise."
More than 35,000 tickets are booked through January 2, museum marketing coordinator Alice Murphy said. Those numbers translate into millions of tourism dollars, said Kalene Griffith, head of Bentonville's Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"We've always been a global business destination because of Wal-Mart," Griffith said. "Now we will experience a rebirth as a tourism destination with more hotels, restaurants and small art galleries opening."
The city has been preparing for the museum since 2005, when Walton announced her project. That year, the museum made one of its first buys: Asher B. Durand's painting "Kindred Spirits," which it bought for more than $35 million in a sealed auction from the New York Public Library.
Many of the museum's works, Houston said, were in private collections and bought either at auction or from the seller directly. Other pieces have been acquired from museum and university collections.
Artist James Hayes, who owns an art glass company in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, said the state was fortunate that Walton, who has collected art for years, had the vision and means to bring a world-class facility to the state.
"No longer will people in our area be forced to travel to a large city, or out of the country, to see a masterpiece," he said.
Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Cynthia Johnston