The Museum’s New Offsite Campus to be “An Everyday Living Room for Contemporary Art”
Lieven Bertels, a Belgian arts professional with global experience, made his first visit to Bentonville two and a half years ago. He had worked in the U.K. and the Netherlands and most recently directed an arts festival in Sydney, Australia. Now here he was, a little apprehensive but interviewing for a job in a place of which he’d had no clue. But something big was clearly about to happen, another cultural leap sparked by a deep-pockets investment in art. And Bertels found himself, after a mere six hours in this remote but increasingly active outpost, dialing up his wife via Skype and delivering the proverbial “honey, we’re moving” news.
Sure, maybe money talks at the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art, the highly ambitious and locally transformational showplace founded by the Walmart Waltons, the wealthiest family in America.
But what Bertels signed onto is an attractive, and to him irresistible, commitment to the arts of today. He’s director of the latest expansion effort at Crystal Bridges. The museum has built an offsite campus devoted to contemporary art and cross-disciplinary culture called the Momentary.
The project is scheduled to open to the public Feb. 22 near Southeast E and 8th streets. It’s barely more than a mile south of the Moshe Safdie-designed Crystal Bridges complex in a wooded valley near Bentonville’s downtown district. The Momentary will host two major art exhibits this year, including a huge installation by Kansas City Art Institute alum Nick Cave, and will offer as many as 80 other events involving a wide range of performing arts, education, and even food initiatives.
“One of the things that excited me, from that more international perspective,” Bertels told me during a recent interview, “was that it has the best of both worlds in making a meaningful difference through arts and culture. This is somewhat a malleable and very swiftly changing, very dynamic part of the U.S. It’s not stale, it’s moving.”
Bertels has the look of a youngish arts professional — black-framed glasses, untucked shirt, stylish, brimmed cap, and close-cropped beard with only a hint of gray. We talked in a construction trailer on an October day a few hours before a public, music-filled preview of the Momentary.
For context, he pointed to such prominent predecessors as the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 in New York and the Mass MOCA complex in western Massachusetts, each of which involved repurposing an existing building for a new life in the arts.
“Where we might lead the way is accessibility,” Bertels said, a reference to the Momentary’s plans for community engagement and wholly free admission.
“The way we speak about it is that it’s an everyday living room for contemporary art. People should feel they can come in without much knowledge of the subject. It’s not about what you knew before you walked in; it’s about the experience you’re about to have.”
The Next Generation Steps Up
The Momentary arrives at a time when art museums increasingly are undergoing generational transformations from the musty, insular, upper-crust (read: elitist) past into the inclusive, hyper-active, technological present. Think of the Nelson-Atkins Museum’s recent experiment in miniature golf, an art-inspired, family-friendly sequence of outdoor baubles.
At Crystal Bridges, the new initiative has been led by the next generation of Waltons.
Six years ago, Tom and Olivia Walton — he’s the son of banker Jim Walton and nephew of Crystal Bridges founder Alice Walton — walked into a recently shuttered Kraft food facility and, along with the stench of rotten cheese, out popped a vision of somehow putting art to work in a new way.
“They picked up the challenge for the next generation,” Bertels said, “to look at art making from the perspective of living artists and contemporary artists.”
As aunt Alice built a standout collection of American art and began taking Crystal Bridges in ever-widening directions, the younger Waltons polished their leadership credentials throughout Bentonville. Tom Walton and his brother Steuart led the drive to create a network of bicycle trails through woodlands near the museum. They’ve helped to jump-start an increasingly diverse food and beverage scene. Among other projects, Walton interests built the Eighth Street Market, housing a culinary school and retail spaces, conveniently across a green space now shared with the Momentary.
Olivia Walton, a former television news reporter for NBC with a background in business and history, chairs the new Momentary board. Her introductory message to several hundred visitors at the preview event last fall was less about the specifics of art and more about the welcoming “living room” quality of the Momentary and its opportunity to “gather, meet friends, kick back.”
In the Walmart culture of marketing, design and branding, the Momentary is coming on board with a sleek visual logo — an abstract capital M comprising three arrows. The arrows certainly exude confidence in the concept, along with a dose of millennial elan.
The project will be notable for its adaptive reuse of an industrial building. For the last two years, construction workers have been transforming the 70-year-old Kraft complex of four connected facilities into an array of ultra-modern, souped-up and generally open spaces, designed by the Chicago architecture firm of Wheeler Kearns. The young project architect, Calli Verkamp, just happened to be a recent graduate of the University of Arkansas. The scheme involves preserving some details of the building’s brawny history while promoting a mixing-bowl sense of its use.
Among the features are a 400-seat hall with a mechanically driven, flexible performance stage adaptable for anything from solo concerts to a thrust-format drama to a fashion-show runway. The 24,000-square-foot main gallery will include open kitchen facilities, and outdoor plazas will enable events and sculpture installations. There’ll be three studios for residencies — one each designed for two-dimensional artists, mixed-media and sculpture. Artists will be invited to participate, selected with an eye toward collaboration and spark. And, of course, in an atmosphere of kicking back, there’ll be a tower-topping cocktail bar with views of the region.
Except for the rooftop bar, perhaps, the Momentary plan seems similar to what the Charlotte Street Foundation envisions in its artist-oriented remake of a West Side warehouse in Kansas City. The emphasis at both is on community and collaboration in an environment meant to nurture creativity.
“A point of difference between the Momentary and a traditional museum is that we don’t want to silo different experiences in different corners of the building,” Bertels said. “It’s not like you have an entrance lobby and then you have a shop separately and then you have a gallery space, with a restaurant separate from the gallery. For us, it’s all about that mix.
“Our break room, which is the old cheese plant break room, where factory workers had their lunch, will also serve lunch, but it’s inside the gallery space.”
The Momentary’s opening exhibit, running about six months, will be “State of the Art 2020,” a reprise and update of a nation-spanning show that Crystal Bridges presented five years ago. Artists from all over the country have been corralled again in an effort to gauge what might have changed — hmm, just about everything? — on the topical landscape since the first “State of the Art.” The list includes Kansas City artists Jill Downen, Art Miller, Cory Imig and Hannah McBroom.
Opening Shows Include Nick Cave Project
Nick Cave’s involvement in the Momentary stems from Crystal Bridges’ co-sponsorship of his expansive “Until” installation. The sprawling show has been circling the globe for more than three years and will make its final touring stop at the Momentary beginning in July.
Cave was on hand here in October to help kick off the local promotion. With his catalytic works about race, history and community — from his wildly iconic and inspiring Soundsuits to the densely detailed imaginings of his installations — it seems a natural fit. His “Until,” as often happens, will aim to provoke responses by other artists and prompt numerous programs meant to refract and reflect on his themes.
As described in a recent “New York Times” profile, “Until” contemplates the weight of injustice — “innocent until proven guilty, guilty until proven innocent” — in “a sinister wonderland” comprising “miles of crystals, thousands of ceramic birds, 13 gilded pigs and a fiberglass crocodile covered in large marbles.” Cave’s crystal cloudscape subverts expectations with an array of cast-iron lawn jockeys holding dream catchers. The result is a “deeply unsettling vision of today’s America, land of injustice and consumer plenty, distracted from yet haunted by all of the things it would prefer not to see.”
Cave is a soft-spoken and unassuming advocate of his own body of activist-minded work.
“I’m a messenger first, artist second,” he said in our conversation. “I’m not caught up in the art world or what that may appear to be. I’m using art as a vehicle for change. It’s sort of my civic work, creating platforms for what is possible for other individuals.”
As an example, Cave and his partner, collaborator and business manager, Robert Faust, have launched programs in their Chicago storefront and studio building, called the Facility, that offers window space for invited artists and grants to young art students. It’s not unlike a project planned in Kansas City by other Chicagoans, the Zhou brothers, who envision turning the closed Crispus Attucks elementary school near 18th and Vine into a community art complex.
And it shares some of the connectivity DNA of the Momentary.
“A lot of artists are thinking about that, this sort of civic outreach,” Cave said. “What can they do with these amazing platforms that we find ourselves in. And what that does in terms of changing a neighborhood.”
And then there’s the business of art-making. For Cave, that means keeping track of as many as 40 or 50 projects in the works at one time. His installation for Kansas City’s Open Spaces in 2018, which filled a crumbling, unused church with a video experience on the legacy of slavery, was an astounding local success. The Nelson-Atkins also not long ago featured a smaller sculptural collage of objects on race and history.
Cave’s “Until” spans about 22,000 square feet, just about the entire Momentary gallery, with its operatic collection of figurines and other cultural bits repurposed to his message. If you’ve ever wondered where all that stuff comes from, he generously shared his process: As a concept develops, he said, he and Faust hop a plane to the west coast, rent a cargo van and travel back to Chicago, shopping at flea markets and antique malls along the way.
Cave’s installation at the Momentary will certainly become a draw for locals and art tourists in the region. And it can’t help but burnish the reputation of the Momentary and its parent museum. Officials already pride themselves on their attendance figures — upward of 600,000 people a year and fairly evenly split between those who live nearby and more distant visitors.
Bertels regards the Momentary’s role in the art-driven renaissance of Bentonville as an important stop along a trail that connects and strengthens the nation’s middle, from, say, Chicago to Kansas City to New Orleans:
“We think it just adds to that spine in the center of the country, where we can reinforce each other.”