February 24, 2020
by Liddy Berman
“My husband Tom [Walton], brother-in-law Steuart [Walton], and I spent a lot of time talking about the difference between a traditional museum and what we wanted the Momentary to be,” explains Olivia Walton, chairperson of Bentonville’s newest arts space. “We said that if a traditional museum puts something on a pedestal in a vault, and is built around a permanent collection, we wanted to do something new.” They ultimately chose to eschew the traditional museum model and instead focus on programming and events, offering visitors a timely, new experience every time.
To realize their vision, a 63,000-square-foot former Kraft plant was transformed by the Waltons and Wheeler Kearns Architects into a flexible, retro-futuristic industrial arts space that can accommodate everything from traditional visual art exhibitions to avant-garde performances to food festivals. Preserving the original character of the building was a priority to the Waltons. “We wanted to keep as much as possible,” Olivia says, “chipping paint, old pipes, uneven floors.”
Lead project architect Calli Verkamp of Wheeler Kearns Architects developed a sustainable adaptive reuse plan for the building that “tried to maintain as much of the existing building and its character as possible,” she notes. “It was very selective in terms of demolition, very specific in which walls we were keeping and which pipes we were keeping.” The aforementioned pipes spiral across ceilings and span the height of the building’s 70-foot tall Tower in a Piranesi-like grid of repeating structures, clean and geometrically dazzling in a fresh coat of white paint. “You might not believe it,” adds Olivia, “but what you’re seeing now is only 20 percent of what used to be there.”
The Tower also hosts the Tower Bar, offering panoramic views and a sharp ’60s modernist design. The Fermentation Hall has been restructured as a performance space, and former boiler rooms have found new life as studios for the Momentary’s artists-in-residence program. The gallery spaces, replete with high ceilings and carefully polished industrial details, offer a raw yet warm backdrop for art, framing complex installations with concrete and stripped-down columns. Much attention has been given to creating public spaces for the community.
“We converged around the idea of creating ‘a living room for the community,’” says Olivia. “A place that champions the role of contemporary art in everyday life. And a place where even people who aren’t that into art still want to come and hang out because we’ve got great music, live performances, a hip coffee bar, delicious food, coworking space, and a tower bar with amazing views.”
Further, a 50-foot tall, 13,000 square-foot outdoor canopy designed by Japanese company Taiyo will provide shade for locals and double as a concert venue. Extensive green spaces designed by Howell & Vancuren Landscape Architects will act as public parks as well as purify rainwater before channeling it into local ponds.
In addition to its dynamic program of events and performances, the Momentary just debuted its first exhibition, State of the Art 2020, highlighting artists working today from across the U.S. Jointly organized with sister museum Crystal Bridges, the show will occur every five years to provide new insights into the work of developing artistic talents.
In a world that increasingly celebrates and prioritizes experiential art—with long lines of viewers waiting in the cold for hours to spend 60 seconds in a new Yayoi Kusama Infinity Room or stare into Marina Abramović’s eyes across a table at MoMA—the Momentary’s focus on “the moment” resonates strongly. In seeking, as Olivia notes, “to offer visitors a new experience each time they come,” the Waltons have built a dynamic and adaptable space that engages its audience across multiple platforms and invites the public to make contemporary art a part of their daily lives.
A massive neon installation reading “You Belong Here” by artist Tavares Strachan runs across the former plant. “It is exactly the message we want to share with our community,” says Olivia of the monumental piece. “What better way than with a 70-foot-wide, 25-foot-tall hot pink neon sculpture? It perfectly sums up our mission of welcoming all.”