Out of a Former Cheese Factory, The Momentary Fuels a Modernist Turn in Bentonville
Crystal Bridges’ new contemporary art space, courtesy of Chicago firm Wheeler Kearns, is the latest example of Northwest Arkansas’ cultural renaissance.
Bentonville looks a little different now than it did when Calli Verkamp was an architecture student at the nearby University of Arkansas.
Three years after she graduated, Verkamp, now a lead project architect at the Chicago-based firm Wheeler Kearns, was back in her home state, pitching a plan to convert an old cheese factory into Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s new contemporary art museum.
The Moshe Safdie–designed art museum, nestled into the lush hills of the Ozarks a mile and a half from the shuttered factory, first opened in 2011 and houses Walmart heiress Alice Walton’s massive collection of American art, one of the largest in the country.
In 2014, Crystal Bridges curators met with 1,000 working artists for a landmark survey of American art today, called State of the Art. After that exhibition closed, museum officials started planning the Momentary, a satellite space that would be dedicated entirely to contemporary American art, and commissioned Wheeler Kearns to develop a design.
When Verkamp saw the 63,000-square-foot decommissioned Kraft cheese factory that Crystal Bridges had bought for adaptive reuse, she saw brick masonry walls, quarry tile floors, boarded up windows, and hollow spaces where the machinery used to be.
“It felt dark and disconnected from the community around it,” she recalls. The factory, which opened in 1913 as a flour mill, shuttered in 2013, ending a long era of industrial production in this part of the city. Crystal Bridges’ opening had revitalized the once-dying downtown that Verkamp remembered from her college days, but she wanted the Momentary to celebrate the region’s proud industrial history.
That meant the intervention had to be as subtle and discreet as possible. “We wanted to transform the space without transforming the character,” she says. “But [the building] was never designed for people. It was designed for forklifts.”
Over the years, every time Kraft added onto the building, they used materials of the time, and in a way, the modern materials—steel, concrete and glass—used in the new spaces are carrying on that vernacular tradition. “Repurposing the standing structures allows the building’s history to continue to evolve,” she says.
Verkamp says she was able to keep most of the industrial quarry tile floors, with some key adjustments for accessibility and safety, and the design team selectively removed some walls to open up the gallery spaces. In those rooms, instead of covering the existing masonry, the team hung white drywall without touching the existing ceiling, floor, and walls. “It’s like a canvas itself,” she says.
The team designed a handful of new elements, including a glass-ceilinged entry that welcomes visitors and a glass-encased shipping container–sized gallery that juts off one corner of the now–retro futuristic building. But the most striking new addition is a 70-foot-tall tower, topped with a bar, with several mezzanine levels that can be used for performance, visual and culinary arts. The tower’s glass exterior is etched with a repeating arrow pattern from Osage artist Addie Roanhorse that pays homage to the land’s original inhabitants and is a detail found throughout the museum. (This was the Momentary’s first commissioned piece.)
The Momentary also includes three artist-in-residence studios and an auditorium in what was formerly the milk intake room that seats 350 people. Another theater space, called Fermentation Hall, seats 100 and takes advantage of the natural acoustics created by the high ceilings and precast concrete.
The museum opened officially on February 22, and the inaugural exhibition is Crystal Bridges’ second edition of State of the Art, which is on display at both sites through this summer. (The museums are currently closed through the end of the month, and officials haven’t said if they’ll extend the State of the Art exhibit.)
“Bentonville continues to evolve for the better,” Verkamp reflects on the new project’s relationship to its surroundings. “Even from the beginning of construction, the downtown district has changed. It’s an exciting time.”
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