Walton family turning former cheese factory into huge modern art gallery
by Larry Murray
Yesterday being April Fool’s Day, I didn’t dare post this story, since people might think it a spoof. But it’s not. Despite the potential for ridicule as “cheesy art”, the family that owns WalMart’s art museum, Crystal Bridges,in Bentonville, Arkansas, is planning to expand into a 63,000 sf former Kraft cheese factory, creating a downtown contemporary art museum. It will be modeled on MASS MoCA in North Adams, MA. Could it be that the company that single handedly destroyed most of America’s downtowns, is now out to corner the “cultural destination” market? In city after city in America, replacing declining factory and retail work with arts and culture has been viewed as one antidote to the loss of downtown vibrancy.
There is a parochial pride that MASS MoCA in North Adams is being seen as a successful model. WalMart knows retail, and wants to burnish its image and thus the creation of Crystal Bridges museum in Arkansas. That is the brainchild of Alice Walton, the youngest child of Sam Walton and one of the world’s wealthiest people, with an estimated worth of about $33 billion.
The Crystal Bridges March 30 news release bubbles over with enthusiasm.
“The work being done at MASS MoCA inspires us,” says Crystal Bridges Chief Engagement Officer Niki Stewart. “Our colleagues there have been an exceptional resource in brainstorming the possibilities for this space, and there’s incredible energy we look forward to incorporating as our plans develop.”
In developing programming for this new arts space, Crystal Bridges will collaborate with MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art), one of the largest centers for contemporary visual and performing arts in the country.
Joe Thompson excited
“This collaboration promises to bring complementary tools to each program,” says MASS MoCA Director Joe Thompson. “We are excited about the prospect of the team at Crystal Bridges becoming part of the constellation of institutions, artists, and foundations with whom we enjoy working to help make and show new art, enlivening our hometowns while we’re at it.“
The project will be supported by the Walton Family Foundation as part of its efforts to enhance quality of life in Northwest Arkansas. The development of this innovative arts venue is a continuation of the family’s commitment to make art accessible in the heartland of America, and continues in the vein of founding Crystal Bridges as a nonprofit charitable organization for all to enjoy.
The Walton Family Commits
Brothers Steuart and Tom Walton—sons of Jim and Lynne Walton and grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton and his wife, Helen—are spearheading the foundation’s support in the development of the arts venue. Both have served on Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s Board of Directors, cultivating their interest in American art in tandem with support for their hometown.
“With our support for this project, we envision a concept that will explore the unfolding story of contemporary American art,” says Tom Walton. “This engaging place of creativity will look at broader, current, and messier definitions of art that can inspire the next generation of artists and art patrons.”
The adapted facility will anchor downtown Bentonville’s Market District, bringing together a diverse range of artists to experiment, create, and connect with one another and the community.
The Project Itself
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art announces that it will begin development of an innovative visual art exhibition space, performance venues for music, film, and theatre, and multi-disciplinary artists-in-residence program to be housed within a freestanding building in downtown Bentonville. The project will involve adaptive reuse of a decommissioned Kraft Foods plant, located approximately 1.5 miles south of Crystal Bridges, into a vibrant facility engaged in exploring the visual and performing arts.
“This facility will further Crystal Bridges’ guiding principle of welcoming all to celebrate the American spirit, in this case by offering increased access to the art of our times and the artists creating it,” says Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art Executive Director Rod Bigelow. “While the museum features five centuries of American art, this new space will focus on today’s arts, artists, and the innovations of our time. It will provide a new venue for creativity and experimentation, as well as direct access to artists and their work.”
Adaptive Reuse expected to be completed by 2018
Crystal Bridges recently undertook an extensive exploration of current art and artists with the 2014-15 exhibition State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now. In developing the exhibition, museum curators met with some 1,000 artists in studio visits throughout the country, and ultimately selected 102 for inclusion in the exhibition, which garnered more than 170,000 visitors. “Art is being created all across America, every day, and State of the Art was our call to action to pay attention,” says Bigelow. “By creating a space in Bentonville for the continued investigation of art currently being created, we can engage the community in new dialogues, experiences, and opportunities. It gives our region specifically, and the nation at large, a destination for further exploration into what’s happening in American art.”
In 2012, Kraft Foods discontinued use of the 63,000-square-foot plant, which dates back to the 1940s. Architectural design of this adaptive reuse project has been awarded to Wheeler Kearns Architects, Chicago, Illinois. The firm‘s plan involves maintaining the building’s industrial feel and features, while designing spaces for maximum flexibility and use.
“We are honored to have been selected for what will be a transformational project for Bentonville and the region,” says Dan Wheeler, founding principal of Wheeler Kearns Architects. “The ambition of the project to embed and engage living American artists within a community, to celebrate the intersection of art and everyday life, is thrilling.”
Working with the architects, the Crystal Bridges project team will begin developing a comprehensive plan for the adaptive reuse design and construction, with an expected opening in 2018.