Downtown Bentonville to get new performing arts venue for Crystal Bridges

by Kim Souza ( 290 views 

The former Kraft cheese plant in downtown Bentonville that will become a visual and performing arts venue for Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has solicited the help of the Walton Family Foundation and Tom and Steuart Walton to transform the former Kraft cheese factory in downtown Bentonville into a center for the visual and performing arts. Redevelopment of the this 63,000 square-foot venue will also carry the Crystal Bridges brand.

Located just 1.5 miles from Crystal Bridges, the new satellite venue (507 S.E. E St.) will feature space for visual art exhibition as well as be a performance site for music, film, and theatre productions – giving Bentonville its first and only downtown theater.

“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,” said 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.”

Bentonville city planners told Talk Business & Politics that no redevelopment plans have been submitted to the city for approval. They said the Kraft building lies in the city’s market district which was created about three years ago and slated for redevelopment.

“We are for fortunate that this dark windowed, out-of-use building dormant since 2012 will be getting a vibrant new use. A shuttered cheese factory turned performing arts center is the poster child for redevelopment,” said Bentonville Mayor Bob McCaslin. “We have seen Crystal Bridges emerge internationally into a widely recognized entity in a short period of time. This new venue will help drive more people to this visual arts destination. … Everybody wins.”

The mayor also said the upcoming Bentonville Film Festival, slated for May 3-8 has been looking for three years for a downtown venue that would allow their vision to take place for the public. While this new visual arts center redevelopment is at least two years in the making, McCaslin said it will give the festival more options in the future.

The new Crystal Bridges project will be supported financially by the Walton Family Foundation as part of its efforts to enhance quality of life in Northwest Arkansas, which is also supports the foundation’s core mission to make art accessible in the heartland of America. Walton heirs Tom and Steuart Walton, who recently developed the new Midtown retail center just off the square in downtown Bentonville, are front and center in this effort to support the arts. 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. They also spearheaded the efforts for the Razorback Greenway trails that connects the regions for bikers and pedestrians.

“Our family is committed to giving back to the place where we grew up,” said Steuart Walton. “Surrounded by urban trails and new culinary offerings, this experimental concept will complement our work in Northwest Arkansas – raising the quality of life for all residents, especially the millennial generation.”

The brothers selected Chicago-based Wheeler Kearns Architects for redevelopment design. The firm said 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.” The building dates back to the 1940s and the plan involves maintaining the buildings industrial feel and features while also designing spaces for maximum flexibility and use.

“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.”

Crystal Bridges also said in developing programming for this new art space it will work with the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, one of the largest centers for contemporary visual and performing arts in the country. Crystal Bridges Chief Engagement Officer Niki Stewart said the work at the Massachusetts Museum is inspiring

“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,” Stewart said.