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Another Walton art project for Bentonville 

This plant will grow art.

click to enlarge A PLACE FOR CONTEMPORARY ART: The unfinished look will complement experimental nature of exhibits.
  • A PLACE FOR CONTEMPORARY ART: The unfinished look will complement experimental nature of exhibits.

If you've been to MASS MoCA, the 110,000-square-foot visual and performing arts space in North Adams, Mass., you will have some idea of what is coming to Bentonville.

Right now, for example, MASS MoCA — the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art — is showing the "acid-hued" and neon-lit installation of pop artist Alex Da Corte, tile works by abstract artist Sarah Crowner, and the group show "Bibliothecaphilia," which asks, "What defines a library in the contemporary world?"

The experimental visual and performing arts space that will open in 2018 about a mile and a half south of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, just a few blocks south of the square, won't be as big as MASS MoCA, but it will share an aesthetic philosophy: Give artists some space and see what they do with it.

Tom and Steuart Walton are two young Walmart heirs behind this latest family effort to bring fine art to Bentonville (and heartland America), and they will consult with MASS MoCA on programming for the 63,000-square-foot former Kraft cheese factory. The empty factory, a huge industrial space, is divided into rooms according to their former cheese factory uses. Here, visual artists will be set loose to create installations inspired by the soaring ceilings or vast rooms or echoes or old tanks and tubes and pipes. There will be film, music, theater, dance and dining, a continuously changing schedule of events in a mercurial environment.

Like Crystal Bridges, founded by Tom and Steuart Walton's aunt, Alice Walton, the facility will be supported by the Walton Family Foundation and a "mix of funding sources, including possible sponsors and donors, community collaborations, memberships and more," Crystal Bridges public relations manager Beth Bobbitt said. She said it was too early to know what the total investment would be.

So far, the facility is just being referred to as "the plant," Crystal Bridges Chief Engagement Officer Niki Ciccotelli Stewart said. The Waltons will come up with a name that reflects the purpose of the building, she said.

Stewart squeezed in a tour with a reporter between meetings with representatives from Wheeler Kearns Architects of Chicago, who've been hired to turn the plant into an experimental arts venue.

Crystal Bridges' own mission has grown: First envisioned to include American art only up to the 1950s, the museum evolved to accommodate Alice Walton's interest in later 20th century work. In 2015, guided by former Director Don Bacigalupi, the museum curated the "State of the Art: Discovering American Art" exhibition of contemporary artists, which is now traveling. The new facility gives Crystal Bridges room to breathe.

Architects have made 3D computer images of the plant that include all details "down to every pipe," Stewart said. The Waltons' idea is to keep the building's industrial, unfinished look and make use of its fixtures — like tanks and drains and bricks and signage that says "Fermentation Room" — so that it "feels like a place where you could be making art and experimenting," Stewart said. "Our mantra is anything that might be interesting or inspiring to an artist of any kind we would like to preserve."

Kraft Foods built the plant in the 1940s and kept adding on to it, sort of the way caves grow in the karst landscape of Northwest Arkansas. It offers more space than its footprint of 63,000 square feet, Stewart noted; a second story could easily be incorporated into the building. Stewart compared the curves of Crystal Bridges, a glass and arching wood structure set around the stream that bisects 100 acres of ravine, to the "blocky" and mostly windowless concrete, brick and stainless steel buildings that make up the plant, with their exposed ammonia pipes, vats and vintage "torque-a-matic" doors and nary a tree in sight.

But Stewart, who is perfectly effervescent when she talks about potential in the plant (and says she now knows more about the making of cheese than she ever thought she would), looks into one space and sees a black box theater; into another room with an astounding reverberation and envisions experimental music. She is intrigued by the notion that a factory that once turned out thousands of identical blocks of cheese will celebrate the creative and iconoclastic instead. It is a perfect complement to Crystal Bridges, she said; Alice Walton's museum has too much natural light to show films midday and is too finished to be able to hang moveable spotlights or other ceiling fixtures. The ceiling of the plant already has tracks for winching heavy objects from room to room.

The community will be able to use the spaces for musical and other performances; the Bentonville Film Festival, which will use portable trailer/theaters when it opens this week, could perhaps make a home in the plant, Stewart said. It will be a place not just for fans of contemporary, sometimes mind-blowing, art, but families as well.

It's hard to visualize how the plant will be incorporated into Bentonville so that folks will find it — it's at 507 E. E St., with a neighborhood on one side and J Street on the other, and access from the square is on "wiggly streets," as Stewart put it. But we don't have to visualize it, because the Waltons already have: Part of the development will be to extend the "market district" — around the square — to the plant, with wider streets and new parking for visitors to the contemporary space. By 2018 (if work goes as planned), Bentonville's spruced up downtown — where Sam Walton opened his first 5 & 10 — will have undergone even more change.

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