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Breaking Down ‘Artificial’ Barriers to Art and Artists

October 16, 2020
The Momentary's bold approach increases access to contemporary art in Northwest Arkansas

“We want to be a bridge across different forms of cultural experience and art forms,” says Lieven Bertels, director of the Momentary, in Bentonville, Arkansas.

“We wanted to stand out – to develop a very bold vision that is unique to the Heartland.”

Since opening in February, 2020, the Momentary has lived up to its ambition – adding a vibrant new element to Northwest Arkansas’ thriving and increasingly diverse arts and culture community.

Even as the coronavirus pandemic forced the Momentary team to reimagine how to serve audiences, the contemporary art space has earned national accolades for exhibitions and performances that are both provocative and accessible to a broad audience.

Visitors to the Momentary appreciate the Crystal Cloudscape, part of artist Nick Cave's Until exhibit.

Housed in a reimagined and renovated cheese factory, the Momentary is an inviting 63,000-square-foot cultural hub for today’s visual, performing and culinary arts. It includes dedicated performing arts spaces for music, theater, dance, film and festivals. The galleries provide extensive space to renowned contemporary artists such as Nick Cave, whose exhibition Until sprawls over 24,000 square feet and tackles issues from racism to gun violence. Communal areas like the Momentary Green provide room for everything from family picnics to community music festivals and outdoor arts installations. And the Momentary’s culinary experiences, such as the Tower Bar, feature creative culinary arts, from craft cocktails to inspired meals created from locally grown food.

The Icelandic electro-pop band FM Belfast performs at the Momentary.

For Lieven, this diversity of experiences makes different art forms more inviting and welcomes patrons to access art in new ways.

“Sometimes, the boundaries we place on art and art forms are artificial. Many people don't subscribe to just one art form. We're wired as humans to explore and experience different things,” he says. “We consume art and culture through different channels. You will have people that will visit a museum, but they will also go to a popular music festival.”

Lieven Bertels is executive director of the Momentary in Bentonville, Arkansas.

He adds, “if you create a physical space for all of that, you can organize a concert in the midst of a visual arts show. You can invite people to a bluegrass festival and then see some really inspiring contemporary visual art. You can have a world-class cocktail before you see some art. That mix really makes for a very appealing experience.”

Kinetic Spinner Forest, by Nick Cave, on exhibit at the Momentary.

This innovative approach is built into the Momentary’s DNA. It is a satellite of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which Alice Walton conceived as a world-class institution in the Heartland, where art was accessible to everyone. Similarly, the Momentary was founded by the Walton family, based on the vision of Steuart Walton and Olivia and Tom Walton to create a space for the entire community to converge.

The Walton Family Foundation’s support for the Momentary reflects one of its core values – of being bold in our belief about what’s possible. Boldness also informs the foundation’s broader strategy to establish Northwest Arkansas as a leader in inclusive arts and cultural experiences.

From community-based organizations like Latinx Theatre Project and Ra-Ve Cultural Foundation to larger institutions like TheatreSquared, the foundation is helping elevate artistic voices across a range of genres and settings, reflecting both the cultural traditions of the region and the creative diversity of its growing population.

The Momentary opened in February, 2020 in a renovated former cheese factory in downtown Bentonville, Arkansas.

“There are many ways to be bold or take risk,” observes Lieven. “But taking risk is something different than being reckless. When you take risks, you must also assess your ability to deliver on that risk.”

The Momentary, he says, strives to challenge audiences but in a way that unites. “Art brings people together. Art often challenges people, but in a way that doesn't divide,” Lieven says.

The Nick Cave exhibit offers a prime example.

“Nick says that he started this project with a very profound question: ‘Is there racism in heaven?’” Lieven says. “He addresses really timely, difficult topics, including racism and police brutality. But he does so in a very open, elegant and inviting way. This is, on the surface, extremely accessible art. It's colorful. It's sometimes even playful, but it doesn't shy away from very topical questions.”

Nick Cave's exhibition, Until, at the Momentary features this piece, titled Unarmed.

The Momentary also aims to be bold, Lieven says, in how it showcases nationally-renowned artists and performers while also serving and championing the local and regional arts communities. The first piece of art it commissioned was a piece titled Sway by Addie Roanhorse, a Native American artist from the Osage Nation in Oklahoma. The Momentary’s outdoor spaces host community festivals and smaller theater productions.

During the first months of the pandemic, the Momentary supported the local community by joining with Crystal Bridges to provide more than 150,000 meals to Northwest Arkansas food banks. It also helped distribute art kits to hospital patients and residents of assisted-living facilities and worked to increase internet access for students learning online.

“It was a major shift into uncharted territories for an art space, but a very good one. It was true community programming,” he says.

While still in its first year of operations – one challenged by COVID-19 – the Momentary has already become a prime destination for residents and visitors alike. A majority of its patrons, Lieven says, are under 44 years of age, but audiences span multiple generations and backgrounds.

Latinx musician Lila Downs performs at the Momentary.

Lieven recalls a concert the Momentary hosted by Grammy Award-winning Latinx artist Lila Downs.

“You had grandparents come with their children and grandchildren, some of them first-generation immigrants, all enjoying this artist together in a very informal setting. It was just such a beautiful thing,” he says.

“We see the Momentary being used, already, by different parts of the community, as a meeting place where the art can seem both optional and essential to the experience. People will meet for a coffee at Onyx Coffee Lab on-site and then go and see the Nick Cave exhibition together. Or stroll the grounds and discover some of our sculptures. That’s what makes me excited about the future.’

Rooted in Opportunity is a series of stories that focuses on the foundation's five core values. These are the stories that inspire us and give us hope.
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