IT’S JUST ABOUT 100 miles from Calli Verkamp’s map-dot hometown of Charleston, Arkansas, to the Momentary, the work site where she’s been spending most of her time these days. The trick is, it’s about 630 miles to her newly renovated condo in Chicago, where the Arkansas native serves as project architect at Wheeler Kearns Architects. Both of these facts play a key role in the resume that led her to become the lead architect at Bentonville’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s younger, hipper sister, set to open next month.

Working at Wheeler Kearns taught the University of Arkansas grad everything she knows about “adaptive reuse” projects for cultural institutions—that is to say, molding a new home for an arts center or a theater out of a place that never intended to be an arts center or a theater. But being an Arkansan? That taught her everything about what the Momentary truly needed to be.

Contemporary arts, whether in the form of installations or performances or visual exhibitions, can be off-putting, particularly for people not living in the coastal art hubs—folks who may not be used to encountering challenging work. Calli and her team knew, then, that the Momentary had to feel warm, welcoming and accessible—a far cry from what she first encountered when she walked into the 63,000-square-foot former Kraft plant, a brick-masonry relic that’s been a part of downtown Bentonville for 70 years but has been boarded up since 2012. “The spaces were pretty raw—a really industrial feeling,” Calli says on the phone from the Wheeler Kearns boardroom. “And dark. There weren’t a lot of windows, and the windows that were there had been boarded up. That’s one of the first things I noticed, just the opaqueness of the building.”

That’s the thing about adaptive reuse projects, though: They require architects—folks like Calli and her team—who can suss out the soul of a space in a way that you and I never could. When we Arkansans and international art hounds alike (this thing is a big deal, folks) walk into the Momentary on February 22, we’ll feel the Kraft-plant-ness that Calli first saw, but we’ll experience a space that’s morphed into something greater, something that’ll allow generations to cogitate and contemplate the art of the here and now in a place that doesn’t feel precious or pretentious. We’ll see light pouring through glass and steel—the new—but we’ll also see the concrete and bricks and pipes and drains that have been part of the building since 1947.

Because, as the Chicago-by-way-of-Arkansas architect knows, you’ve got to move forward, but you’ve got to keep a foot in the past, too.

On imagining what could be

“I think, as with any adaptive reuse project, you start by looking at the existing place. You’re not starting from scratch. That has to be part of the conversation from the very beginning—looking at spaces and thinking, Well, what could we do in here? It’s a different way of starting a project than it would be if it were new construction.”

On creating new from the old

“With any adaptive reuse project, it has constraints, but it also has a lot of opportunities. And I think it forces owners and architects to be more creative about how you’re going to program the spaces to do what you want to—how to reuse these spaces that were designed for something else entirely. I see it as a challenge, as an opportunity to be more creative.”

On the past v. the present

“We tried to keep as much of the existing materials as we could. We were only adding on very specifically and very purposefully for the new program. Where we added on, we wanted the new interventions to be up front that they were something that was new—we weren’t trying to mimic the old. That’s where we introduced the more contemporary materials like the steel, glass.

So instead of modifying the old walls, it’s creating difference in what’s new.”

On playing with the idea of what a museum should be

“A traditional art museum is rather intimidating and relies on a grand scale and monumentality. Just by taking contemporary art and putting it in this former plant that’s more of a human scale—I mean, that’s subversive in itself, and also makes it a much more casual and accessible experience.”

On Arkansas pride

“I knew this project would be great, no matter who was the designer, and I’m just so proud I was able to contribute, as it’s something my family’s going to be able to enjoy, my community is going to be able to enjoy—that’s something that makes me so proud.”

On landing the job

“When we were invited to submit our qualifications, I was thrilled. Crystal Bridges has had a tremendous impact on the local community, and I couldn’t believe I might have the chance not only to work in my home state, but to be part of something so transformative. WKA always assigns a team of at least three architects to every project, and that team is intentionally diverse and spanning age groups so that we can bring those important perspectives to every project. I was thrilled to be part of that team to be able to bring my perspective to the design process. Personally, I felt prepared for the project from a combination of my experience working on different project types and adaptive reuse projects. I had just completed an adaptive reuse project of an abandoned police station turned children’s theater when the Momentary project was starting up.” 

What’s on deck at the Momentary? In addition to their inaugural exhibition—State of the Art 2020, a follow-up to 2014’s State of the Art at Crystal Bridges—the contemporary arts space is throwing a three-day bash of dance, music and theater they’re calling Time Being, (Feb. 21-23). For more info, visit themomentary.org