The Momentary opened to great fanfare in February 2020 in Bentonville, celebrating itself as the relaxed “living room” contemporary art satellite museum of the famed Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
The museum was housed in a renovated 63,000-SF former cheese-processing plant and had a focus on visual and performance art, a restaurant, the 70-foot-high Tower Bar and studio space for artists. The first three weeks went swimmingly as the Momentary showed off its “State of the Art 2020” exhibit.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the Momentary had to shut its doors from March 16 to June 10.
“That was definitely an unexpected and unusual twist of fate, wasn’t it?” said Momentary Director Lieven Bertels.
Closing was a temporary fate shared by Crystal Bridges. Both museums reopened in the summer with capacity restrictions, but they sustained significant hits to their attendance numbers; in Crystal Bridges’ case, visits dropped in half.
For the Momentary, the attendance hit was theoretical since it had no history to compare with. Bertels said the museum conservatively projected 150,000 guests for the first year so the actual attendance of 91,000 represents approximately a 40% shortfall.
The Momentary was years in the planning and the opening date of Feb. 22, 2020, was selected as a nod to Crystal Bridges’ opening date of Nov. 11, 2011. Crystal Bridges proved hugely popular from the first day, a trend that continued until the pandemic, and there is little reason to believe it won’t resume its popularity when the pandemic subsides.
For Bertels and the Momentary, the hope was the museum would strike a similar chord with its interactive and laid-back nature and contemporary art flavor. Bertels is optimistic that whatever setback the Momentary has been dealt, it is indeed going to be temporary.
“In a way we counted ourselves very lucky that we got to open in the first place because we picked that date many years prior,” Bertels said. “There was certainly a damper or a delay on it, and I think that won’t come back to its full momentum until September. We hope that in early fall we will be able to have in-person live events like music and festivals again.”
Bertels said he has heard the trend word “pivot” so often in 2020 that he hopes to never hear it again in his lifetime.
But the fact is museums, just like any other business or gathering place, have had to adjust the way they do business because of the safety guidelines and consumer behavior changes wrought by the pandemic. For the Momentary and Crystal Bridges, that meant closing their doors for several months, reopening for smaller crowds and reinventing how they present art to the public.
Crystal Bridges invested in digital equipment and began virtual tours that patrons could enjoy from their homes. It offered video and audio guides, YouTube videos and artist workshops held over Zoom.
“We have lower capacity, which we’ve maintained through the whole period, but we shifted very much into the virtual space,” said Crystal Bridges Executive Director Rod Bigelow. “That has been really interesting to see how we have been able to connect not only with this community, but [it] also has allowed us to extend the reach across the country and even into international destinations.”
Bigelow said many of the changes Crystal Bridges made because of the pandemic will likely stick around post-pandemic. Giving virtual tours to schools, for example, is a great resource for those schools that might not have the time or finances to travel to Bentonville for in-person tours.
“Most of the things we have talked about on our team is to have a hybrid environment,” Bigelow said. “It doesn’t replace the in-person experience. There is nothing quite like coming to this space and seeing this architecture and being surrounded by the original objects. It is about augmenting it and providing access to people who just wouldn’t come.
“It gives us lots of opportunities that are beyond what we had before.”
The pandemic created totally new experiences for the museums. The museums teamed up to hold blood drives with 272 donors participating and put together food and sanitation kits for members of their local communities.
“Those were activities we could not have possibly have anticipated before the year started,” Bertels said. “That is the role of a contemporary art space, to listen to what the community needs and help address those needs.”
There were setbacks that were unavoidable.
Bigelow said he was excited about a Diego Rivera exhibit that was scheduled to be shown at Crystal Bridges between June and September of this year, but the pandemic caused that to be postponed. Because of the complicated scheduling involved with such high-profile exhibitions, the display will now be at Crystal Bridges in 2023.
“We have definitely had to juggle exhibitions out to the future,” Bigelow said. “We were originally going to have an amazing exhibition around Diego Rivera; luckily, we will still be able to host the exhibition. It has been very tricky to juggle and accommodate that.”
Crystal Bridges also had approximately 60,000 people view its outdoor “North Forest Lights” display. The Momentary had online events that were attended by more than 13,000 people in 2020.
The Momentary’s in-person experience was changed during the pandemic. Before it had several interactive exhibits, such as an interpretive dance team, but those had to be eliminated for safety reasons.
Bertels is looking forward to seeing how the contemporary artists that the Momentary highlights — such as Nick Cave with his recent exhibit about race relations and gun violence — tackle the pandemic through their art.
“Artists are very good at putting their finger to the pulse of society and expressing what sometimes we feel subconsciously but we cannot put into words,” Bertels said. “They can help us see more clearly. One thing that is obvious to us is that this pandemic has impacted different communities differently. We know that from the stats, but that is just numbers. There are people behind those numbers and artists can help bring those stories to life.”