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story.lead_photo.caption Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville announced plans Tuesday to convert the former Kraft cheese plant into space for contemporary art. The building is on East Street in downtown Bentonville. - Photo by Spencer Tirey

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville announced plans Tuesday to transform a defunct Kraft cheese plant in Bentonville into a venue for contemporary art exhibitions, artists' projects, music, theater and film.

The 63,000-square-foot space, southeast of downtown at 507 SE E St., is expected to open in 2018, Crystal Bridges officials said.

"This project is going to be huge for the younger generation, the millennials," said Tom Walton, 32, a nephew of Crystal Bridges' founder Alice Walton, in a telephone interview. He added that the hope is Bentonville will "become one of the hottest destinations in the country."

The project will be supported by the Walton Family Foundation as part of its efforts to enhance the quality of life in Northwest Arkansas, officials said. Steuart and Tom Walton -- grandsons of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and his wife, Helen -- are overseeing the development of the space in a 1940s-era factory building.

Crystal Bridges is home to a growing number of American artworks from the 19th and 20th centuries. And since its opening in 2011, it has had more than 2 million visitors.

Tom Walton, who is also developing a culinary center in downtown Bentonville, said the Kraft plant, which closed in 2012, helped shape the museum's thinking about the need for a place where it could do things it might not be able to on the site of its permanent collection.

He said that he thought of the industrial space as a "kind of living room for the community," where art, music, performance and food would be presented in unexpected ways. The site is being developed in consultation with the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and will be renovated by Wheeler Kearns Architects of Chicago to maintain its industrial feel.

Another impetus for the new space, officials said, was the museum's unusual 2014 exhibition, "State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now," in which two curators traveled extensively through the United States, visiting the studios and homes of thousands of little-known and emerging artists and eventually choosing the work of 102 as a kind of contemporary-art snapshot.

Chad Alligood, one of the exhibition's curators, said that it had provided Crystal Bridges with "a fantastic baseline" for experimenting. But it had also presented the museum with a problem: where to show much of the contemporary art it was seeing and sometimes acquiring.

"We're bursting at the seams here," Alligood said. "I looked all over the building and there was really nowhere to put it." But one of the benefits of Northwest Arkansas, he said, is that it is not dense, overpopulated or expensive like the urban centers where many art institutions crave more room. "In Bentonville, we are very fortunate to have the blessing of space."

Metro on 03/30/2016

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