Northwest Arkansas today is a welcoming home to a diverse and world-class group of international creators—a place where musicians, artists, sculptors, actors and inventors have all found space to share their work.
But flash back 30 years, and it was a place in search of its creative footing. The region’s rich cultural heritage was comprised primarily of individual artists, craftspeople and makers.
"The artistic life of the region prior to the Walton Arts Center primarily consisted of a few community theatre and university projects and a combined community/university orchestra. That was about it," recalls Bill Mitchell, the center's first CEO.
When he arrived in Fayetteville in 1987, after being recruited from the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Bill met a determined Helen Walton. She was tired, she said, of taking her family to the orchestra at the University of Arkansas’ old men’s gym.
Soon, a unique partnership between the University of Arkansas and the City of Fayetteville would take root. Under the joint leadership of the city and university, the project proceeded. Helen Walton and fellow symphony fan Billie Jo Starr were frequent fixtures at the construction site. The women were among the major donors who helped take the Walton Arts Center from vision to reality.
Over the next five years, with this substantial community effort, the Walton Arts Center would rise and become the first major arts and cultural institution in the region.
The original 1,200-seat hall opened its doors on a once-neglected stretch of Fayetteville’s Dickson Street in 1992. "Our mandate from day one was to bring art and artists to Northwest Arkansas that had not been available to the community," said Bill.
Through the early ‘90s, the center built its presence on the national stage, hosting world-class performers from Yo-Yo Ma to the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. For Bill, it was a performance at the Walton Arts Center by the Kansas City Symphony that proved a turning point.
"When you’re building something that doesn’t exist, you hope you are creating the right environment,” said Bill of the hall’s construction. “At one point during the KC Symphony Orchestra’s performance, it became clear that the acoustics were pristine. That was when I thought ‘OK, we got sound.’ It was a feeling that we had really arrived.”
Another goal was to incorporate the center into the artistic education of the region's schoolchildren.
"I remember Helen telling me that once we got children through the front door, we know we will have made it," said Bill.
Even today, for many children in Northwest Arkansas, a performance at the Walton Arts Center marks their first theatre experience.
“It’s really gratifying for me to hear a young person say they remember coming to the WAC as a child,” says Peter Lane, the center’s current CEO. “We want to make sure every child has an opportunity to enjoy the performing arts.” As for Helen Walton’s early metric of success? Northwest Arkansas is home to 60,000 children in grades K-5. Roughly half engage with the center annually, Peter says.
This commitment to access and inclusion extends to every resident of the region. The center’s 10x10 Arts Series allows access to 10 performances throughout the season for just $10 a show. And, Trail Mix lets residents and visitors alike enjoy free performances while strolling local trails in both Bentonville and Fayetteville, encountering artists and musicians along the way. In partnership with artistic affiliate Trike Theatre, the center also is bringing the arts into classrooms, traveling to all 75 counties in the state teaching Arkansas history through the arts.
The center also acts as an incubator of talent, helping individuals and projects evolve and expand. One prime example: Local company TheatreSquared had its home for nearly a decade in the center and is now moving out to its own 51-500-square-foot performance arts space on the much-revived Dickson Street.
Today, the Walton Arts Center has become one of the largest and busiest arts presenters in the Mid-South, and one of only 60 performing art centers in the country doing full-week Broadway runs. “In a community of half a million, we mailed out 380,000 tickets last year,” says Peter.
In 2016, the center underwent a $23 million renovation and expansion that positioned it to present larger shows as well as host community events in a variety of new, flexible spaces.
Moving into the future, Peter defines the ongoing success of the center by its core values: relevance, inclusivity, sustainability and excellence. “We want to continue to deepen the experience for our patrons, and we try each day to make sure what we do is relevant to those in our community.”
Twenty-six years after its doors first opened, the center remains driven by a core belief that art can have a powerful impact on people's lives.
During that quarter century, the region has built upon this strong foundation, most notably with the 2011 opening of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art to the region’s north, alongside The Scott Family Amazeum and TheatreSquared to name a few. An emerging group of grassroots arts organizations, such as the Latinx Theatre Project and Artists Laboratory Theatre, are also gaining notice.
Yet even as the offerings in the area have expanded, the Walton Arts Center stands as an original and steadfast anchor for all those in Northwest Arkansas who find inspiration through the arts.