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A Regional Canvas for Art in Northwest Arkansas

February 24, 2017
Listening and learning that leads to diverse attractions

For almost three decades, the Walton Family Foundation has supported the work many of our partners are doing to make Northwest Arkansas a leader in arts and culture.

To truly be a collaborative partner, we are focusing on strengths and prioritizing projects residents identified as gaps in the region’s cultural ecosystem. We learn about these needs by conducting studies and taking action on findings. Our research revealed young professionals want a wider variety of options to choose from, and they want these options in a walkable downtown setting. We also learned the definition of a cultural experience is far broader for millennials.

How does this impact our grantmaking? We are capitalizing on opportunities identified by supporting a robust mix of cultural offerings set in vibrant downtowns across the region. It also means the foundation is not considering funding a new performing arts center in Bentonville or elsewhere in Northwest Arkansas within our current 2020 Strategic Plan.

We are building on art and cultural assets identified by underrepresented audiences by supporting culturally relevant programming that reflects the diversity of our region – a collaborative effort with local organizations. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art put a national spotlight on Northwest Arkansas and what the region has to offer residents. And in just five years, the museum has welcomed more than 2.9 million visitors. But in 2012, leaders at this institution also discovered a lack of balance in attendance between Hispanic audiences and other members of the community. They embarked on a mission to change this and worked hard to close this gap over three years.

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The cultural ecosystem continues to expand across the region. The Scott Family Amazeum has become a local favorite, with 430,000 children and families visiting within the first 18 months of its opening. The Rogers Historical Museum began the transformation of an adaptive reuse building that will soon house their collection in downtown Rogers. And the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville is starting an exciting second act with a newly renovated performing space that cements their role as a cultural mainstay in Northwest Arkansas.

Local organizations are also implementing work that will create a stronger cultural landscape in the future. Just last month, Brightwater, a new culinary institution, opened its doors in Bentonville’s Market District. This facility will help train a skilled workforce for Northwest Arkansas’ burgeoning culinary scene, while also helping expand it by inspiring the next generation of food entrepreneurs. Brightwater will feature programming that will give the community more access to the culinary arts.

]A key component in our regional approach is a new project that will start addressing the needs of our residents, particularly the younger generation. Last March, Crystal Bridges announced it will transform a former Kraft cheese plant in downtown Bentonville into a 63,000-square-foot contemporary art space for innovative art exhibitions, music, theater, film and artist-in-residence programs. This concept will offer a variety of options – all within one venue – set in a downtown environment.

After nearly 30 years of supporting arts and overall quality of life improvements in our home region, we understand it’s important to have a long-term vision and a plan to implement it. But it’s also critical to use the feedback received from the communities we serve to sharpen that vision as we achieve progress.

These lessons learned will help guide the foundation’s priorities over the next four years – diverse cultural offerings set in uniquely different downtowns across the entire region.

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