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Walton Arts Center

The Walton Arts Center on famed Dickson Street in Fayetteville (Washington County) has been called a unique facility not only for its wealth of arts programs usually found in a much larger metropolitan area but because of the circumstances of its creation. A shared vision, sense of community, and a willingness to compromise led to a mutually beneficial union of public and private sectors.

In the 1980s, the Sam Walton family donated a $5 million gift toward construction of a performance space at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville for touring shows and other events. At the same time, the city of Fayetteville was considering a multiuse space to accommodate various groups, conferences, and special events. A tax on hotels, motels, and restaurants was approved by the voters of Fayetteville, with funds aimed at creating such a facility. With so much in common, a committee of university and community leaders was formed.

An agreement was reached, and a corner of Dickson Street at North School Avenue, about halfway between the campus and downtown Fayetteville, was selected for the site, a choice that helped in the revitalization of the Dickson Street entertainment district. The Walton Arts Center Council was officially formed in 1986 with the goal of constructing the arts center. It was Sam Walton who encouraged obtaining the “buy-in” of people and groups for the fundraising effort needed to complete the building. Sharing information with the community at in-home get-togethers instilled a sense of participation and excitement. More than $7 million dollars was raised in private funds. On April 26, 1992, the Walton Arts Center opened debt-free, and in September, the center hosted a gala performance by author, comedian, and talk show pioneer Steve Allen.

Today, it is a regional showplace and the centerpiece of a vibrant arts community. The Baum Walker Hall attracts touring Broadway shows that usually play much larger cities. The Starr Theatre is a versatile “black box”–type performance space that accommodates not only arts events but parties and receptions. Bradberry Amphitheater is a 2,000-square-foot outdoor space in a gardenlike setting where weddings and other festive events are often held. The Nadine Baum Studios and Just Off Center administration building allow more versatility, with paintings, pottery, quilts, and other artworks displayed throughout the center. More than 350 public events are held annually at the Walton Arts Center, with several often taking place in the various spaces simultaneously.

Financially, the Walton Arts Center is said to be Arkansas’s largest performing arts center, with an annual budget of $6 million. More than 140,000 people visit each year. The center also serves thirty area school districts with about 40,000 students. Several hundred volunteers donate thousands of hours each year; along with corporate sponsorships, such donations are a factor in keeping tickets reasonably priced. According to the Walton Arts Center, about half the cost of each ticket is generated by donations, sponsorships, and grants.

In this way, the people of northwest Arkansas and the entire region have been able to experience such world-class performers as Bill Cosby, Martina McBride, Marilyn Horne, Hal Holbrook, Marvin Hamlisch, Gregory Hines, Al Jarreau, Tony Bennett, and Lily Tomlin. The Walton Arts Center is home to the North Arkansas Symphony and a frequent stop for national touring shows such as Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, The King and I, Cats, My Fair Lady, and Chicago. Children and adults can take classes in everything from drawing and painting to bookbinding and Argentine tango. Each year, the four exhibit spaces in the complex house more than a dozen museum-quality art exhibits.

In December 2010, officials with the Walton Arts Center announced plans to expand the institution with new facilities in both Fayetteville and Bentonville (Benton County). Four years later, the city council approved changes to the governance of the center that made it no longer an agent of the city, transforming it into a regional entity. No plans for a Bentonville facility had been announced by 2016, when the Fayetteville center reopened after a $23 million expansion that took place in three phases.

For additional information:
Dungan, Tracie. “Walton Arts Center Plans New Facilities in Two Cities.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 2, 2010, pp. 1A, 9A.

Ryburn, Stacy. “Fayetteville Presents Expanded Arts Center.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 20, 2016, pp. 1A, 9A.

Walton Arts Center. (accessed March 15, 2005).

Nancy Hendricks

Arkansas State University

Last Updated 12/13/2016

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