About / Mission and Organizational History
Walton Arts Center brings great performing artists and entertainers from around the world to Northwest Arkansas, connecting and engaging people through inspiring arts experiences.
Walton Arts Center is truly a unique facility. The diversity of programming, the scale of touring productions and the variety of arts opportunities are unparalleled anywhere in the state. Walton Arts Center is the product of an unusual partnership between public and private sectors. In 1992, negotiations, compromise and a shared vision yielded a facility that has changed and enriched the cultural life of Northwest Arkansas.
In the late 1980's the University of Arkansas began to explore the idea of building a performing arts center. The Walton Family had given a major gift to be used for the building of an auditorium that would accommodate major touring shows, other performing arts opportunities and the Wal-Mart shareholder's meeting. The exploratory committee for the university was considering an auditorium with approximately 2,000 seats.
At the same time, the City of Fayetteville was discussing the idea of a multi-use community arts facility. The North Arkansas Symphony was performing in the Baptist Church and gymnasium facilities. Community theater groups were also searching for spaces to perform. Meanwhile, the original HMR tax, which had been levied years earlier, was earmarked to build a community arts center.
As both entities explored their options, it became apparent there was potential to work together. Leaders from both sides, including UA chancellors Willard Gatewood, followed by Dan Ferritor, as well as Fayetteville City Board member Frank Sharp and other community leaders formed a joint City/University exploratory committee.
As ground was broken on the project, it became apparent that the available funds would not be enough to complete the facility. Dan Ferritor, UA Chancellor at the time, recalls, "Basically, we designed a building we couldn't pay for. We knew we needed to start looking at additional funding options." Under the leadership of Bill Mitchell and community member Billie Starr, a champion of the facility, a fundraising consultant was hired and a plan was set out to launch a regional fundraising drive.
Billie Starr remembers, "Sam Walton really encouraged us to get a lot of different people involved in the project. We began hosting in-home community parties. The host would invite their friends and we would come and bring the model and share the vision. We were not directly asking for money, we were sharing information. Later we made the follow up calls."
In the end, over 7 million dollars was raised from the private sector allowing Walton Arts Center to open, debt free, on April 26, 1992. The story is one of compromise, vision and leadership, resulting in a facility that enriches our community and helps to make Northwest Arkansas such an incredible place to live.
Bernie Madison, former Dean of the Fulbright College and one of the university representatives to the joint City/University committee recalls, "There were two different views (about the vision for the Center)…one from the university of a large capacity performing arts center and one from the city of a multi-purpose community arts center." The conversations began with the vision.
Andy Gibbs, UA Drama faculty member, also served on the initial committee. "There were really three major issues that we had to agree upon before we could proceed," said Gibbs. "First, could the entities work together, second, could we find an acceptable site, and third, could we agree upon the size of the auditorium." Ultimately, the answer to all of those questions was "yes."
The University of Arkansas and the City of Fayetteville formed an Interlocal Agreement and proceeded with plans for the arts center. Compromises were made on both sides. The site of the center on Dickson Street represented a compromise, but also a win for both parties with the ultimate revitalization of the Dickson Street area. The size of the hall (1200 seats) was also an acceptable compromise.
In 1986, the first Walton Arts Center Council was formed. Made up of three university appointees and three city representatives, this group was charged with building the arts center. In late 1987, they hired Bill Mitchell as the first Executive Director. The entities each brought a sum of money to the table, totaling about 9 million dollars. Wisely, 3 million was set-aside in an endowment that allowed for operations, including the hiring of staff and consultants.
Walton Arts Center opened amid much fanfare in 1992, and since then has continued to grow and serve the Northwest Arkansas community by bringing great performing artists and entertainers from around the world to the region. Now in its 19th year, the Center is known as Arkansas' premier center for the performing arts and entertainment, featuring a full season of week-long Broadway shows, a jazz series, kids and family programming, dance, music and theatrical performances, spring and summer performing arts-based camps, the summer AWE (Arts with Education) teacher's professional development Institute, plus a host of community based events, including productions by the University of Arkansas and TheatreSquared. Walton Arts Center has entered into a partnership with the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas to revive the local professional symphony, while also expanding concerts and events at the University of Arkansas' Bud Walton and Barn Hill Arenas. In mid-February 2011, Walton Arts Center purchased The AMP at Northwest Arkansas Mall.
Walton Arts Center will celebrate its 20th Anniversary Season during the 2011-12 season. For more on future plans to expand Walton Arts Center's reach and scope, visit the Future Plans page.