by Max Brantley
The Walton Arts Center Board is supposed to announce plans for an expanded facility at 5 p.m. today. Will the site in Fayetteville grow? Or, in deference to Walton money and wishes, will it "expand" by building a new facility in Bentonville near the coming Crystal Bridges museum? The Waltons have said they wouldn't put any serious money in the Fayetteville location. They preferred Bentonville.
As I reminded somebody yesterday (after I unsuccessfully tried to use the FOI to wedge documents out of the Arts Center), the existing center is the product of an interlocal agreement and support from public entities, including the city of Fayetteville, which paid its share with tax money. And, uh oh, the Fayetteville city attorney, Kit Williams, has just tossed a stink bomb in the works.
Kit Williams issued a memo today stating that because of the manner in which Walton Arts Center was birthed, primarily due to the efforts of the University of Arkansas and the City of Fayetteville, the arts center “owes a continuing fiduciary duty” to maintain the facility in the best interests of its parents.
Williams said this means the Walton Arts Center is prohibited from building its primary arts center outside of Fayetteville.
The Waltons can hire lawyers, too, of course. But Williams' case that the center can't move and can't use its endowment outside Fayetteville sounds pretty persuasive on a reading of the documents attached to the Ozarks Unbound post. Check it out. The Waltons could just build their own arts center from the ground up in Bentonville, but the discount chain billionaires have generally found it more economical to rent to own, such as in the case of the state's major university.
UPDATE: Surprise! Surprise! Ozarks Unbound has seen the two staff recommendations for a new site — both mostly about Bentonville. One option envisions building strictly in Bentonville. The other, the Fayetteville Flyer says, would put a 2,200-seat facility in Bentonville and a 600-seat facility in Fayetteville. The Walton Arts Center has still not responded to my earlier FOI request for this document. The one with the Fayetteville sopwas recommended by the facilities committee and the full Walton Board rubberstamped it shortly after 5 p.m.
I knew all along this was wired. At 5:18 I got the full details on the Walton Center board's approval of a major expansion in Bentonville and the lesser expansion in Fayetteville, though in theory no such documents existed yesterday, this moring or this afternoon. Will this two-city approach satisfy legal questions? That remains to be seen. What is clear is that the Walton folks sneered at the FOI yesterday and today — no way to run a public agency, but typical of a Walton-controlled agency. News release follows:
Walton Arts Center Board of Directors today approved the Facilities Committee recommendation to pursue an expansion in Fayetteville and in Bentonville. The plan includes pursuing a 600 seat performance hall to be built in Fayetteville on or around the current Walton Arts Center campus and a 2200 seat theater to be built in or near downtown Bentonville. For more information on the expansion, visit http://www.waltonartscenter.org/new_expansion_plans/.
President and CEO Peter Lane said, “It's exciting to be a part of an expansion in both Fayetteville and Bentonville that can have such a positive impact on the region. This strategy helps to make performing arts and entertainment more accessible to people in Northwest Arkansas and lays the groundwork for future growth. Combined with our plans to expand the AMP at NWA Mall and work with the University of Arkansas to bring more concerts to Bud Walton Arena and Barn Hill Arena, this expansion will add over 30,000 new seats and has the potential for major economic and artistic impact throughout the region. It’s a win for Northwest Arkansas and a win for Walton Arts Center.” Lane adds, “Additional theaters will not only allow us to expand our arts and educational programs, but it will also help cultivate and support local arts organizations and the University of Arkansas by freeing up our existing theaters.”
In 2008 Walton Arts Center completed a feasibility study to assess expansion needs. The study confirmed that the current theater is 95% utilized to capacity and in order to expand programming and serve as Arkansas' premier center for the performing arts & entertainment, Walton Arts Center should explore building two additional theaters: a 600 seat space and a 2,200 + seat theater to add to our current complex. In February of 2010, the Board of Directors approved a list of 15 prioritized site selection criteria that created an objective platform to review potential sites. As of August 2, more than 25 site proposals were submitted from all over the region and the proposals have been evaluated against the criteria. Through this open and objective process, the Committee provided a recommendation that positions Walton Arts Center for the future, while also creating a regional strategy for arts expansion.
In the coming months, the staff will work closely with the Board of Directors, Facilities Committee, Fayetteville and Bentonville to discuss specific sites and identify organizational and funding needs for moving the projects forward.
Walton Arts Center is Arkansas' premier center for the performing arts and entertainment. Each year more than 140,000 people from Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma and beyond attend over 350 public events at Walton Arts Center, including performances, rehearsals, community gatherings, receptions, graduations and more. Approximately 20,000 students and teachers from 30 school districts participate annually in arts learning programs at Walton Arts Center, and over 300 volunteers donate more than 15,000 hours of time each year to its operations. Walton Arts Center presents entertainers and artists from around the world including Broadway musicals, renowned dance companies, international artists, up-and-coming jazz musicians and more. As a non-profit organization, Walton Arts Center enjoys the generous support of public sector funding, corporate sponsorship and private donors, allowing audience members to pay on average only 50% of the cost of programs offered. To learn more about Walton Arts Center, visit www.waltonartscenter.org.