In 2015, the Walton Family Foundation released the findings of its 2020 Home Region Plan. One of the report’s recommendations called for the creation of a central agency to connect Northwest Arkansas’ vibrant and growing arts ecosystem. In mid-July, the recommendation became a reality when the foundation announced the launch of a new regional arts service organization whose mission is to “expand access to arts, culture and heritage” in the region.

The foundation will provide start-up support to the new organization, which will be incubated at the Northwest Arkansas Council, a nonprofit organization co-founded by Sam Walton in 1990 working to advance job opportunities, talent recruitment, physical infrastructure and quality of life in the region.

The creation of the new entity suggests that the foundation and board member Alice Walton believe that the expansion of “access” across the region’s arts ecosystem requires organizational capacity and ongoing collaboration.

Commenting on the creation of the new organization, Karen Minkel, home region program director for the Walton Family Foundation, said, “We are committed to elevating and supporting every member of Northwest Arkansas’ arts and culture ecosystem. Whether they’re artists, community-based cultural groups or art institutions, this new organization will help ensure all these elements thrive.”

A Focus on Access

Alice Walton expounded on her vision of access a few years back when her Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art celebrated its five year anniversary. “I knew this museum was needed,” she said. “I grew up here and didn’t have access to art and I knew we wanted to change that. What I underestimated was how much people wanted to have access to that great art.”

Walton and her family have backed up this vision and support for local organizations with a string of impressive investments across the past few years. In 2016, the Walton Arts Center, located in Fayetteville and started in the 1980s with a donation from Sam Walton, completed an 18-month, $23 million renovation and expansion. The Walton Family Foundation allocated $5 million for the project.

A year later, Crystal Bridges announced plans to transform an idled Kraft cheese plant into a new arts space called The Momentary. The following September, Walmart announced a $2 million gift to the Momentary, earmarked for “access and innovation,” prompting Crystal Bridges to provide an update on its timeline and vision. “Access,” its press release read, “will come in the form of free general admission to all visitors. In addition, funds for innovation will go toward initiatives that align with the mission through festivals, major exhibitions, artist programs, culinary offerings, and more.” The Momentary will open to the public in early 2020, with a preview concert in the fall of 2019.

The same year, the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation made a historic $120 million gift to the University of Arkansas (UA) to create the first and only art school in the state. UA’s School of Art, to quote Margie Conrads, director of curatorial affairs for the museum, “beautifully aligns” with Crystal Bridges’ vision of access to and engagement with the arts.

And earlier this year, the Walton Family Foundation entered into a one-year partnership with Artspace to assess the arts community and market in Northwest Arkansas, including the availability of exhibition and performance space, in addition to studio area and affordable housing.

Walton-affiliated arts funders have also embraced the idea of access throughout the region. In 2017, the Windgate Charitable Foundation, which is primarily comprised of donations of Walmart stock, announced a $40 million gift to the University of Arkansas to create the new Windgate Art and Design District in south Fayetteville. In a familiar refrain, Robyn Horn, a Windgate board member, said she believes the district will provide the opportunity to engage the community with programming that is “free, open, and accessible to the public.”

A Commitment to Regional Institutions

While the Walton family is clearly committed to expanding access, the Walton Family Foundation also believes that a “growth at all cost” mentality doesn’t necessarily translate into long-term sustainability for the larger arts ecosystem.

In its strategic planning session for a 2020 plan, the foundation considered constructing a new arts center in Bentonville. On paper, the center would align with the Walton Family’s vision of access by providing yet another art venue for the region’s residents and tourists. Yet the foundation ultimately passed. The reason? The risk of regional arts fatigue.

Instead, the Walton Family Foundation cited four goals in its plan to establish Northwest Arkansas as a leader in arts and cultural amenities: Ensuring continued operations of regional anchor arts and culture organizations, increasing attendance and exposure to supported amenities, supporting a greater breadth of performing and visual arts opportunities, and increasing national recognition of the region’s arts and culture offerings.

As far as the first goal is concerned, a search of the Walton Family Foundation’s grants database reveals a litany of grants to regional arts organizations in 2018, including Bentonville’s Classical Edge Theatre Company and Fayetteville’s Theatre Squared, Inc., Symphony Orchestra of Northwest Arkansas, Artists Laboratory Theatre, and the Northwest Arkansas Community Creative Center.

Which brings me back to the new regional arts service organization. Its focus, according to the foundation, is to “build the system-wide capacity of the region’s arts and culture organizations through programming to support leadership development, regional communications, professional development, convenings, small-scale grants and advocacy. It will create a strategic plan to attract and retain practicing artists and cultural organizations of all sizes and disciplines.”

“This organization will be a key partner for the Northwest Arkansas arts community, and it was important to develop this vision through a thoughtful process,” said Joe Randel, Walton Family Foundation senior program officer. “Those steps included studying different models from around the country, ensuring the local arts community had a voice during the ideation process and taking the time to find a perfect fit for the leadership position.”

The new organization will be led by Allyson Esposito, the former senior director of arts and culture for The Boston Foundation. According to the Northwest Arkansas Council, Esposito’s first order of business will be to develop, articulate, and implement the new organization’s mission and work with a board of directors and regional stakeholders in a “robust strategic planning and community engagement process.” (She also needs to come up with a name for the new organization.)

Northwest Arkansas—and Beyond

While the launch of this new organization aligns with the Walton family’s desire to support Northwest Arkansas’ numerous arts organizations and with it, expand access in a sustainable way, it would be a mistake to view the development as solely a provincial affair. The Waltons are keen on exporting their vision of arts access and elevating Northwest Arkansas to the world stage.

Chancellor Joseph E. Steinmetz called the UA School of Art an “international hub for the study of art,” that intends to have an “immediate, resounding positive effect on the culture of our entire state, and its imprint will be seen across the nation and beyond.” In 2017, Alice launched Art Bridges, a nonprofit foundation to focus on sharing American art across the country through collaborations with museums and institutions. “We want to support partner institutions in expanding and deepening their connection with audiences,” Walton said at the time.

Similarly, according to the Walton Family Foundation, one of the goals of the new regional arts service organization is to “showcase Northwest Arkansas as a premier destination for the arts, with the goal of encouraging additional public support, cultural tourism and economic development.”

A recent study from SMU DataArts and commissioned by the Walton Family Foundation suggest the family’s cumulative efforts are beginning to pay dividends. The 18-page report finds that the region is becoming more competitive with other U.S. arts capitals, aided by the growth of “internationally recognized museums and other cultural amenities” like Crystal Bridges. The region has also substantially improved its rankings in arts education and “other museums,” as well as in the community-based, performing arts centers and theater sectors.

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