Today's Paper Newsletters LEARNS Guide Obits Distribution Locations Public Notices Digital FAQ Razorback Sports Crime Puzzles Today's Photos

Building a cultural bridge

Walton Arts Center, Crystal Bridges Museum bookend arts growth by Becca Martin-Brown | March 26, 2017 at 12:00 a.m.
NWA Democrat-Gazette/BEN GOFF @NWABENGOFF A view overlooking 'Maman' by Louise Bourgeois in the courtyard March 12 at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.

Culture in Northwest Arkansas did not burst fully formed from the vestibule of the Walton Arts Center in 1992. It already existed in well-respected theater and music programs at the University of Arkansas; in community theaters in Springdale, Rogers, Siloam Springs and Fort Smith; and in history museums in Springdale and Rogers.

But no one could have anticipated the growth that was to come in the next quarter century.

Art organizations likely to bloom in area

Two things you can guarantee about the arts in Northwest Arkansas: Something new will always be on the horizon, and there will always be growth in unexpected places. The following organizations have some of the most growth in the near future.


What opened to the public in 2006 as David Bogle’s private collection of American Indian history has become one of the must-see stops for visitors coming to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and a repository of both rare artifacts and living history.

“We’re known more internationally than we are in our own backyard,” says Charlotte Buchanan-Yale, director of the Museum of Native American History. “That’s why we’ve started trying to give everybody 15 minutes of ‘yes’ in our community.”

To her, that means welcoming people such as flutist John Two-Hawks for the Tipi Talks series, allowing people to ask questions about contemporary American Indian practices and issues, and bringing in performers such as Bobby Bridger to share the living history of the Native people.

“Our goal this year has been to really grow the museum and expand our community radius,” she says. “And we’ve doubled attendance. Fayetteville even knows we’re here!”


Jason Suel, Kris Stoker and Sabrina Veroczi formed ArkansasStaged three years ago with the goal to “create funny and absurd theater pieces with local artists they admired,” says theater artist Laura Shatkus, who took over the reins of the company when Stoker and Veroczi moved to Kansas City.

The company has amped up its performance schedule and is making a real name for itself in alternative theater in the area.

“[We’ve] evolved into a small collective of theater artists working to bring staged reading and experimental and experiential theater to life in unique spaces throughout Northwest Arkansas,” says Shatkus.

The company has performed at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville and the Fayetteville Underground. Their latest production was a reading of “Craving Gravy: Or Love in the Time of Cannibalism” by John Walch, the head of the playwriting program at the University of Arkansas, performed at 21C Museum Hotel.

The collaboration with the hotel has been so successful that the group is doing an entire season there. After a Jan. 20 opening, three productions will follow in May, August and October.

Artist’s Laboratory Theatre

Described as “community-centric, site-specific theater dedicated to expanding the audience’s role in live theater,” Artist’s Laboratory Theatre is the brainchild of Erika Wilhite.

Since its founding in 2010, ALT has shared the lives of the disenfranchised in Prison Stories, taken audiences into sheet forts and the alleys of Fayetteville, and most recently found its first permanent home at 1030 S. College Ave.

U.S. Marshals Museum

The U.S. Marshals Museum is raising the $58.6 million needed to build a 50,000-square-foot building on the south bank of the Arkansas River near downtown Fort Smith. The cost estimate includes preparation of exhibits; furniture, fixtures and equipment; a $4 million endowment; first-year operating costs; and contingencies.

The museum will consist of three permanent exhibit galleries, a temporary exhibit gallery, a Hall of Honor to recognize those killed in the line of duty and a National Learning Center.

Museum President Patrick Weeks announced in October that the museum would open Sept. 24, 2019, the 230th anniversary of the U.S. Marshals Service.


"I don't know if the Arts Center was the catalyst for what we have now, but it was certainly one of the catalytic things," says Bill Mitchell, the arts center's first chief executive. "I would have been one who would have said to you, 'This thing is going to spark interest, and it's going to grow,' but it's a wonderful surprise to me it's grown the way it has.

"You don't need to live in a bigger city if the arts scene is what you're looking for. We have it right here."

By popular demand

When Mitchell was hired away from the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in 1987, the idea of an arts center in downtown Fayetteville was still mostly a gleam in the eyes of city fathers and University of Arkansas administrators.

"They had decided on where they were going to build and had agreed on an architect," Mitchell remembers. "But there were a lot of doubters."

The chosen location was at the corner of West Avenue and Dickson Street, and the overwhelming reaction was, "I don't know why you'd build it down there. I don't go down there after dark."

At that time, Mitchell says, the UA was the "core of the arts scene, unless you were inclined to go regionally. Kathi and Harry [Blundell] had the Arts Center of the Ozarks going strong in Springdale, and Rogers Little Theatre was very active in those days. It wasn't Arkansas Public Theatre, but it was good theater -- the kind of thing people looked to because that's what was available."

Fort Smith Little Theatre, the Sager Creek Arts Center and symphonies in Fayetteville and Fort Smith also contributed to the underpinnings that nurtured the Walton Arts Center. But what Mitchell says launched the next 25 years was "a very hungry audience." He says lots of people already in the area desperately wanted growth and people moving into the area wanted and demanded more, and were willing to pay more.

Uvalde Lindsey, a Democrat representing District 4 in the Arkansas State Senate since 2013, is also a longtime community development consultant. He says support for the arts and other amenities considered "cultural" -- parks, trails, etc. -- all came out of the demand for the workforce required with the growth of Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt and other major regional employers. The push for the Walton Arts Center, he goes on to explain, happened about the same time major international growth occurred in those businesses, and "they began to understand the only way to continue to be as successful as they wanted to be was to be able to recruit and retain the best and brightest people in the fields they needed -- finance, commerce, trucking, retail. I think the arts were a centerpiece of that quality of life issue.

"Quality of life had to mean more than just having Beaver Lake and lots of trees and pretty good climate and all that kind of stuff," Lindsey says. "More than the natural beauty of Arkansas. You can only spend so many days at the lake or at Devil's Den. You've got to build your portfolio, so to speak."

Lindsey reminds that Northwest Arkansans were accustomed to going to "the big city" of Tulsa, Okla., to find touring theater productions at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center and art museums such as the Philbrook Museum of Art and the Gilcrease Museum, opening in 1977, 1939 and 1949 respectively.

"We are late blooming, but the concentration and the fervor of our leadership is every bit as strong as any place in the country to say, 'We are going to develop this region into a place second to none.' The target is constantly moving because the target of recruit and retain constantly moves," he says. "The community is changed forever by the people we attract here, and that diversity brings a myriad of ideas and thoughts about their interpretation of quality of life."

Diversity of ideas

Diversity is showcased by a relative newcomer to the theater scene and a significant reorganization at one of the original venues.

TheatreSquared, founded in 2006, unveiled plans in November 2016 for a 50,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility set to open during its 2019-2020 season.

It's a dream come true for the professional company, which has called the Walton Arts Center's Nadine Baum Studios home since its inception. TheatreSquared received a grant from the Walton Family Foundation's Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program to pay for the design for the corner of West and Spring streets in downtown Fayetteville. Internationally renowned and award-winning firm Marvel Architects and consultants CharcoalBlue were chosen from a field of about 70 candidates. The 50,000-square-foot building is expected to cost $31 million and will include two state-of-the-art theaters, a rehearsal space, administrative offices, education and community space, on-site workshops for scenery, props, costumes, eight guest artist apartments, outdoor terraces at three levels and a cafe/bar open daily.

"This is going to be one of the coolest places to hang out in downtown Fayetteville," says T2's Executive Director Martin Miller of the space he calls architecturally unique. "And we plan on having it open all day."

Meanwhile, in Springdale, the Arts Center of the Ozarks has seen a change in leadership and direction as it celebrates 50 years. Longtime Directors Harry and Kathi Blundell retired in 2016, and Jenni Taylor Swain, for many years vice president of programming at the Walton Arts Center, was named to steer the ACO into a new future.

Swain says the center has a leadership role in the renaissance of downtown Springdale.

"We need to have a voice not just for what ACO does but for the nature of the work we do in bringing community together -- that unifying potential the arts have," she says.

To that end, Swain sees the ACO as a producer -- creating its own theater and art offerings -- but also as a presenter, working with organizations such as Trike Theatre, the Latin Art Organization of Arkansas, Classical Edge Theatre, a Spanish language theater group and Artist Laboratory Theatre, with which ACO hosted La Gran Posada, a traditional re-creation of the night Mary and Joseph sought shelter from innkeepers prior to the birth of Jesus.

Swain says ACO is becoming "more of a place where people can explore and experiment and participate in the arts, almost more like a community center. And definitely much more multicultural."

Visual arts

While the performing arts were bursting out all over, the visual arts remained almost invisible for many years. The Joy Pratt Markham Gallery at the Walton Arts Center hosted rotating shows and smaller shows often were on display in the lobby. The cases outside University Theatre on campus displayed student art projects, and other exhibits stopped at the Fine Arts Center Gallery.

As for museums, Northwest Arkansas had the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in Springdale, opened in 1968, and the Rogers Historical Museum, opened in 1974. Both still enjoy vibrant health in 2017.

The Shiloh Museum is in the process of completely renovating its exhibit halls, a task that will be finished before its 50th anniversary celebration in 2018. So will the renovation of the Shiloh Meeting Hall just around the corner from the Springdale museum. That structure will be 150 years old in 2021.

The Hailey Building, the former Morning News office, at 313 S. Second St. in Rogers will become the new home for the Rogers Historical Museum, says Director John Burroughs. He says the museum's available space will grow from 13,000 square feet to 29,000 square feet, allowing room for collections to grow and, more importantly, more room for exhibits and programming. He hopes to have a grand reopening in 2018.

But when the visual arts got attention, it was in a big way. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the brainchild of Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, opened Nov. 11, 2011, and in its first five years, more than 2.7 million people passed through its doors -- a number well beyond the estimated 200,000 to 300,000 visitors a year projected before the opening. Now, says deputy director Sandra Keiser Edwards, the goals are to foster inclusiveness and diversity with "programs and on-site accommodations for people with disabilities, English-language learners, displaying works by artists of all cultural backgrounds to broaden our understanding of the American experience, as well as convening artists, scholars and innovators to explore issues of identity, race, class, gender and the environment."

Edwards says Crystal Bridges leaders also want to increase access to educational experiences in art, continue to take art outdoors on the trails around the museum and expand the museum's footprint with the 2019 opening of a new space in a decommissioned Kraft cheese plant in downtown Bentonville, which will be transformed into an "innovative space with visual arts, music, theater, culinary and artist-in-residence programs."

"We are currently conducting a national search for executive leadership and hope to make a hire and unveil more exciting plans soon," she says. "While it's too early to announce our inaugural program season, we are very excited about presenting Nick Cave's immersive installation which is currently at Mass MoCA." Crystal Bridges visitors, she adds, already know Cave from his Soundsuits in the museum's collection.

Into the future

Just as Walton Arts Center was a catalyst for the arts 25 years ago, Edwards believes Crystal Bridges plays that role now.

"While the arts have always been a strength in our region, the volume of people from throughout the country 'discovering' Northwest Arkansas as an arts destination has been invaluable in shining a national and international spotlight on our unique resources," she says. "I have seen individuals and families become more committed to supporting quality arts experiences having personally experienced the transformational power of the art. Art is actively and confidently referenced in daily conversation; children are growing up with art as an integral part of their lives; and art is part of the definition of who we are as a community.

"Undeniably, art is a critical component of our quality of life. Practically, it is aiding recruitment and retention for our businesses, nonprofits, and the service sector," she says. "For years, Northwest Arkansas has been known as the place where the world comes to do business. Now, it is a destination for a memorable arts experience."

But Mitchell, the first Walton Arts Center CEO, sees potential for growth in what might be surprising places.

"Of course, I have no crystal ball, but I think we're going to see more 'cultural in-fill'" geographically and topically, he says. "People who come here today don't think they live in Fayetteville, Springdale, Lowell, Rogers, Bentonville. They don't see those boundaries the way we did 30 years ago.

"Through the arts, we have built a tremendous cultural bridge between all the parts that are now Northwest Arkansas. Now, it's time for smaller venues -- maybe for profit -- to fill in the spaces between what used to be the cities we lived in -- clubs to go have a drink and hear a good band, alternative ways of experiencing music and experimental theater, smaller venues where you can take more risks.

"When that's happened, there will probably be another growth spurt. There are lots of things we still don't have here."

NW News on 03/26/2017

Print Headline: Building a cultural bridge


Sponsor Content