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Walton Arts Center declines to host drag performances for youth during NWA pride fest; events to move to Town Center

by Stacy Ryburn | May 10, 2023 at 1:54 p.m.
Taylor Madison Monroe (from left), 2018 Miss Gay Arkansas America first alternate, visits with Elisabella Brown, 5, of Fayetteville and Caroline Bairds, 4, of Maumelle on June 18, 2022, at the 2022 Northwest Arkansas Pride Weekend in the Walton Arts Center parking lot in Fayetteville. NWA Equality said in a news release Wednesday that the Walton Arts Center has declined to serve as a venue for any drag performances where youth are permitted to attend, and that the festival's youth programs will happen at the Fayetteville Town Center instead. (File photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/Hank Layton)

FAYETTEVILLE — The Walton Arts Center declined to host any drag performances in which minors are permitted to attend during this year’s Northwest Arkansas Pride Festival and Parade, according to a news release from Northwest Arkansas Equality.

The festival’s youth zone will take place at the Fayetteville Town Center instead.

The Walton Arts Center has partnered with the festival for nearly two decades. Since 2018, the center has served as a venue for youth and family programming, including resource fairs, drag story time and drag shows for teens, according to the release.

The nonprofit NWA Equality, which organizes the festival, “takes great care to create age-appropriate content during this event, often in partnership with youth organizations and educators,” the release says.

NWA Equality asked to book the Walton Arts Center for the same type of programming as it had in previous years. Peter Lane, Walton Arts Center president and chief executive officer, told the nonprofit “that drag performances where minors are permitted are no longer allowed in their facilities” during pride weekend, scheduled June 24, according to the release.

“No law or Walton Arts Center written policy prevents NWA Equality from hosting its full range of NWA Pride programming at this venue, including drag performances attended by youth,” the release says.

The city owns the Walton Arts Center, but its operation is governed by an independent board. The city also owns the Fayetteville Town Center, but it is operated by the city’s tourism bureau, Experience Fayetteville, which is governed by the city’s Advertising and Promotion Commission.

Drag is a performance medium the Walton Arts Center recognizes and presents on its stages regularly, and that will not change, according to a statement from Jennifer Wilson, the center’s public relations director.

The center celebrates diversity on and off its stages and is open to hosting pride events this year, except for drag story time for minors and drag performances by adults specifically for minors, she said.

“Our decision was made in the interest of safety concerns for performers, patrons and staff due to the divisive political rhetoric at this time,” Wilson said. “NWA Equality chose to move all of their events from Walton Arts Center.”

The festival’s youth zone will be held at the Town Center 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 24.

Molly Rawn, chief executive officer of Experience Fayetteville, said the organization is happy to host NWA Equality’s youth events at the Town Center.

“We look forward to making sure they have a safe and successful pride event,” she said.

The state Legislature this session passed Senate Bill 43, which originally sought to consider drag performances as “adult-oriented” under state law. The bill was amended to define an “adult-oriented” performance as one “intended to appeal to the prurient interest” that includes some form of nudity or sexual activity. The adopted law makes no mention of drag performances.

Richard Gathright, director of NWA Equality, said he was told by Walton Arts Center leadership that declining to host drag performances in which minors are permitted to attend was a political and business decision. Gathright said he met with Lane, some board members and executive staff last week to come to a resolution. Neither side backed down, although there appeared to be some dissent among Walton Arts Center board members, he said.

“It seemed that this was an executive decision, not necessarily a board decision,” Gathright said.

The relationship between NWA Equality and the Walton Arts Center is “paused” this year, Gathright said. It’s possible the nonprofit and the center may continue its partnership in future years, he said.

“There would have to be a pretty significant shift in executive leadership’s thinking on this matter,” Gathright said. “This is not an annulment of our relationship. We’re just going to have to pause it until they can be a better ally for us.”

Print Headline: Arts center declines to host pride fest youth events


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