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Two members say Walton Arts Center board never voted on decision to prohibit drag performances for youth

Members: Walton Arts Center board never voted on matter by Stacy Ryburn | May 12, 2023 at 6:00 a.m.
Representatives from the Walton Arts Center make their way down Dickson Street on June 26, 2021, during the 17th annual Northwest Arkansas Pride Festival and Parade in Fayetteville. Members say the Walton Arts Center board never voted on a decision to prohibit any drag performances in which minors would be allowed to attend at the center during this year's event. (File photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

FAYETTEVILLE -- The Walton Arts Center board never held a vote over the decision to prohibit drag performances for youth during this year's Northwest Arkansas Pride Festival and Parade, two members said Thursday.

NWA Equality, the nonprofit group behind the annual festival, said in a news release Wednesday it would move its youth zone to the Fayetteville Town Center. The Walton Arts Center since 2018 had served as a venue for youth and family programming at the event, including resource fairs, drag story time and drag shows for teens.

The Walton Arts Center board has 22 members, according to the city's website. The city appoints six members, the University of Arkansas appoints another six members and the remaining 11 members are appointed by the Walton Family Foundation. Twenty of the positions are filled, and two are vacant and accepting applications.

Two members, Casey Hamaker and Mervin Jebaraj, said Thursday the board never held a vote on the decision. Hamaker and Jebaraj were both appointed by the city.

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.

Richard Gathright, director of NWA Equality, said he spoke with Peter Lane, Walton Arts Center president and chief executive officer, on March 30. Gathright said Lane told him the Walton Arts Center would not host any kind of drag performance in which minors would be allowed to attend.

Gathright met May 2 with Lane, some executive staff and three board members -- Hamaker, Nate Hodne and Anne O'Leary-Kelly -- and neither side backed down from its original stance. Gathright said he felt there was some division among board members on the decision. The meeting was not a formal gathering of the Walton Arts Center board.

NWA Equality decided to hold its youth zone at the Fayetteville Town Center 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 24 instead.

Jennifer Wilson, public relations director for the Walton Arts Center, said Thursday that Lane wouldn't comment further on the matter and referred to the center's statement made Wednesday as a response.

Drag is a performance medium the Walton Arts Center recognizes and presents on its stages regularly, and that will not change, Wilson said in the statement.

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."

Gathright said NWA Equality is always mindful of safety and security during the festival and works extensively with Fayetteville police, who consult with the Federal Bureau of Investigation on any threats. The nonprofit also planned to ask the Walton Arts Center to set up metal detectors at entrances and have a higher police presence around the center in case of any incidents, he said.

Print Headline: Drag decision details discussed


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