The Walton Arts Center is already amazing, and over the next few decades they are going to become world-class. The WAC isn’t quite there yet, but the leaders at the WAC are visionary and capable. I think they know exactly how to pull it off.
They’re just not sure where they’ll do it yet.
What’s happening to the Center is pretty simple. People here are demanding more art. Sure, we want Broadway and opera and symphonies, but we also want comedy and local productions. It’s not just Fayetteville, the whole region patronizes and appreciates the Walton Arts Center, and most of us would like to see more programming.
Through expert advice, the Center has determined that it needs three new theatres, and not just any kind of theatres. The Center commissioned a study to determine what a successful expansion would look like, and they recommended these theatres. (Click the links to see examples of these theatres.)
- A large theatre – 2,200 seats with side tiers and a balcony: This theatre would have more dressing rooms and storage space than Baum Walker Hall. It’s size would attract new artists and organizations to Northwest Arkansas, and we might even get some some shows to set up residence.
- A theatre club – 600 seats with a flexible configuration: This theatre can be used for performances, meetings, banquets, cabaret, and other events. Imagine going to see a stand-up artist over drinks with friends, or hosting your next fundraiser over dinner with a professional stage to take the floor with.
- A black box theatre – 75-100 seats: This room would be close to infiinitely configurable. Seating is mobile and there is not permanent stage. This could host recitals, childrens’ performances, or plays in the center of the seating.
- View the layout of the theatres.
I knew the Arts Center wanted to do some cool stuff, but it wasn’t until I read this study that I realized what the new theatre spaces would mean for Northwest Arkansas. It doesn’t just mean bigger names
and a greater variety of shows, it means something much more than that. It means a CENTER for the arts. It means festivals and it means a boost to the economy and it means opportunities for students and citizens.
It’s going to be influential in a very big way, so it’s appropriate that the leaders of the WAC are being so diligent in their search for the perfect location.
The study looked at three locations to put the new theatres, and they evaluated those locations based on these criteria:
- Quantifiable: Site size; parking; infrastructure; visibility; views to and from the Center; existing and future neighbors
- Intangible: Synergy; experiential quality; historical continuity; achieving broader community goals.
- Financial: Cost of acquisition & construction; operating efficiency; fundraising opportunities; partnership potential.
The study emphasized that the WAC wants to be a part of the community, not just a destination for patrons to visit. Especially in that regard, each site has its strengths and weaknesses.
One of the sites considered was in Pinnacle Hills, and the study concluded that this site had easy freeway access and the potential for synergy with other activity in the vicinity. They also concluded that the future of the area is uncertain because its new, so there’s really no guarantee that the Arts Center will be able to become the magnificent jewel of Northwest Arkansas that the leaders envision.
It’s very wise to be cautious about the growth in this area, after all, one of the owners of the new mall there just went bankrupt.
Neighboring the Crystal Bridges Museum
The idea with this location is that the Museum and the Arts Center would form a cultural campus and become a national destination for art. There is the possibility for joint program and promotional activities, and that makes this spot pretty attractive.
Really, the only thing wrong with this location is that it lacks everything Fayetteville has.
Adjacent to the current WAC in Fayetteville
If there’s one thing better about the Crystal Bridges location (that being Crystal Bridges itself), there are four things the WAC gets at Fayetteville that it doesn’t get anywhere else.
- The existing campus. At each of the locations, all that would be built are the three new theatres (and all of the rooms that go along with them). But at the Fayetteville location, they’d be built alongside the existing campus. If the WAC stays in Fayetteville, it gets the benefit of using Nadine Baum Studios and Baum Walker Hall and all of the advantages that go along with having things close together.
- The University of Arkansas. One of the reasons the WAC should expand is because the University wants to use the Center more than it is available. Building the expansion in any of the other locations will make this relationship much harder to grow.
- An established sense of place. Maybe it’s just me, but it doesn’t seem like there’s much to do in the Pinnacle Hills or Crystal Bridges areas. Sure, at Pinnacle Hills you have shopping and at Crystal Bridges we’ll have art, but on Dickson St you get a multi-dimensional culture that is greater than the sum of its parts. This advantage is important to developing the Arts Centers’ brand.
- Views to and from the Center. This one may be a bit minor, but it’s listed in the study as being important. If you’ve done much walking in downtown Fayetteville, you’ve probably been awed by a view of Old Main in the distance next to the Walton Arts Center in the foreground. You probably have seen pictures or paintings of Dickson St and noted how the Walton Arts Center seems to frame the scene. Maybe you’ve stood on the campus hill and gazed downtown and been able to easily see the Center. In Fayetteville, the Center is an icon. Is it going to be an icon anywhere else?
What’s the catch?
Fayetteville may have a lot going for it, but the Center has real concerns about staying here, too. Namely: parking and space for shows. A Broadway show might have 27 big rigs to carry the production! It wouldn’t be too bad coordinating something like that now, but once we build three new theatres on the current WAC parking lot, things will get a bit more complicated. If Fayetteville wants to keep the WAC, it’s our job to figure out a solution.
Luckily, I think the solutions are there for us, and it’s time to put up or shut up. It’s time to bring forward a proposal to the WAC to keep them there, else we may never have a point of discussion to start with.
First, Grubs and the parking lot south of it have got to go. We need more parking downtown, and especially if we build three new theatres in the current WAC parking lot. We need to build a parking deck there that is obscured from West St by retail stores and apartments/condos.
That still leaves the issue of where to keep 27 tractor trailers when a big show comes to town. If the University is serious about partnership with WAC, maybe they’ll offer Lot 56. Perhaps the City has finally found a use for the old Mexican Original Building. And there are the parking lots at the Randal Tyson Track Center (if it’s not a game day performance).
Long story short, there are certainly ways to handle the logistical issues. They may not be elegant, but they’ll work.
That’s still not enough
Fayetteville has to find something that will really be an incentive for the WAC. We can’t just give them cash, because the City is strapped for it, and we better come up something good, because you better believe Bentonville is going to do what it can to persuade them to set up there.
Fayetteville does have one entity with funding…. I’m talking about the Advertising and Promotion Commission.
The A&P Commission is funded by the Hotel, Motel, and Restaurant Tax, and if they dedicated ten percent of their annual revenue to the Walton Arts Center, then we’d have an incentive worth talking about. Dedicating a percentage of their revenue means that if the Walton Arts Center boosts our local economy like we know it will, then their contribution will grow in a self-fulfilling way. The Walton Arts Center would, in a sense, be accountable to themselves for increasing the contribution they receive from the Commission.
There’s a list of the A&P Commissioners online; why don’t you call one of them and tell them to dedicate annual funding to the Walton Arts Center? Tell them we have to do something.
While you’re at it, get your friends to read this article, and ask them to make a call, too.