Walton Arts Center

Walton Arts Center on Dickson Street in Fayetteville (Washington County) is a unique facility not only for its wealth of arts programs usually found in a much larger metropolitan area but also because of the circumstances of its creation. A shared vision, sense of community, and willingness to compromise led to a mutually beneficial union of public and private sectors.

In the 1980s, the Sam Walton family donated a $5 million gift toward construction of a performance space at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville for touring shows and other events. At the same time, the city of Fayetteville was considering a multiuse space to accommodate various groups, conferences, and special events. A tax on hotels, motels, and restaurants was approved by the voters of Fayetteville, with funds aimed at creating such a facility. With so much in common, a committee of university and community leaders was formed.

An agreement was reached, and a corner of Dickson Street at North School Avenue, about halfway between the campus and downtown Fayetteville, was selected for the site, a choice that helped in the revitalization of the Dickson Street entertainment district. The Walton Arts Center Council was officially formed in 1986 with the goal of constructing the arts center. Sam Walton encouraged obtaining the “buy-in” of people and groups for the fundraising effort needed to complete the building. Sharing information with the community at in-home get-togethers instilled a sense of participation and excitement. A total of more than $7 million was raised in private funds. On April 26, 1992, Walton Arts Center opened debt-free, and in September, the center hosted a gala performance by author, comedian, and talk show pioneer Steve Allen.

The organization grew significantly over the years and eventually began operating three facilities: the original Walton Arts Center, the neighboring Nadine Baum Studios, and the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion (AMP). The Walmart AMP was acquired by Walton Arts Center in 2011, and construction of the permanent facility was completed in Benton County in 2014. More than 342,600 people attend events at Walton Arts Center venues annually, and the arts education programs reach 45,000 students, teachers, and citizens statewide.

Walton Arts Center completed a $23 million renovation and expansion of the original performing arts campus in November 2016. The expansion dramatically increased front-of-house and event space, production support space, and administrative office space, adding more than 30,000 square feet and improving the operational capacity and visitor experience for both patrons and artists.

As an incubator for developing performing arts groups, Walton Arts Center is also home to four resident companies: Symphony of Northwest Arkansas, the region’s professional symphony orchestra; professional theater companies TheatreSquared and Trike Theatre for Youth; and Community Creative Center, an art studio for adults and youth.

Financially, the Walton Arts Center is considered Arkansas’s largest performing arts organization, with an annual budget of $23 million. Several hundred volunteers donate thousands of hours each year; along with corporate sponsorships, such donations are a factor in keeping tickets reasonably priced. According to Walton Arts Center, about half the cost of each ticket is subsidized by donations, sponsorships, and grants.

Walton Arts Center has allowed the people of northwestern Arkansas and the entire region to experience such world-class performers as Bill Cosby, Martina McBride, Marilyn Horne, Hal Holbrook, Marvin Hamlisch, Gregory Hines, Al Jarreau, Tony Bennett, and Lily Tomlin. Walton Arts Center is also a frequent stop for national touring shows and concerts. The Joy Pratt Markham Gallery within Walton Arts Center presents exhibitions of works by both emerging and internationally recognized artists.

In May 2023, the nonprofit group Northwest Arkansas (NWA) Equality released a statement that announced that all official Northwest Arkansas (NWA) Pride events would be pulled from the Walton Arts Center because the center had called off what it referred to as “drag performances by adults specifically for minors.” A spokesperson for center said that the decision had been due to safety concerns and “divisive political rhetoric at this time.” It was reported, however, that the Walton Arts Center’s board had not held a vote to restrict the performances. The director of NWA Pride announced that the Pride celebration would move forward amid overwhelming community support, with programming moving to other locations. About a third of the WAC board and one employee resigned over the matter, characterizing the decision as a political one made by CEO Peter Lane without consulting the board.

For additional information:

Dungan, Tracie. “Walton Arts Center Plans New Facilities in Two Cities.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 2, 2010, pp. 1A, 9A.

Ryburn, Stacy. “Fayetteville Presents Expanded Arts Center.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 20, 2016, pp. 1A, 9A.

Walton Arts Center. https://www.waltonartscenter.org/ (accessed May 15, 2023).


Nancy Hendricks
Arkansas State University



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