Walton Arts Center growth
Over the past decade, attendance at Walton Arts Center has grown nearly 60%. We host Broadway, classical music, children’ programming and other arts events that are generally only seen in markets much larger than ours.
Our main theater, the 1,200-seat Baum Walker Hall operates at nearly 95% capacity. While this is an exciting problem, it means that we are not able to expand our programming, or to open the hall for use by other community groups.
We have a strong and dedicated board of directors made up of community leaders, philanthropists and arts enthusiasts that are committed to serving the growing arts and entertainment needs in Fayetteville, as well as the rest of Northwest Arkansas, the River Valley and beyond.
Through a series of research studies and work by the board and staff, we made the decision to pursue a regional, multi-venue growth strategy to add performance venues and entertainment options in Northwest Arkansas. We want to ensure Northwest Arkansas, and Walton Arts Center specifically, can get the same type of entertainment as Kansas City, St. Louis or Tulsa and we need more space to make this a reality.
At our May board meeting, we took two votes that propelled us forward in our vision. First, we authorized staff to proceed immediately with planning and launching a $20 million-plus campaign to renovate and expand Walton Arts Center on Dickson Street. This expansion is our highest priority.
We have an amazing venue in the heart of the entertainment district in Fayetteville, but it has limitations. The lobby is not big enough to accommodate the crowds – the lines for the restrooms and concession are often very long. What you don’t see is that backstage is even more cramped than the lobby. In fact, we don’t have enough backstage space to accommodate big productions and Broadway shows and we have to close Starr Theater (our black box theater) to the public and turn it into dressing rooms and storage up to 100 times a year.
The expansion and renovation of Walton Arts Center will mean more programming and more opportunities for people to use the facility. In conjunction with adding space backstage, and thereby freeing up Starr Theater to remain a performance space all year, we plan to expand Starr Theater and add a new and dedicated lobby and entrance. This is exciting because it means that we will be able to program new types of artists on a regular basis. I look forward to knowing that we can go hear great jazz in Starr Theater every first Saturday of the month, or maybe Roots Music each Thursday. Being able to use that larger space on a regular basis will add significantly to our program mix.
The second decision that we made at our board meeting was to move forward with building an outdoor concert venue – The Arkansas Music Pavilion (The AMP) – at Pinnacle Hills in Rogers, just off Interstate 540 south of the Embassy Suites Hotel.
We purchased the AMP several years ago when it was a tent located in the parking lot at the Northwest Arkansas Mall but we saw a need for more concerts and knew that it could be a profitable endeavor.
As a nonprofit, WAC raises nearly 50% of our annual budget from donations. When revenue comes in from AMP concerts, we can use that money to support our most important programs in the community – like engaging more than 50,000 school students in arts programming and presenting our 10X10 arts series, for which tickets are only $10.
The original plan was to build a permanent AMP venue at the NWA Mall. During negotiations with the mall, the management changed and we weren’t able to secure a long-term lease. We then began looking for a suitable site to build a permanent outdoor venue. This is a big desire in our community. A recent study released by the Walton Family Foundation named an outdoor concert venue as the number one unmet entertainment amenity for residents in our region.
A permanent AMP will be transformative for the entertainment landscape in Northwest Arkansas. The 6,000+ seat venue will include covered seating for nearly 3,000, plus a large sloped lawn, air conditioned restrooms, upgraded concessions and the largest stage house in the state of Arkansas – able to handle most of the summer concerts on tour today. People travel for summer concerts, and this is our opportunity to draw people to Northwest Arkansas for a weekend, instead of our residents traveling to other cities.
Over the past two years, we have been working with the board to find a permanent location for the AMP. A year ago, we got the good news that Mrs. Johnelle Hunt had interest in donating prime land at Pinnacle Hills that met and exceeded all of our criteria. We shared this decision with our board, but without funding in place, we didn’t feel it was prudent to bring it to the full board for a vote.
The staff and Facilities Committee members worked over the next year to flesh out details and find funding. In the past months, we were able to secure commitments for 90% of the funding needed to build the venue, which prompted a special board meeting and vote on the location. We plan to start construction this summer and be open by June 2014.
I could not be more excited about the AMP and the Walton Arts Center‘s growth plans. In addition to planning for the expanded Dickson Street facility and the new AMP, we are also planning for a new large format theater (2,000 seats) to be built in Bentonville in the next 5-10 years.
All of these unique venues, operating in tandem, will truly make Northwest Arkansas second to none in its ability to draw world-class arts and entertainment to our region.