Art proves to be economic, educational connector for Northwest Arkansas

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 316 views 

The past several years – if not decades – have proven that Northwest Arkansas is a cradle for entrepreneurship. Sandy Edwards believes such entrepreneurship has a connection with the arts and has created a metro area “rich in cultural entrepreneurship.”

Edwards, deputy director for Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, was joined by Sam Dean, director for the Amazeum, and Peter Lane, director for the Walton Arts Center, as speakers for this month’s Business Matters. The program, sponsored by the Bentonville-Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce, is geared to help chamber members stay connected to developments and issues in the region.

“I love being on this panel, I was struck by the fact that the three of us represent various stages of life for the arts in Northwest Arkansas. The Amazeum is awaiting its birth in mid 2015, Crystal Bridges is about to turn three – a toddler – and the Walton Arts Center is a mature adult,” Edwards said.

She said Crystal Bridges’ mission to “welcome all” and to “inspire others to give has been key to its wide acceptance from the world stage to remote Ozark Hills. Although Wal-Mart underwrote the admission charge to the museum, she said it has gained nearly 7,700 paid members who felt inspired to contribute via memberships. Since opening day Nov. 11, 2011, more than 1.5 million visitors have come through the doors at Crystal Bridges. Roughly 60% of those visits have been from within the region and neighboring regions. The remaining 40% comes from neighboring states and the world at large.

Edwards said the operation could not exist without the 63,475 volunteer hours given since opening. The 3.5 miles of trail around the museum logged 20,000 visitors last year, and nearly 160,000 patrons since opening. 

Some of those patrons have never been inside, but Edwards said Crystal Bridges is also about the art of nature and the trails are extension of that.

Edwards said the museum leadership was challenged to reinvent the art experience this year for patrons which culminated in the ambitious and expansive “State of the Art” exhibition that runs from Sept. 12 through Jan. 19.

“Our curator traveled for 10 months, spanning 100,000 miles to find 100 of the most dynamic working artists in the country to bring this contemporary exhibition to life at Crystal Bridges,” Edwards said.

The exhibited has logged 60,700 visitors, 33,832 in October alone. The museum’s Internet promotion of the exhibit received 2.7 million impressions and the exhibit has received coverage from the New York Times and other major national publications.

Beth Bobbitt, media relations manager at the museum, said the massive exhibit includes 227 pieces and completely fills two of the galleries, flowing out into other areas with at least pieces on display at the Bentonville downtown square. She said locating the works consumed a lot of time and energy as the curator began with a list of about 10,000 working artists in 44 states. That list was whittled down to 1,000 and visits were made to each one via 218 airplane flights and 2,400 hours in rental cars.

Bobbitt said 102 working contemporary artist were chosen for the exhibit. They range in age from 24 to 87 and were deemed under-recognized for the works. She said 70 of them are coming back during the exhibit period to present a program around their work.

“State of the Art” in one and a half months on display ranks second to the Norman Blackwell exhibit in terms of popularity from patrons, Bobbitt said.

“Families are being drawn to the ‘State of the Art’ exhibit, I think in part because of the interactiveness of the works. This expansive contemporary exhibit is exposing a whole new group of art enthusiasts to Crystal Bridges,” Bobbitt said.

Lane said the Walmart AMP is helping the Walton Arts Center system advance art education and programing, and will for years to come. He said people often want to know why the Walton Arts Center partnered with the AMP.

“Rock pays for Bach,” Lane said in explaining his response.

He said revenue generated by the new Walmart AMP since moving to Rogers, even with an abbreviated first season, rose 400% from the prior season in Washington County. He said 17 shows in 2013 at the old facility brought in $600,000. This year 11 shows grossed more than $3 million, exceeding their expectations.

Lane said they can charge more for the contemporary concerts in the larger venue and that helps subsidize art education programs that reach thousands of Arkansas children each year through numerous outlets.

“Helen Walton, our founder, believed that the arts could be woven through traditional courses for instance teaching science through the art of dance or mathematics through painting,” Lane said.

Lane said work on renovating and expanding the Walton Arts Center in downtown Fayetteville is slated to begin in the coming weeks. He said the plans have been in place since 2010 and the overhaul will cost about $23 million, in addition to $12 million the city of Fayetteville is spending on a new parking garage that will also house the Walton Arts Center offices on the top floor. He said 100 new seats are being added to the “Star” theater, with an expansion to women’s restrooms as well as additional space backstage.

“When the theater was built the shows coming in usually brought about two trucks or buses. Today they bring 10 or more and there is no room to house their stuff. The small theater we call the black box has become a storage room most of the time. Additional storage, laundry and makeup rooms are being constructed underground between the new parking deck and the main building,” Lane said.

A new outdoor garden room is also part of the plan to allow for additional gathering space for pre-and post-performance events, he added. The projects are expected to be completed in 2016. Lane said once the Fayetteville WAC renovations are complete, the board will look to Benton County for a new 2,000-seat performance center.

A 50,000 square-foot learning lab, dubbed the Amazeum, is slated for completion in the back half of 2015. While it’s the newest art attraction to the region, the project is more than 10-years old, according to Amazeum Director Sam Dean.

The $25 million children’s discovery museum will offer learning experiences for all ages, Dean said.

“The one problem we see with adults is that they have to be moved out of the way so the kids can get to the activities,” Dean joked.

Founders Lee and Linda Scott and a host of other donors have helped to shape the exhibits planned to teach children real life processes through interactive play. Scott is a former Wal-Mart CEO and logistics leader so it’s no surprise that Wal-Mart supplier General Mills is working with Amazeum for “Lift Load & Haul” exhibit that focuses on kinetic activity and the transference of things.

Dean said a Walmart semi truck is being disassembled and then reassembled inside the building to give students the opportunity to sit in a real truck cab and from that seat and dashboard monitor they can see view activities taking place inside the trailer, which features conveyors and devices that move boxes in and out of the truck.

Dean said the expansive building itself was designed to blend into the surroundings and it essentially has four fronts which created a conundrum about where to store the trash. After much thought he said they opted to store the trash inside the building.

Not only do the Amazeum plans call for a look at future innovation but they also help to connect children to area history. One exhibit will feature pickable apple trees in a small orchard, another area explores caves and there is a canopy planned that will allow the children to safely scale the heights of the museum.

Dean said the Amazeum began has a grassroots effort to give area children a deeper learning experience in science through discovery. He said it’s a place where curiosity meets creativity and together through the interaction of children and adults there can also be a stronger sense of community.

At last count the Amazeum was roughly $1.3 million behind in its capital campaign goal of $28.5 million. Dean said they will begin selling one-year memberships Nov. 7. He said though it’s early, the memberships are good for a whole year of activities. There will be a nominal entry fee for non-members which has not been set.