Big-city transplant Karen Minkel first experienced quintessential Ozark culture about 10 years ago, at the end of her second summer living in Arkansas.
Family friends were having an outdoor potluck on their property near Mountain View, and the gathering included a private folk music performance in the woods.
She remembers being struck by the beauty and the simplicity of the music — a banjo, an upright base and three sweet-sounding voices — from a local trio called Harmony, now one of her favorite groups.
The locality of the experience was enhanced by the fact that the party guests could only reach the concert by wading shin-deep through a creek for about a mile.
For Minkel, who lived in New York City and the San Francisco Bay area before moving to Fayetteville, the experience was new and seemed to be distinctively Arkansan, deeply rooted in tradition.
“Two generations ago you could have had the exact same experience,” said Minkel, now director of the Home Region program for the Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville. “That Ozark culture is cultivated in Arkansas, and it’s something you just can’t get in a bigger city.”
A recent study commissioned by the foundation shows that area residents want to ensure preservation of that homegrown identity, even as the arts and cultural landscape soars to new heights in terms of quality, sophistication and diversity.
Conducted by San Francisco-based consultants at WolfBrown, the report identifies the cultural ecosystem’s strengths and weaknesses, playing a key role in a top initiative of the Walton Foundation’s strategic plan for 2020: to establish the region as a preeminent destination for the arts and for cultural amenities.
In addition to cultural contributions from its several colleges and universities, the region is home to a growing number of independent arts organizations and venues, the crown jewel of which is Bentonville’s world-class museum, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
Crystal Bridges and the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville are the area’s largest cultural institutions, in terms of budget size. Both operate on a budget of more than $10 million, according to the WolfBrown study, which looked at metrics for Benton and Washington counties and included input from community members.
There are, however, no local organizations that fall within the budget category below that, which starts at $1 million.
The report identifies these as mid-sized art institutions, and it says they face unique challenges nationwide.
Growing the mid-sized sector might become an endeavor for the Walton Foundation and others with interests in the art and culture realm.
However, Northwest Arkansas’ cultural ecosystem stacked up very well overall, next to its peer regions in the report, Huntsville, Alabama; Lexington, Kentucky; Chattanooga, Tennessee and Iowa City/Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“There is a high level of satisfaction with the arts and cultural offerings in the region,” Minkel said. “Relative to our peer communities and our aspirational communities, we’re doing quite well.”
Aspirational communities included Austin, Texas, and Kansas City, Missouri.
Families with young children are especially pleased with the available amenities, partly due to the recent addition of a children’s museum, the Scott Family Amazeum, which joined the ranks of mainstays like the Trike Theatre and The Jones Center.
Other key players in the region include the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas, the Arkansas Public Theatre at The Victory and TheatreSquared, a professional theater group that has grown from a small nonprofit to an anchor of the industry within a few years.
To Martin Miller, executive director of TheatreSquared, the cultural ecosystem as a whole has become “more mature” in recent years.
“Now, when I go to theater conferences, people say, ‘What’s happening in Northwest Arkansas?’” Miller said. “Whereas, in the past, they would say, ‘Oh, you’re from Arkansas? That’s cute.’”
Miller is confident that in five years other metros looking to grow their cultural landscape will regard the region as a bellwether.
“This stuff is not just great ‘for Northwest Arkansas.’ It’s just great,” he said.
Matthew Herren, executive director of SoNA, has been awestruck by the level of quality on the cultural scene, since moving to the region a year ago.
Having lived in New York for 13 years and attended The Juilliard School, Herren developed a high standard for quality.
Whenever someone raves of a fantastic orchestra, theater or restaurant, he is usually skeptical of the claim. But NWA has impressed him.
“So many things are world-class or on the road to being world-class,” he said.
And, while its features rival that of the nation’s cultural capitals, in NWA they come with fewer so-called “big-city problems” like competition for access, high prices and logistical issues, Herren said.
Minkel agrees. She has attended concerts for performances like Bobby McFerrin and Yo-Yo Ma in larger cities, but in NWA, she was thrilled to be able to land a fifth-row seat.
“We have world-class art and performances, but with a greater access that to me is astounding,” she said.
While the WolfBrown report also gave specific recommendations on how the Walton Foundation can act on its own, the highlights that were shared publicly in October gave insights for issues that require a multilateral approach.
The need for more organized collaboration between cultural institutions was a central takeaway from the report, and it is an issue which leaders of local organizations seem enthusiastic to explore.
“As a young region, we are uniquely positioned to expand on our artistic strengths and work together to meet the cultural needs of our growing community,” said Peter Lane, executive director of the WAC.
And leaders say collaboration among art organizations is already the norm for the region, although there is not a centralized body for communication.
“One of our key pillars is to work with ‘art makers,’ those people and organizations that produce artistic and educational content integral to the fabric of our cultural life in Northwest Arkansas,” Lane said.
Sam Dean, executive director of the Amazeum, says it shares a similar philosophy.
“Regional collaboration is not only a priority but a fundamental aspect of our organization’s identity,” Dean said. “In fact, collaboration with regional leaders in all of the arenas in which we work — not only the arts but education and in the emerging maker movement — is essential to our success.”
Also eager to lend support to the cultural landscape as a whole, the Jones Center regularly shares its facilities with other members of the arts and culture sector, said CEO Ed Clifford.
For example, the center has hosted the Spring Creek Arts Festival for several years, and the event has continued to grow, showcasing 1,300 visual, performing and video students this year.
Clifford did stress, however, the importance of defining collaboration in a manner that serves everyone.
“We certainly don’t want to lose the individual character of the Northwest Arkansas arts organizations currently operating, but there could be significant savings, a new level of excellence, and additional revenue if the like organizations worked together to elevate the offerings in performing and visual arts,” he said.
“We have visitors from all over the world coming to Crystal Bridges and viewing a world-class venue and selection of art. Our mission over the next decade should be to extend the stay of those visitors, because the balance of the regions’ cultural offerings are that compelling,” Clifford said.
In addition to providing a unified voice and centralized communication for the arts, a streamlined effort could make it possible for organizations to piggyback off each other.
For example, if the University of Arkansas is hosting an impressive speaker, another organization could book him or her as well, allowing for extended engagement in the area.
One potential option recommended by the WolfBrown team is that the region form a cultural trust or arts council.
“A cultural trust can add tremendous value as it allows us all to better refine our leadership roles within the arts community,” Lane said. “We strongly support a solution to help folks gain broader insight and participation in our cultural ecosystem.”
The Walton Foundation floated the idea of a cultural trust to see if it resonated with the other individuals and organizations in the region, but the conversation is still in its very early stages, Minkel said.
Arts leaders expressed appreciation for the foundation’s role in starting the conversation, and in the ecosystem in general.
“There’s no question that their funding, support and pooled expertise have played a major role in the cultural renaissance of the area,” Miller said.
He and Minkel agree that the region’s downtown districts are now the cultural hotspots to watch.
“I’m excited to see how each downtown expresses its personality and capitalizes on its assets,” Minkel said.
Miller and his wife live in Fayetteville, but recently stayed the weekend on the Bentonville square, and the couple is planning to do the same thing in Siloam Springs.
“The region doesn’t have one great downtown. There’s several, and you can get there in just a few minutes. In New York City, you can’t get to anything in 40 minutes,” he said.
In Miller’s estimation, the Walton Foundation is a “model funder.” It gauges the individual needs of the organizations and communities with which it works and does not seem to have its own agenda.
“The arts need to set their own path, but we also need a path to set,” he said.
On the path moving forward, Miller said he looks forward to building “a world-class theater” when TheatreSquared relocates to its own property in downtown Fayetteville.
In the broader sense, the theater director intends to take an active role in helping develop the cultural ecosystem, but he also wants to sit back and enjoy the show.
“I’m looking forward to my 9-month-old kid having a cultural experience that is completely different from the one I had growing up here — in a very good way.”