Returning visitors to the Walton Arts Center will likely marvel at the sweeping views of downtown Fayetteville now visible from the new lobby, through 30-foot-tall paneled windows that span its exterior walls. It’s also hard to miss the imposing presence of a 50-piece, modern-design light fixture that now hangs in the atrium, serving as both art and a visual representation of the project’s top donors.
However, the vast majority of improvements made in the center’s recently completed $23 million renovation and expansion won’t be seen by the public on opening night.
They were backstage investments, in accommodations for artists, equipment for production crews and storage.
“Spaces that most people will never see are, for example, the new Baledge Hair and Wardrobe Room or the Hayward Instrument Room, where our musicians will actually be able to store their instruments in a climate-controlled space that’s secure and that takes care of the very valuable instruments,” said Missy Kincaid, director of donor engagement for Walton Arts Center.
The ground-floor level of the center’s administrative building now meets up with backstage, giving state-level access to those in the production team offices.
The changes, the Walton Arts Center leadership said, were overdue.
Peter Lane, president and CEO since 2009, said the arts center, when it was founded in the early 1990s, tapped into something that resonated with the Northwest Arkansas population, which was on the rise.
“With our focus on education and quality, high-end arts programs, the Walton Arts Center just continued to grow and grow and grow,” Lane said. “Flash forward to 2005, 2006, 2007, and we realized the organization was at 94% capacity.”
One key factor? An exponential increase in equipment, costumes and sets brought in by touring Broadway shows.
For example, “Cats” was performed in the center’s Baum Walker Hall within its first couple of years, and it brought with it two buses and two trucks, Lane said, whereas “The Wizard of Oz” in 2014 rolled in with 10 trucks and six buses.
Kincaid, who has been with the arts center for 16 years, watched the storage situation unfold.
“As those touring companies grew, our back of house didn’t,” she said. “We wanted to make sure to continue to present to our audiences the very best productions that were going out on the road, and the amount of storage that we had in our back of house became significantly insufficient.”
As a result, about 100 days out of the year the arts center’s black-box theater became overflow storage.
“Being a storage closet was never what it was built for,” Kincaid said, referring to Starr Theater, which she called “truly beautiful and remarkable.”
“It was a pity,” she said, and it helped prompt the center’s leadership to expand. And when it was time, the center took a unique approach to fundraising for the project.
Most capital campaigns engage in a quiet phase, where major donations are solicited but not publicized, often until half the money is raised. However, the Walton Arts Center’s capital campaign began as a public effort and a November 2013 special election deciding whether to issue bonds toward the expansion.
“It was important to our project that the city of Fayetteville take a leading role,” Kincaid said.
In the election, 85% of voters were in favor of funding the project, and to Kincaid the message was clear.
“We saw overwhelming support and recognition that Walton Arts Center, in order to continue to serve Northwest Arkansas, needed some major renovations,” she said. “When that election result came back so strongly, it was kind of the domino that had to fall.”
Mayor Lioneld Jordan stands behind community leaders’ and voters’ choice three years ago to lead the effort.
“Helping fund this expansion was a priority for the city, because the Walton Arts Center is such an important economic driver that represents one of the best partnerships we have in this city, a city in which partnership-based government is key,” Jordan said.
After Fayetteville made its commitment, Kincaid said it wasn’t hard to make an appeal to donors, especially when she gave them backstage tours while Broadway shows were in town.
“When I would walk people through, and they would see the two washing machines and industrial-sized sinks we had made work for 25 years and how incredibly limited the artists were and how we were losing Starr Theater, the case was made. The building spoke for itself. It wasn’t pretty,” she said.
Legacy of Giving
A Fayetteville native, Mandy Macke has enjoyed a variety of experiences at the center, starting as a teenager, when she attended a performance of the Broadway touring show, “Cats.”
That was an impactful show for many people, including longtime Walton Arts Center supporter Billie Jo Starr.
“To have it performing on Dickson Street in a new theater, on a street newly revived and with new surroundings was a triumph for Northwest Arkansas,” Starr said.
For Macke, it was her first exposure to live theater, and she was impressed.
Since then, she has logged a number of hours attending performances at the arts center, especially during her 13 years as executive director of the Willard & Pat Walker Charitable Foundation of Fayetteville, one of the Walton Arts Center’s key supporters since its inception.
“I have fond memories of attending a large-scale shows like ‘War Horse’ with my grandmother and mother, seeing ‘Kinky Boots’ and ‘Mamma Mia’ with friends or taking Mrs. Pat Walker to numerous (Symphony of Northwest Arkansas) concerts,” Macke said. “The quality of sound and production amazed us each time.”
Pat Walker, who co-founded the Walker Foundation with her husband in 1986, died in September. Macke said the foundation intends to carry on her legacy of giving to the Walton Arts Center, and it did so with a $2 million donation toward the expansion effort in October.
“This most recent grant exemplifies the past, present and future commitment to making Northwest Arkansas a better place to live for everyone,” Macke said.
Many of the donors for the expansion campaign have financially supported the organization since the beginning.
For example, the late Helen Walton put up the initial funding for the arts center in 1992, and the Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville initiated a $5 million matching challenge grant toward expansion in May 2015.
“The Walton Arts Center is an anchor cultural institution in Northwest Arkansas,” said Karen Minkel, the foundation’s Home Region Program director. “We are proud to be a partner in this remodel, which will add to the vibrancy of downtown Fayetteville and accommodate a greater breadth of performances for everyone in the region to enjoy.”
Starr said she was involved with founding the arts center “even before Day One.” At the time, she was an appointed city representative on an ad-hoc committee to investigate the possibility.
The arts center started as a partnership between the city and the University of Arkansas, and Starr said a lot of elements were cut initially because of a lack of funding.
“Therefore, when the opportunity came to re-think and add or change those needed things, I was eager to see that during the expansion,” Starr said.
Other longtime donors who gave significant gifts toward the expansion include the Tyson family, Wal-Mart Stores and J.B. Hunt Transport Services.
“We’ve heard it time and again, when those companies are recruiting people to come to NWA, the cultural opportunities at the Walton Arts Center are an important part of what sells the individual on bringing their family,” Kincaid said.
The remodel means added revenue from ticket sales and client rentals, not just in Starr Theater, which was expanded by about one-third, but in some new spaces, including the Sudduth Garden Room, which overlooks the rose garden.
“We’re a nonprofit arts organization,” Kincaid said. “Our goal is to bring artists and audiences together. Our goal is also to break even.”
At times, the Walton Arts Center has made the decision to “lose our shirts” on presenting shows they deemed important, like the “Les Miserables” 25th anniversary tour, but then the organization has to make that money up somehow, Kincaid said.
“In order to be a nonprofit and break even, we still need to present a certain amount of shows and have client rentals, which are very important to our bottom line,” she said.
In 2014, ahead of the expansion and in the midst of the capital campaign, the Walton Arts Center took in about $16 million in total revenue. That’s the latest publicly available tax data.
At the end of the year, the net assets, which include the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion, were $21.3 million.
The AMP has made Walton Arts Center a much larger company, with 300 employees and about 300 volunteers.
As a result, it doesn’t need time to grow into the additional 30,000 square feet added in the renovation. It was already there.
“I think we have exactly what we need to move forward,” Lane said.
The expansion took more than two years, and during that time the Walton Arts Center was closed in the summer but continued at full-speed during the season, with 190,000 visitors attending 350 public events in 2015, and 45,500 students and teachers attending school productions.
“We’ve been going along, making it work, so we’re ready for this opening,” Lane said. “Our teams are champing at the bit to open our building at let the community see what this marvelous facility will be able to do.”
Walton Arts Center re-opened Nov. 19, kicking off its 25th anniversary season.
Portland, Ore.-based Boora Architects designed the project and CDI Contractors, headquartered in Little Rock with an office in Fayetteville, handled construction.