Why Did the Walton Family Foundation Pass on a Hometown Performing Arts Center?

Bentonville, ARkansas

Bentonville, ARkansas

Back in March of 2016, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas—founded by Alice Walton—announced plans to transform an idled Kraft cheese plant into a space for contemporary art exhibitions, artists' projects, music, and film.

In my post examining the announcement, I wondered if the sleepy town of 40,167 had the requisite demand to meet the supply. Alice's nephew, Tom Walton, said, "This project is going to be huge for the younger generation, the millennials." And yet the city has just 4,000 individuals within the 18 to 24 age range (although to be fair, the Northwest corner of Arkansas is home to over 500,000 residents).

Which brings me to the results of the Walton Family Foundation's 2020 planning session.

Planners "identified strengths" and "prioritized projects to fill cultural gaps" in Northwest Arkansas and concluded that "young professionals want a larger variety of cultural options in a downtown setting." And yet according to Karen Minkel, home region program director, the foundation's 2020 plan does not include money for a large-scale performing arts center in Bentonville.

And why is that? First off, the Walton Family Foundation has what one could call "art center fatigue." The Fayetteville-based Walton Arts Center, situated 28 miles south of Bentonville, just completed its $23 million renovation and expansion. The Walton Family Foundation gave the largest private donation, $5 million, for the project. "We're tired," said Darcy Ballew, vice president of communications for Walton Arts Center. She reiterated that a center in Bentonville wasn't an "immediate goal."

Then there are the market dynamics at play. There's only so much art a region of 500,000 can enjoy at any given time. After investing some a fortune in Crystal Bridges', the Walton Family Foundation may have realized that a new arts space could trigger unwanted market cannibalization. 

Comments by Kalene Griffith, Visit Bentonville president and CEO, suggest the region has reached critical mass. "The regional arts and culture efforts are collaborative and work to provide residents and visitors a variety of experiences throughout the area," she said, adding there are "so many positive activities happening regionally, it's best for cities to compliment each other by addressing gaps rather than to duplicate services."

Of course, the Walton Family Foundation still has a hand in other planned area performing arts spaces. It has thrown its support behind a new 51,500-square-foot TheatreSquared building in Fayetteville, scheduled to open in 2019. Conveniently enough, that's also the same year as the grand opening of Crystal Bridge's idled Kraft cheese plant.