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Knowing Your Place in the NWA Arts Ecosystem

Samantha Sigmon

With the 2011 opening of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, the arts ecosystem of Northwest Arkansas (NWA) changed drastically—mostly for the better. Once-isolated artists in funky neighborhoods and burgeoning arts professionals alike can now engage with world-class art at their door. But this has also made NWA more dependent on one funding source related to the world’s largest company, Walmart, which was founded Sam Walton and is headquartered in the region. The Walton Family Foundation’s reach into communities highlights stark differences between independent organizing, curating, and running of events and spaces, and arts funding that helps bring businesses to the Heartland. 

In the last few years, WFF has sponsored several expensive arts initiatives in NWA, including an assessment by Artspace, a Minneapolis-based real estate developer; Artists 360 grants run by Kansas City’s Mid-America Arts Alliance; a music scene survey through European firm Sound Diplomacy; development of the Cultural Arts Corridor in Fayetteville led by landscape architects Nelson Byrd Woltz out of Charlottesville; and the creation of the University of Arkansas School of Art which includes expansion into South Fayetteville, a neighborhood historically home to low-income families. 

At public forums related to these projects run by the contracted firms, locals are told what a great arts scene we already have. Do-It-Yourself spaces are used as “cultural assets” to call for more development. Often, the rosy outlook presented lacks answers to real limiting factors such as building codes, noise ordinances, liquor laws, volunteers/staffing, equipment/supplies, restrooms, temperature control, safety, and other variables that threaten small organizations. What these spaces need to flourish is often just resources and trust in their responsibility to the communities they serve. 

Without funding to better themselves or a structure in place to protect them, the very thing consultants are highlighting—the uniqueness, hard work, passion, and creativity intrinsic to small spaces to create a sense of place—is what the region is in danger of losing. The more spot-lit, the more risk of being shut down because of petty violations or priced out of a now-desirable location. It’s certainly fortunate to have a benevolent giver with an infinite funding source focused on arts in NWA, but is WFF giving to the grassroots businesses who have been doing the groundwork, and—even if they sometimes are—is receiving funding solely from the world’s richest family something we now must simply accept? 

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