A total of nine Walton Arts Center board of directors have sent in their resignation letters following an executive decision to ban drag performances where minors would be able to attend during Northwest Arkansas Pride in June.
On Friday, former board member Casey Hamaker announced via email that she and five others were resigning. “After careful consideration, we are compelled by our consciences to make this decision,” Hamaker wrote. The other resignees were listed as Mervin Jebaraj, Anne O’Leary-Kelly, Jody Dilday, Cal Rose and Lia Uribe.
Jebaraj’s resignation letter, which can be read here, includes strong language and notes that CEO Peter Lane made the decision to ban drag performances without the board’s consideration. The Walton Arts Center has not publicly explained the process of the decision or named who was involved.
Shabana Kauser, Shelley Simmons and Elecia Smith also resigned in the time since the March 30 decision, Jennifer Wilson, the Walton Arts Center public relations director, confirmed on Tuesday.
The board of directors is made up of a group of 22 people appointed by the city of Fayetteville, the University of Arkansas and the Walton Family Foundation. With nine members out the door, about two-thirds of the board remains.
The decision to ban drag has people understandably upset. On Saturday, dozens gathered outside the Walton Arts Center in protest. They called on Lane and other executives to resign and chanted, “WAC is wack, let the drag queens act” and “Say no to bigots.”
In the initial statement about the ban, Wilson said that the Center based its decision “in the interest of safety concerns for performers, patrons and staff due to the divisive political rhetoric at this time.”
Earlier this year, the Arkansas Legislature attempted to ban drag performances where minors would be present. Senate Bill 43 ultimately did pass and become Act 131, but it was amended to be largely toothless.
The Walton Arts Center decision led Richard Gathright, NWA Pride director, to pull all official Pride programming from the Walton Arts Center and relocate it to other city centers. The NWA Pride Youth Zone will happen instead at the Fayetteville Town Center from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. June 24, and a parade down Dickson Street will follow.
A lengthier statement on the decision from the Walton Arts Center didn’t explain much, but leaned into conveying regret. It vowed that the center was committed to safe operations and didn’t intend to hurt the community.
“This was not an easy decision, or one that we took lightly, but is one we believe was necessary for this year’s event,” the statement read. “Walton Arts Center has not ended its support for our LGBTQIA+ community, NWA Equality or the Pride Festival.”
In addition to the board members who have left, at least one employee has left as well.