When I was a young student in my Arkansas Ozarks town, I got to take a field trip — part of my junior high’s gifted and talented curriculum — to Tulsa to experience art at the Gilcrease Museum and the Philbrook Museum of Art. The 120-mile journey brought me face to face with paintings in a museum setting nowhere to be found in Northwest Arkansas, and it was a highlight of my school year. That was the early 1990s. So much has changed in 25 years.
Today, a 30-mile drive from downtown Fayetteville earlier this year situated me in front of contemporary art giant Kara Walker, whose “African Boy Attendant Curio” sculpture of resin and molasses critiques the slave trade, was on display just around the corner from a Confederate statue commemorating a one-time mayor of Bentonville on the town’s downtown square.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened in November 2011, quickly followed by a 21c Museum Hotel Bentonville. The Momentary, a contemporary visual and performing arts branch of Crystal Bridges, opens in 2020. Northwest Arkansas, once known primarily as the humble birthplace of the Walmart empire, is now squarely on the map as a bona fide arts destination.
So, whereas Fayetteville once saw itself as the cultural mecca of Northwest Arkansas, with the state’s flagship university — home to first-rate humanities programs and even a few Alexander Calder mobiles — located there, Bentonville is rapidly establishing itself as an arts destination. It’s drawing in other creatives, too: At Bentonville’s new 8th Street Market development, for example, with its Disneyfied hipster vibe, you can take cheese-making classes, learn how to dye fabrics naturally, sip locally made beer and buy bean-to-bar chocolates, all under one roof.
On April 9, Fayetteville voters approved continuing a 1-cent sales tax to pay for nine capital projects, one of which is the hotly contested splashy cultural arts corridor, now in early design stages with landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz. The arts corridor project was initiated in December 2017 when the city accepted a $1.77 million grant from the Walton Family Foundation to transform 12 acres of city-owned property downtown. A bond issue supported by the tax is projected to raise $229 million; the arts corridor component is projected at not to exceed $31,685,000, less than 10 percent of the total bond issuance. Other projects including road and trail improvement, drainage improvement, and police and firefighting facility improvements.
Although the wide majority of the bond issue is directed toward paying for infrastructure, most of the debate about it centered on the arts corridor. This special election saw just over 6,000 votes, with the arts corridor issue passing with a margin of 53 percent in favor.
To those who see our sleepy college town quickly transforming into a bougie paradise that only the affluent can afford, the arts corridor is an easy place to direct anger and resentment. And certainly our sales tax, already high at 9.7 percent, is regressive and burdening those with the least amount of money the most.
The main development in the project will be on what is currently a huge rectangle of concrete at Dickson and West. Owned by the city, it’s known as the West Avenue parking lot, a.k.a. “the Walton Arts Center lot.” The Scull Creek portion of the Razorback Greenway pedestrian and biking trail will connect the new development to the Fay Jones Woods, across the street from the Fayetteville Public Library, which was already in the city’s possession. (The library plans to expand from its one-block site, bordered by School Avenue, Mountain Street, West Avenue and Rock Street, to the former Fayetteville City Hospital grounds, extending to West South Street.)
This reinvention of a parking lot into a public gathering space with open-air theaters, green space and landscaping for public use will certainly beautify downtown. But voters were concerned about the loss of 300 parking spots for patrons of the Walton Arts Center and TheatreSquared. However, the city has said those parking spaces will be reconfigured into the final design. There’s also a city-owned parking deck right next to the Walton Arts Center.
There is reason to be wary. Gentrification has pushed many of us out of central Fayetteville already. In 1999, while I was in college, I rented a 1920 two-bedroom, red-brick house a block off Dickson Street. My roommate and I, both journalism undergrads who paid our own rent by working part-time while attending school full-time, could afford it. It now rents for at least $1,500, and has an estimated value of $258,500 — double what it was valued at in 2008.
Student enrollment at the University of Arkansas continues to break records year after year, in part thanks to in-state tuition granted to Texans who, for those who oppose their influx, have become the de facto poster child for everything that’s wrong with Fayetteville in 2019. (Never mind that our beloved locally roasted coffee and cherished brunch spots couldn’t make it without their retail spending.) This also means an apartment housing boom, as well as rampant tearing down of historic properties with hastily constructed generic townhouses going up in warp speed.
I’ve lost track of how many places I’ve lived downtown that no longer exist. I think five, including the yellow-brick duplex I rented while in grad school a block from campus. Nic Pizzolato, creator of the TV series “True Detective,” lived in the other half of the duplex while he was studying for his MFA. It’s now a parking lot. The arts and crafts bungalow on the edge of a hillside that I brought my newborn daughter home to is now six prefab, lackluster townhouses. Rents have been rising since long before this arts corridor was even conceptualized, and the development is on lands already owned by the city, so no eminent domain seizures will take place. But no doubt a beautification project will enhance nearby property values and the rents will continue to rise.
By the time arts corridor plans were in their earliest stages, the development ship had long sailed. Retail projects had sprung up like weeds throughout the downtown area — and, sans any renters’ rights regulations or historic preservation codes on the books, Fayetteville was a real estate developer’s dream.
As someone who works day in and day out as an arts journalist and classical music host, I’m thrilled to be so close to world-class art. I’m giddy that I can hop in my car and attend a distinguished lecture from the likes of Laurie Anderson. I’m grateful that there’s a massive influx of funds going toward cultivating the arts, which is what I’ve dedicated my life to, and never thought I’d see flourishing this way.
Although I left New York City, a place I called home for four years and where I got my start as a freelance arts journalist, I never thought that my own backyard would be a haven for someone like me, a place with opportunities to cultivate my own artistic endeavors in a way I thought impossible even 10 years ago.
I’m reading a book now by Rob Reich called “Just Giving,” and this quote stood out: “Citizens pay in lost tax revenue, for foundations, and, by extension, for giving public expression to the preferences of rich people.” Everywhere I turn, the arts organizations in Northwest Arkansas are all courting the largest donor to the arts here in Northwest Arkansas, praying for a little bit of it to build their own little endeavors.
So, Fayetteville residents find themselves here. The Renaissance had its de’ Medicis, the 20th century its Rockefellers and Fords. We have the Waltons, and a Walton-funded arts community on steroids, fueled by a “Wild West” approach to city development and arts cultivation. Whether the arts in Northwest Arkansas can grow at its current rapid pace — and manage not to leave those without Waltonesque means in the dust — remains to be seen.