With such names as David Sedaris, Herbie Hancock, the Chieftains and Dianne Reeves on the program for the first third of 2005 alone, the Walton Arts Center will offer Fayetteville an array of entertainment that one might expect to find in a much larger market. Say Little Rock.
But, until January, the Chieftains had never come to Arkansas, much less the state’s largest city, and it’s hard to recall when jazz great Hancock, who was joined by horn great Randy Brecker last week in Fayetteville, last ventured Little Rock’s way. Reeves, the multi-Grammy Award winning jazz chanteuse, has played Conway’s Reynolds Performance Hall in the past four years. Here in Little Rock, we can only wait and hope for the popular author Sedaris, who’s making a return to Fayetteville next month after selling out there two years ago.
“We are just very committed to bringing the world’s best artists to what we believe is one of the world’s best places,” Jenni Taylor Swain, vice president for program at the Walton Arts Center, says. “We’re very committed to filling the cultural niche that makes life here very vibrant.”
It sounds easy. But Little Rock seems to be missing out, and Tulsa is often bypassed by the same artists. Granted, the Chieftains, Hancock or Reeves likely wouldn’t be candidates for Alltel Arena in North Little Rock, which has rated among the 30 best venues in terms of concerts the past three years and which aims for the large-audience draws. They’d be geared more toward a facility such as Robinson Center Music Hall.
“The first thing I’d ask is, what’s the source of their money,” says Michael Marion, who runs Alltel Arena and booked events in a college town early in his career. “I don’t know this to be a fact, but it’s probably because of a strong endowment that they can afford to buy artists like that. I don’t think they’re depending on ticket sales to present those shows.”
Marion is right, Taylor Swain says, though she spends a lot of road time watching prospective shows and working contacts and building relationships to assure that what the 1,200-seat Walton Arts Center features will be a successful draw.
Walton Arts Center, unlike Alltel Arena or Celebrity Attractions, which brings touring Broadway musicals to Robinson Center, is a non-profit organization. Taylor Swain says a blend of memberships, corporate sponsorships and underwriting support from the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame gives the center the financial resources to bid for the impressive array of artists on the schedule. The WAC’s budget, which started at $400,000 in 1992, is now $7 million annually.
“We want our schedule to appeal to a wide range of the community,” said Taylor Swain, who has been in charge of the programming for six years. “We rely on our sponsorship income and that keeps the price for tickets 75 percent less than it is in other markets. We have a generous community. We try to keep our ticket costs down, but at a fair market price.”
In 2004-2005, they’ve brought in popular kids’ music artist Dan Zanes, who founded the Del Fuegos rock group in the 1980s and now has video ditties broadcast on the preschool-focused network Noggin. Walton will address the youth music side again this month with an appearance by Jamie Bernstein Thomas, the daughter of Leonard Bernstein. She strives to expose children to symphonic music.
For the adults, Broadway’s “42nd Street” is coming April 15-17; “Les Miserables” arrives in May, and the popular off-Broadway dinner play, “Tony ’n’ Tina’s Wedding” will arrive for a week of shows in June. Jason Moore, the Northwest Arkansas native who won a Tony Award for directing “Avenue Q,” will attend one of the performances at Walton Arts Center, Taylor Swain said. The much-in-demand Alvin Ailey Dance Co. performs April 26-28.
“We’ve been fortunate. We have a strong board of directors and strong leadership team that have been wanting to grow with the community,” Taylor Swain said.
The impact of the Walton Arts Center in its 12-plus years on Dickson Street is evident up and down the main thoroughfare heading east from the University of Arkansas campus. A run-down street in 1991, it’s now home to good restaurants and other entertainment venues.