Where Northwest Arkansas once claimed more than its share of philanthropic dollars going to the arts, thanks to the Walton Family Foundation and others, the Windgate Charitable Trust has become the Johnny Appleseed of Arkansas arts education, planting multimillion-dollar art and design facilities on campuses across the state. The foundation is grafting the limbs of arts education in Jonesboro, Conway, Hot Springs, Little Rock — even Stuttgart — to sturdy producers, universities it trusts will take good care of their programs.
The latest to be announced: the Windgate Center for Fine and Performing Arts at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. Windgate is putting up $20 million in matching funds for the university’s $45 million project. The gift is so significant — the highest in UCA history — that the university kept it secret until it could make a grand announcement to students and faculty in January. The ballroom in McCastlain Hall and the hallway outside were packed to the gills; one person estimated 700 attendees, eager to hear what the fuss was about. The announcement of the gift was met with faculty high-fives and tears from the art teachers, art department chair Bryan Massey Sr. said. “It was a long time coming,” the 31-year veteran of UCA’s art department said.
UCA’s students were “whooping and hollering,” John Brown III, the former director of and now senior adviser to the foundation, said. “It was very moving.”
It may have been the arts faculty that wept, but Windgate’s promotion of arts education across the state is not just about turning out painters.
Like the Walton Family Foundation, Arkansas has Walmart to thank for the Windgate Foundation. Dorothea Hutcheson of Fort Smith created the Windgate Foundation in 1993 with Walmart stock proceeds from the 1978 sale to Sam Walton of Hutcheson Shoe Co., which her husband and son, William Hutcheson Sr. and Jr., operated in Northwest Arkansas. The sale came at a time when Walmart, which began trading on the New York Stock Exchange in 1972, was scaling up from a regional operation to become a national company; “Hutch” Hutcheson Jr. was made a vice president of Walmart’s shoe division and later became vice president of the company. The Hutcheson family hired Brown, who had retired as president from John Brown University, which his grandfather founded. “They called to see if I had an interest,” Brown, who just last year retired as head of Windgate, said, “and it took me about two seconds to say yes.” Brown had been a fundraiser for the university; now, he said, “I got to switch hats and help get the foundation started and work with the family, who were humble and gracious and wanted to take the accumulation of wealth that came with the partnership of Sam [Walton] for 20 years” and put it toward charity. (Brown, a Republican, also served in the Arkansas legislature for two terms, from 1995 to 2002.)
In 2013, Mary E. Hutcheson added $79 million to the foundation, and Windgate moved into fourth place as the largest grantmaking foundation in Arkansas.
Now headed by Pat Forgy and operating in Little Rock rather than Siloam Springs, Windgate is the third-largest family-run foundation in Arkansas, behind the behemoth Walton Family Foundation and the Walton Family Charitable Trust. (Brown once called Windgate “the Walton Family Foundation’s little brother.”) Windgate’s net assets at the end of 2017 were $358 million; the foundation handed out $84 million in grants that year. About half of Windgate’s dollars go to Arkansas organizations; it makes grants to entities in 47 states.
The arts have always been on the low end of philanthropic giving; a national study by Giving USA ranked gifts to arts, culture and the humanities at ninth annually, behind such categories as religion, education, health and human services. Arkansas is a bit more generous, according to a study by Philanthropy Southwest of 2014 data: The arts and humanities ranked fifth. The Walton Family Foundation has concentrated its arts investments in Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which it’s endowed with around $1 billion. Though Windgate — intentionally named after nobody and which initially made gifts only of stock shares to protect the privacy of the donors — initially worked behind the scenes, its gifts to the arts made it the “best known anonymous donor in the state of Arkansas,” Brown said he’s told his board. Big gift announced at the Arkansas Arts Center? Surely Windgate. Something new coming to UCA? Bank on Windgate.
Over the life of the foundation, Windgate has made grants to numerous causes in and outside Arkansas worth $302.8 million. John Brown University has received $40 million in grants since 1993. But, thanks to the artistic bent on its board of directors — including its chairwoman, Robyn Horn, the granddaughter of Dorothea and William Hutcheson Sr. and a wood sculptor — Windgate has given millions of dollars to visual and performing arts institutions both in Arkansas and elsewhere (including the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina and the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tenn.). Brown said the board’s mix of “left-brain and right-brain trustees” was good and “very much interested in giving back.”
In the past several years, Brown said, the trustees began thinking more about grantmaking that would have a long-range impact and directing more of its assets to Arkansas. “That matured first with the Fort Smith building project and UALR,” Brown said.
UA Fort Smith’s $15.5 million Windgate Center for Art and Design opened in 2016. UA Little Rock’s $20 million Windgate Center for Art and Design opened in 2018. Both projects followed 20-year relationships with the institutions, Brown said; they weren’t just plopped down. Windgate had supported UA Little Rock’s earlier initiative to expand its applied arts programs, such as furniture design and metal working, and was impressed by its faculty and ardor for the arts.
The foundation did, however, light a fire under the UA Little Rock project. A feasibility study suggested that the university would need to build a constituency over six to eight years to raise enough money to bring the various disciplines, scattered across campus, into a new arts facility. But rather than wait for years, Brown said, “The feeling was, we’ll just step out there and do it.
“I wouldn’t say we’ll build it and people will come, but people will understand as the program expands and see it as something the community can be proud of.” The foundation is helping the university spread the word: It recently awarded it a grant to establish art workshops that will expose high school students from all over Arkansas to the university’s wide array of offerings in a state-of-the-art facility.
At the Windgate Center groundbreaking in 2016 at UA Little Rock, a reporter asked what Brown described as a “combative” question: Why should Windgate care about art? What impact would it have on business? “My response was, ‘Let me give you two words: Crystal Bridges.’ ”
Alice Walton’s decision to build Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville “has made people realize that the arts can have an economic impact,” said Horn, the chairman of the board at Windgate. “That’s what [people are] looking for, something concrete that can be measured, and Crystal Bridges has done that. So we’re augmenting the interest they have developed.”
Bentonville’s claim to fame was once that it was the headquarters of Walmart. Now it’s also known as an arts mecca, with a world-class museum, a spruced-up downtown, new restaurants (newly serving alcohol), new public parks and bike trails for the new, young incomers. It’s the fastest growing city in Arkansas.
“When you say you’re majoring in art history, people say, ‘Oh, you’ll be a waitress,’ ” Cassy Christ, 20, a sophomore art history major at UA Little Rock, said.
But Christ knows better. She’s seen the success of her own teachers at UA Little Rock, and a trip she made to Germany with art history professor Lynn Larsen proved “life changing.” The trip opened her eyes, she said, to the many directions a degree in art could take. “You are learning about research methods, visual analysis, empathy through the arts and art history,” Christ said.
In her first semester at UA Little Rock, Christ was in a building shared by the music and art department. When her art history classes moved to the Windgate Center, which encompasses studios for metalworking, furniture making, ceramics, graphic arts, printmaking, photography and painting, all under one roof, she “was blown away. … I saw this is an opportunity I have to take advantage of, that’s how good it was.” She signed up for 3D design and has decided to minor in studio art.
“The building really makes you feel like you’re going to art school. It validates everyone for pursuing” a major in the arts, she said.
Or outside the arts. Former Windgate director Brown quoted one of his “art faculty friends”: “I don’t think the world needs to be filled with artists, but I do think it needs to be filled with creative people.”
Brown’s successor, Pat Forgy, says Windgate’s gifts to the arts are “about helping students. You learn such valuable skills: critical thinking, how to figure out problems, how to deal with failure, how to collaborate. They’re skills you can use once you graduate, whether you’re an artist or an engineer.”
Schools get it. When the Windgate grant was announced at UCA, Forgy said, “it was electric” in the room.
For artists and art teachers, the impact has been sensational.
Michael Warrick has taught sculpture at UA Little Rock for 28 years. “I’ve always felt strongly about being here because we have great people, dynamic talent. But having a place of our own … it makes a huge difference.”
Warrick’s sculpture studio is almost triple the size of his studio in the old Fine Arts Building, and his advanced students have their own work areas. There’s a foundry for bronze and aluminum, in a space large enough, and safe enough, for 50 people to observe and learn. But that’s not the whole picture: “I’m in a 3D area with metalworking and blacksmithing, woodworking, furniture, ceramics, and the connectivity is phenomenal. It’s amazing what it can accomplish for our students.” The cross-pollination that happens when all the arts disciplines are under one roof “transforms what we can teach and how we can teach and how well we can teach. … It’s made it a lot more energizing and exciting to be here.”
Thanks to Windgate and its expansion of access to the arts, there are children who are more successful in school, students and adults inspired by something they’ve seen in a museum or watched in a theater, aspiring artists who have been able to afford college studies because of scholarships.
Horn, asked for an anecdote about feedback she’s received from students touched by Windgate’s largesse, said she’s been told, not once but many times, “You’ve saved my life.”
Windgate’s largest single grant for the arts was its $40 million gift in 2017 to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville for the Windgate Art and Design District, which includes the Hill Avenue Sculpture Complex that opened in 2016. It followed the $120 million gift from the Walton Family Charitable Foundation to create the UA School of Art.
“We’ll be doubling our student body over the next five to 10 years,” interim UA School of Art Director Mathew McConnell said. “Windgate plays very much into that objective, and we can’t do it without those facilities; those foundations work hand-in-hand to give us a brighter future.”
The physical space provided students is important to their work, McConnell said. “I’ve traveled a lot as a visiting artist and I’ve seen how buildings can really impact the work that is produced. I think that what’s vital for students is a little bit of excess space. There’s a correspondence to the way we can think freely. Drawings move through space, extend much further than the bounds of a table. … [a large work space] leads to broader thinking, more experimental work and collaboration.”
When Robyn Horn made a trip to Arkansas State University in Jonesboro for a show of her sculpture and works on paper in the Bradbury Gallery, she toured the campus and took in the sculpture studio, located in a retrofitted gymnasium. “It was horrible,” she said. The small space was shared by sculpture and woodworking classes and their equipment. Horn said she went to John Brown and told him the foundation should consider getting involved.
Arkansas State University sculpture professor John Salvest, who is nationally known for his installation work, and his wife, ASU Bradbury Museum Director Les Christensen, wrote the grant proposal. Windgate, which had contributed $1 million to the transformation of the Bradbury Gallery to the Bradbury Museum, announced last September it would give ASU $6.7 million to create the Windgate Center for Three Dimensional Arts.
The new building, expected to open in fall 2020, will be at least four or five times larger than the sculpture studio is now, Salvest said. “The great thing about working with Robyn on a project like this is because she’s a sculptor herself, she’s so aware of the needs of a facility like this,” he said.
But it takes more than need to get a Windgate grant. The foundation wants a commitment from the arts institutions it supports that they will continue to invest in the facility, programming, faculty and students.
UA Little Rock Chancellor Andrew Rogerson, a microbiologist who also paints (he described himself as “an insecure artist” but “an arrogant scientist”), said, “It’s on us now to make [the Windgate Center] the place to come.”
The gift to UA Little Rock and other arts organizations “I think will be transformative for the whole state,” Rogerson said. “We’re becoming a real destination for people who want to appreciate art, with Crystal Bridges and the Arts Center here in Little Rock. Supplemented by institutions that can put on top-class art programs, it all comes together.”
The Arkansas Arts Center has received a total of $24 million in grants from Windgate in the past 26 years. Brian Lang, chief curator and the Windgate Foundation Curator of Contemporary Craft, and Ann Wagner, the Jackye and Curtis Finch Curator of Drawings, were hired more than six years ago thanks to a grant from Windgate. The grant came at a time when the Arts Center was recovering from financial hardship. Windgate’s impact has been “immeasurable,” Lang said.
“I think first and foremost the support they’ve given to the curators and the stability of securing those positions, it really gave the Arts Center the opportunity to move forward,” Lang said.
Lang rattled off several programmatic gifts from Windgate: Support to conserve drawings given the Arts Center by John Marin and for 2018 exhibition of those drawings, “Becoming John Marin: Modernist at Work.” Support for the 2016 show “Little Dreams in Glass and Metal.” Support for the 2013 retrospective “Ron Meyers: A Potter’s Menagerie” and the exhibition catalog. The foundation has “really allowed the Arkansas Arts Center to undertake serious scholarship which will have a lasting influence on museums,” Lang said. Windgate also funds a ceramic residency in the Museum School of the Arts Center, a program that gives teaching experience to recent graduates.
“Apart from Walton, there is no other grantmaker as supportive of art in the state as Windgate,” Lang said. Thanks to Windgate’s museum-quality gallery space on university campuses, he added, the Arkansas Arts Center is “better poised to share the works from our collection with other institutions around the state.”
Last year, Windgate invested in the Arts Center’s future in another way, with a $4 million gift to the capital campaign to build a new Arkansas Arts Center, slated to open in 2022. Horn declined to say whether there would be more going to the campaign, because it has yet to go public.
Next year, Hendrix College will open the Miller Creative Quad, which will include the Windgate Museum of Art. Windgate made a grant of $10 million to Hendrix to help build and endow the museum. Museum director and curator Mary Kennedy will develop interdisciplinary studies to bring students to the arts. “If you’re a student in mathematics or literature, we’re going to find a way to get you involved in the museum,” Kennedy said. For example, she said, she’s working with Hendrix-Murphy Program Director Hope Coulter on a project that would create an intersection between Coulter’s class on James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” and an exhibition on Depression-era photographs.
The recognition that art is not a discipline that involves only artists is expressed in another Windgate-backed program: the Arkansas A+ arts-infused curriculum for grades K-12. “Democratizing the arts is a large part of what we’ve been doing with A+ schools,” John Brown said.
SCULPTING WITH CLAY: Student Spenser Jacob works on a bust with sculpture teacher Michael Warrick at UA Little Rock. “Having a place of our own makes a huge difference,” Warrick said of the Windgate gift.
Windgate funded a pilot A+ project in Arkansas in 2003; the Thea Foundation of Little Rock took off and ran with it. Thea Foundation Director Paul Leopoulos had seen how art classes had helped his daughter, a previously indifferent student in her academic classes, excel at Central High School.
The A+ curriculum is based on the understanding that some students learn better by hands-on work and creative inspiration: At KIPP school in Helena-West Helena, students have made paper quilts to learn geometry and written short plays about something they’ve read. Sometimes, A+ serves as an example for teaching outside the arts: A teacher at an A+ school in Judsonia was inspired to use a dead tarantula. Her students researched tarantula life, learned about the Day of the Dead, even designed a coffin for the arachnid. The program not only serves to expose children to the arts and creative thinking, it’s proven to raise test scores and erase discipline problems. A+ is now under the aegis of the University of Arkansas, which is training teachers in the method. Twenty-three schools have used the A+ curriculum; seven are active now.
John Brown calls Leopoulos “our staff evangelist for A+.” Leopoulos says “generosity doesn’t describe” Brown and Windgate. “Kindness, caring, empathy about your community and young people and the arts — there’s no one like those people.”
Thanks to the A+ program, Windgate’s funding for Thea scholarships in performing and visual arts for high school students, Windgate’s new arts and design centers and its funding for artists in residence, it’s possible that there are children who’ve been raised on Windgate grants.
Some of Windgate’s smaller grants are having huge impacts and promise more. UA Pulaski Technical College received $1.5 million to furnish its Center for the Humanities and the Arts, which includes a 452-seat theater, art gallery and classroom space, and another $1 million for scholarships. In December, Windgate granted the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas in Pine Bluff a $2.2 million grant to renovate a building on Main Street for the ARTSpace for Creative Thinking and Entrepreneurship.
“I originally spoke to John Brown to create a community space to provide more outreach and engagement beyond the museum setting,” Rachel Miller, the arts center director, said. “Brown liked that idea and encouraged me to develop and seek community support” for the space, she said.
The arts center will collaborate with UA Pine Bluff’s economic incubator to use the space to show “how to use the arts as workforce readiness,” Miller said. The two-story ARTSpace will also work with schools to provide teaching resources they may not have and commercial gallery space for the community and regional artists.
Despite the challenge of running the small arts center, Miller said it’s “a really wonderful place to work. You have to have your heart in public service. … You have to love working for your community.”
Miller is “a force to be reckoned with,” Horn said. “That’s what we’re looking for, somebody with such dedication that can make things happen.”
Other Windgate grants to the arts: A $12 million grant for programming and the endowment of the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum. A $1 million challenge grant to the Arkansas Repertory Theatre to help it out of its financial hole that darkened the theater last year. (Little Rock rose to the challenge, and the lights will go up once more at The Rep for its production of “Chicago” that opened Feb. 22.) Also: The Eureka Springs School of the Arts. Emergent Arts and The Muses in Hot Springs. The Arts Center of the Grand Prairie in Stuttgart. DeltaARTS in West Memphis. The Center for Art and Education in Van Buren. The Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville. And so on.
It’s a lot easier, Brown said, to talk about arts philanthropy these days. There is more understanding of how the arts contribute to quality of life.
But Horn said the Windgate and Walton foundations can’t do it all. “We need other people to contribute to the arts. Whether a university or a small nonprofit, get involved in it to where you know the people. That will convince you.”