A Growing Ecosystem: Behind Another Huge Arts Gift in Northwest Arkansas

 photo:  sevenMaps7/shutterstock

photo:  sevenMaps7/shutterstock

Alice Walton, America's "Most Important Arts Philanthropist," has an important ally in creating a growing and accessible arts ecosystem in Northwest Arkansas: the Windgate Charitable Foundation, a local foundation that last reported assets of around $200 million. 

Walton's Crystal Bridges Museum of American has a deep relationship with Windgate, which is primarily comprised of donations of Walmart stock acquired by the family. A few years ago, the foundation funded the museums' Distance Learning Project, while back in June it awarded Crystal Bridges $15 million to create the Windgate Educational Excellence Through the Arts Endowed Fund. 

Now comes word that Windgate has announced a $40 million gift to the University of Arkansas, as part of its Campaign Arkansas, to create the new Windgate Art and Design District in south Fayetteville. The district will bring together art, design, and education, while "serving as the central hub for the student and faculty artists and designers at the University of Arkansas and beyond."

The Windgate Art and Design District will "further expand the reach and scope" of the University of Arkansas' School of Art, which was established in August 2017 thanks to a $120 million gift from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation, a philanthropic arm of the Walton family that is separate from the Walton Family Foundation. 

Add it all up, and the gift is but the latest development in Walton family-related efforts to put Northwest Arkansas on the global art map.

Let's step back for a second and see how all the puzzle pieces fit together.

A Growing Arts Ecosystem in Northwest Arkansas

The signal event here was, of course, the opening of Crystal Bridges, which recently celebrated its five-year anniversary. Last year, the museum acquired a decommissioned Kraft Foods plant, also in Bentonville, which it plans to transform into a "vibrant facility for visual and performing arts." In August, it announced that new space will be called Momentary and that Lieven Bertels, a Belgian musicologist, will be its director.

Meanwhile, the Walton Arts Center, located in Fayetteville and started in the 1980s with a donation from Sam Walton, recently completed a $23 million renovation and expansion. The Walton Family Foundation allocated $5 million for the project.

And then there's the new University of Arkansas' School of Art,

That's a lot of art for a region with a population of roughly 525,000 residents. The Walton family has been instrumental in putting in place all the different pieces of a vibrant arts ecosystem in Northwest Arkansas—a goal that the Windgate Foundation clearly shares.

Complementing a Vision of Accessibility

It's worth reiterating that the Windgate Foundation is an independent grantmaker with a mind of its own. While it exists thanks to Walmart stock and works closely with Crystal Bridges, I don't want to seem like Alice or any other Walton family member is directly pulling the strings there. But the optics are unmistakable. The Windgate gift complements Walton's vision of a burgeoning—yet accessible—arts scene. 

It's a vision that manifests itself in many forms.

Crystal Bridges offers free admission. The museum's educational work with Windgate focuses on expanding arts education. And the vision behind the Windgate Art and Design District also stresses accessibility. Robyn Horn, a Windgate board member, said she believes the new spaces, classrooms, and labs will provide the opportunity to engage the community with programming that is "free, open, and accessible to the public."