Transforming the Local:Remaking, Rebranding, and Repopulating Northwest Arkansasthrough Walton Family Arts Development

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Sigmon, Kari Samantha, Architectural History - School of Architecture, University of Virginia
Crane, Sheila, Architectural History

Northwest Arkansas (NWA) has long been an overlooked region of America due in part to the stereotypes surrounding the isolated Ozarks and their "lack" of culture. In reality, the area is home to both traditional and innovative craft, arts, music, and architecture. The year 2011 marked a major shift in arts development, though, when the Waltons, the billionaire family behind the Walmart retail corporation, opened their flagship institution Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. This major investment signaled the Family’s renewed financial interest in developing the area as a cultural playground into the 2010s. This thesis theorizes a transformation from the grassroots local arts community in NWA to the Walton localization of space through the use of corporate placemaking strategies that create an image of the local devoid of resident artists and organizers.

In the last ten years, The Walton Family Foundation exponentially increased spending in the area to fund expansion of the arts campus at the University of Arkansas, hire outside planning consultants, commission development studies, scale up select existing cultural spaces and organizations, and spearhead major building projects that promote an arts, leisure, and wellness lifestyle rolled into one idealized corporate resident. Their accompanying marketing language regarding these changes not only attempts to shift the cultural center of the region to Bentonville through the strategic employment of the Waltons’ specific form of top-down arts development, but also promotes the implementation of variations of their model into the rest of NWA. My analysis of both grassroots and Walton arts models engages with the ways art, site, architecture, and language are intrinsically tied together through funding and development in efforts to remake, rebrand, and repopulate the region in the Walton image.

To understand the relationship between Walton building, marketing language, and local artists and arts organizers, this paper details the arts ecologies of the downtown neighborhoods of both Bentonville and Fayetteville by constructing a critical ethnography that utilizes frameworks from spatial justice and feminist analyses. Ultimately Walton Family interests have moved out from Downtown Bentonville, corporatizing the culture of other towns and displacing artists. Including the opinions and experiences from various local arts organizers underscores the need for preserving a variety of definitions and connotations of the local, especially those tied to anti-capitalist and unofficial practices such as placekeeping and DIY organizing.

The goal of this paper is to complicate how art scenes are discussed, arguing for scholars to look behind and beyond one building or buzzword to comprehend a network of tensions between privatized funding sources, local governments, non-profits, and community members. "Transforming the Local" strives to decenter the discussions around placemaking practices as an example of holistic good corporate philanthropy and proposes alternative grassroots endeavors that are ethnically, respectfully, and supportively aligned with communities they serve. Through understanding more about the transformation of “local” used in promotional text and media, as well as within the built environment, a picture of who makes the decisions, who is left out, and how sites and design interact with this process becomes both more complex and clearer.

MARH (Master of Architectural History)
Northwest Arkansas, creative placemaking, contemporary art, urban planning, Walton Family , do-it-yourself
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