Walton Arts Center board members resign after CEO declines to host drag events aimed at minors
Board was not consulted in the center’s decision; resigning members cite their consciences and values
Drag performers and LGBTQ+ rights activists gathered on the Arkansas Capitol steps on January 19, 2023 to protest a bill that would have banned drag performances in the vicinity of minors. The bill was amended to no longer mention "drag" and was signed into law in February. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)
Six members of the Walton Arts Center Board of Directors announced their resignations Friday afternoon in light of the center’s decision not to host drag events for minors during Northwest Arkansas Pride celebrations next month.
“After careful consideration, we are compelled by our consciences to make this decision,” board secretary and treasurer Casey Hamaker wrote in an email to reporters.
Anne O’Leary-Kelly, Jody Dilday, Lia Uribe, Mervin Jebaraj and Cal Rose joined Hamaker in resigning. O’Leary-Kelly and Uribe were co-chairs of the board’s diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging committee, and Dilday and Rose were committee members. Additionally, O’Leary-Kelly was one of the 22-member board’s five vice chairs.
A seventh board member, Shabana Kauser, also resigned Friday. She did not respond by publication time to an email asking if her resignation was related to the center’s drag decision.
The nonprofit Northwest Arkansas Equality announced May 10 that the city-owned arts center decided not to host “content-appropriate drag story time” or “drag shows suitable for teens,” which make up the LGBTQ+ advocacy organization’s “Youth Zone” during Pride festivities the last weekend in June. Youth Zone events will be held at the Fayetteville Town Center instead.
At the time, Walton Arts Center officials told the Arkansas Advocate that the “decision was made in the interest of safety concerns for performers, patrons and staff” in light of “divisive political rhetoric.” The center will still host other drag events.
The decision sent a clear message that the voices, lived experiences, and identities of LGBTQ individuals are not valued.
– Mervin Jebaraj, former member of the Walton Arts Center board of directors
On Thursday, the center released a statement saying it was “not an easy decision, or one that we took lightly, but is one we believe was necessary” and promising to “learn from this experience.”
“We stand with all who oppose policies that unfairly restrict rights of the LGBTQIA+ community, as those policies harm individuals and impact the ability of businesses and industries across the state to bring artists and visitors to our region,” the statement reads.
The statement drew criticism, including from the Big Gay Market, a farmers market with all LGBTQ+ vendors that takes place inside the Fayetteville Town Center. The market organizers interpreted the statement to mean arts center leaders did not want to be held accountable for a “decision to choose [their] own comfort over standing up for the LGBTQIA+ community,” they said in an Instagram post.
“Yes, we understand that standing with the queer community requires extra steps of security,” the organizers said. “…We have to deal with that on a daily basis.”
The Instagram post promoted a protest scheduled for Saturday evening outside the arts center. Arkansans for Social Justice had already planned the protest before the arts center released its statement.
The arts center is one of 236 entities that has signed onto the Northwest Arkansas Council’s pledge for diversity and inclusion.
Bill that initially targeted drag shows becomes Arkansas law
The Walton Arts Center’s decision comes in light of Act 131, a state law signed in February restricting “adult-oriented performances.” The law initially would have banned drag performances in the presence of minors, but references to “drag” were removed after multiple amendments in the legislative process.
The arts center did not cite Act 131 or any other law in its decision not to host drag shows around children.
Center leaders asked NWA Equality earlier this year if it would be possible to host the Youth Zone without the presence of drag performers, and NWA Equality said no, according to the center’s statement.
Richard Gathright, the director of Northwest Arkansas Pride, relayed this to the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last week. He said the decision not to host drag events for minors came from Walton Arts Center president and CEO Peter Lane, while members of the board of directors appeared to be divided on the matter.
The board did not vote on the decision, Hamaker and Jebaraj told the Democrat-Gazette.
The Walton Family Foundation appoints 11 board members, the city of Fayetteville appoints six and the University of Arkansas board of trustees appoints six more. One seat on the board is currently vacant.
Hamaker, Jebaraj, Rose, Dilday and Kauser were all appointed by the city, while Uribe and O’Leary-Kelly were appointed by the UA trustees.
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
In an email to Fayetteville city officials explaining his resignation, Jebaraj said he could not “remain affiliated with an institution which refuses to acknowledge the harm it has caused.”
“This decision by the CEO was not only misguided and insensitive, but also deeply hurtful and disrespectful to the LGBTQ community,” Jebaraj said in the email, which he provided to the Advocate. “The decision sent a clear message that the voices, lived experiences, and identities of LGBTQ individuals are not valued.”
Dilday told the Advocate in an email that she is “no longer in alignment with the direction the Walton Arts Center’s leadership is taking.”
Uribe made a similar comment in her resignation letter, which she provided to the Advocate. She also said she has “observed a misalignment between the organization’s actions and its stated commitment to inclusion and community support” in her five years on the board.
“I strongly believe that art has the power to unite, uplift, and inspire, and it is essential that arts organizations fulfill their potential as a catalyst for positive change within our community,” Uribe said. “Regrettably, my presence on the board no longer enables me to contribute meaningfully to this vision.”
Hamaker and Rose declined to provide further comments on their resignations. O’Leary-Kelly did not respond to a request for comment.
Gathright also could not be reached for comment Friday.
The arts center is “deeply saddened and disappointed” about the board members’ resignations, public relations director Jennifer Wilson said in an email.
“We respect these board members and the decision that they have made, and we wish them well,” she said.
SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.