Walton Arts Center board resignations reach 9 after CEO nixes drag events aimed at minors

Resignations started after the board held a special meeting; the remaining members total just above a quorum

By: - May 23, 2023 5:17 pm

LGBTQ+ rights activists hold a flash mob in front of the Arkansas Capitol in Little Rock on January 23, 2023, protesting a bill that initially would have banned drag performances in front of minors. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

Two more members of the Walton Arts Center board of directors have resigned, leaving just over a majority of the board in place after seven members resigned last week.

Six of the seven who resigned Friday did so as a joint protest against the arts center’s decision not to host drag events aimed at minors during Northwest Arkansas Pride festivities in Fayetteville next month. The city-owned arts center cited security concerns amid “divisive political rhetoric” as the reason for its decision, while the six former board members cited their consciences as their reason for resigning.

The resignations began after the board held a special meeting Thursday, former board member Casey Hamaker said.

Anne O’Leary-Kelly,​​ Jody Dilday, Lia Uribe, Mervin Jebaraj and Cal Rose joined Hamaker in resigning. Shabana Kauser also resigned Friday and could not be reached for comment about her reason for resigning.

Elecia Smith resigned from the board Monday and also could not be reached for comment.

A ninth board member, Shelley Simmons, resigned Tuesday and provided a statement to the Arkansas Advocate. She said she believed the Walton Arts Center “is suddenly choosing to vilify” drag performances and transgender people, since the center hosted Northwest Arkansas Pride’s events aimed at youth “without issue” in the past.

Need to get in touch?

Have a news tip?

The events in question are “content-appropriate drag story time” or “drag shows suitable for teens,” which make up the LGBTQ+ advocacy organization’s “Youth Zone” during Pride celebrations, according to the nonprofit Northwest Arkansas Equality.

The arts center released a statement Thursday saying its decision was not easy and promising to “learn from this experience.”

Simmons took issue with Walton Arts Center president and CEO Peter Lane making the decision without getting approval from the board of directors, which Hamaker and Jebaraj told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette earlier this month.

The unilateral decision “demonstrates to me that the WAC leaders are willing to risk the WAC’s reputation and financial stability by making decisions that go against the WAC’s policies and procedures and without full consideration for the ramifications of those decisions,” Simmons said.

“It is my sincere hope that this organization and its board will take stock of all that has happened in the last several weeks and recognize that there is much work to be done to heal the hurt that they have caused in the [Northwest Arkansas] community,” she said.

Some of the first six board members to resign made similar comments last week. Uribe said in her resignation letter that she “observed a misalignment between the organization’s actions and its stated commitment to inclusion and community support” in her five years on the board.

The nine resignations leave behind 13 board members about a month before the board’s June meeting to mark the end of fiscal year 2023.

The 22-member board needs a simple majority of 12 members to reach a quorum, which would still be the case if the sole vacant seat on the board before the wave of resignations had been filled.

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.

Hamaker, Jebaraj, Rose, Dilday and Kauser were all appointed by the city; Uribe, Smith and O’Leary-Kelly were appointed by the UA trustees; Simmons was appointed by the Walton Family Foundation.

Fayetteville city officials had received resignation letters from Hamaker, Jebaraj and Rose as of Tuesday afternoon but had not received them from Dilday and Kauser, city clerk Kara Paxton said.

Bill that initially targeted drag shows becomes Arkansas law

The city council’s nominating committee must give permission for the vacancies on the Walton Arts Center board to be posted online so anyone interested can apply, Paxton said.

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.

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.

Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.