Seven board members resign amid Walton Arts Center decision to decline hosting drag performances for youth

Exit tied to decision on drag shows

Four Walton Arts Center board members are shown in these undated file photos. Casey Hamaker (left) said in an email dated Friday, May 19, 2023 that she and six other members of the board resigned Thursday, May 18, after a decision by Walton Arts Center leadership to prohibit drag performances for minors during the pride festival scheduled for June 24, 2023. Three of the other members who resigned are (from second left) Anne O'Leary Kelly, Mervin Jebaraj and Shabana Kauser. (Left and second left, NWA Democrat-Gazette/Carin Schoppmeyer; second right, courtesy photo; right, NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)

FAYETTEVILLE -- At least seven members of the Walton Arts Center board resigned Friday after the center's decision to prohibit drag performances for minors during this year's Pride festival to be held June 24.

Northwest Arkansas Equality, the nonprofit group that organizes the Northwest Arkansas Pride Festival and Parade, on May 10 released a statement saying it would move the event's youth zone to the Fayetteville Town Center, and no Pride events would happen at the Walton Arts Center this year.

The Walton Arts Center leadership declined to host any drag performances in which minors would be allowed to attend and had concerns over a policy regarding parents in the youth zone.

The Walton Arts Center board held a meeting Thursday in which the decision was discussed, but not voted on. On Friday, board member Casey Hamaker said in an email she and six other members resigned. The other board members are Anne O'Leary-Kelly, Jody Dilday, Mervin Jebaraj, Cal Rose, Lia Uribe and Shabana Kauser.

"After careful consideration, we are compelled by our consciences to make this decision," Hamaker said.

The Walton Arts Center board has 22 members, according to the city's website. The city appoints six members, the University of Arkansas appoints another six members and the remaining 11 members are appointed by the Walton Family Foundation.

In his resignation letter, Jebaraj said he couldn't "in good conscience remain affiliated with an institution which refuses to acknowledge the harm it has caused to members of our community." He said Walton Arts Center President and Chief Executive Officer Peter Lane made a political decision to no longer permit age-appropriate drag performances without consulting the board.

"This decision by the CEO was not only misguided and insensitive, but also deeply hurtful and disrespectful to the LGBTQ community," Jebaraj said.

"The decision sent a clear message that the voices, lived experiences and identities of LGBTQ individuals are not valued," he said, adding it undermined the Walton Arts Center's mission to promote diversity, equity and inclusion.

The center since 2018 had served as a venue for youth and family programming during the Pride event, including resource fairs, drag story time and drag shows for teens. It has partnered with the festival for nearly two decades.

NWA Equality said in a statement Friday the youth zone has separate areas for different age groups. It will include arts and crafts, storybook readings, a space for teens and a resource fair of LGBTQ-supportive, youth-focused organizations for parents and guardians to gain information.

"Parents/guardians and children are welcome and encouraged to attend spaces together," the statement said. "Story readings will include community members, some in costume, reading age-appropriate books to children and their parents/guardians. Our Teen Zone is for teens only, but has a designated parent/guardian area inside the Teen Zone. Entertainment in this teen space is similar to a high school dance, with DJs, musical acts, youth-appropriate performers, and content, including drag performers."

NWA Equality vets all vendors, volunteers and chaperones with background checks and training, according to the statement.

The teen zone was a new feature during last year's event and had the same arrangement for parents and guardians, said Richard Gathright, NWA Equality director.

Jennifer Wilson, Walton Arts Center spokesperson, said the organization is deeply saddened and disappointed that seven members of the board resigned.

"We respect these board members and the decision that they have made, and we wish them well," she said.

In a statement released late Thursday, the Walton Arts Center said it "regrets that our recent operational decision around hosting some NWA Equality Pride Youth Zone activities has upset and hurt many in the community, which was not our intention."

The center reiterated a previous statement saying it recognizes drag as a performance medium that it presents on its stages regularly, which will not change. It asked NWA Equality if it could host the youth zone without drag performances for minors. When that didn't work out, the center requested the drag performances be moved to a different venue and offered to pay the costs to book the performances elsewhere, according to the statement.

The Walton Arts Center said it had concerns over safety with hosting drag performances for minors because of divisive and dangerous national political rhetoric, although it recognized safety is a concern NWA Equality and the community it serves "regrettably have to deal with on a daily basis."

"Our concern was not simply around the physical safety surrounding these events, but the policy to not allow parents, guardians and caregivers into the Youth Zone," the statement said.