Despite the amendments to SB43’s that removed restrictions on drag, the Walton Arts Center says drag performances for minors are no longer permitted. As a result, NWA Pride announced it cut ties with the venue.

The Walton Arts Center has long been the host of the Northwest Arkansas Equality Pride Youth Zone, a segment of the annual Pride event featuring crafts, performances, and other programming designed especially for kids. But starting this year, the Walton Arts Center will no longer allow drag performances of any kind when minors are present. 

The disappointing decision is linked to SB43, or the “drag bill,” that passed during the 94th General Assembly. We covered the bill extensively, and you’ll recall that before its final passage, the bill was heavily amended to no longer specify drag performances or drag performers in its public restrictions. 

Instead, the new law specifies restrictions on “adult-oriented performances” in public venues. The law defines adult-oriented performances as a “performance that is intended to appeal to the prurient interest and that features: a person who appears in a state of nudity or is seminude; the purposeful exposure, whether complete or partial, of a specific anatomical area; or prosthetic genitalia or breasts; or a specific sexual activity.” 

NWA Equality, the entity that puts on NWA Pride, has never put on an event that appeals to the prurient interest. In a scathing statement in response to the WAC’s decision, NWA Equality calls out the Walton Arts Center’s decision for being inconsistent with the venue’s ethos and programming.

Northwest Arkansas Equality (NWA Equality) has been a trusted partner and diversity ally of the Walton Arts Center (WAC) for many years. For nearly two decades, the WAC’s facilities and plaza have served the community for Northwest Arkansas Pride, the state’s largest LGBTQ advocacy celebration. Since 2018, NWA Equality has used the Walton Arts Center as a venue for inclusive experiences for LGBTQ youth and their families, including resource fairs, content-appropriate drag story time, and drag shows suitable for teens. These events have included performances by drag celebrities that youth can often only access through television and movies. NWA Equality takes great care to create age-appropriate content during this event, often in partnership with youth organizations and educators.

NWA Equality requested to book the Walton Arts Center for programming identical to NWA Pride activities hosted at the facility in previous years. In several conversations beginning March 30, the Walton Arts Center’s CEO informed Northwest Arkansas Equality that drag performances where minors are permitted are no longer allowed in their facilities during Northwest Arkansas Pride Weekend. The Walton Arts Center’s governing boards of directors upheld the decision on May 2 during a meeting with NWA Equality’s representatives. No law or Walton Arts Center written policy prevents NWA Equality from hosting its full range of NWA Pride programming at this venue, including drag performances attended by youth.

This decision is surprising, disappointing, and inconsistent. Recent and future public programming selected by the Walton Arts Center features actors performing in drag and permits minors to attend. This includes The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Tootsie, the musical, during WAC’s most recent season. Hairspray is part of WAC’s upcoming Broadway Series sponsored by Procter & Gamble. The Walton Arts Center’s mission includes “connecting and engaging people through inspiring arts experiences.” Further, they have a public-facing policy stating parents are the only ones qualified to determine what is appropriate for their child to view. NWA Equality shares their interest in accurately communicating programming to parents.

The Walton Arts Center’s decision demonstrates that publicly-funded entities will now think twice about supporting queer programming for all ages, like drag story hour or queer, age-appropriate events specifically designed for youth. Like NWA Equality, we are also disappointed to see a Fayetteville institution that has long been an ally of the NWA queer community choose fear over freedom.