Walmart Heirs Launch New Music Festival in Bid to Make Arkansas an Art Destination

FORMAT will bring big-name musicians, contemporary artists to Bentonville

A wide open green area
The FORMAT festival will be held on 250 acres of open green land just a few miles outside of Bentonville, Arkansas. Zak Heald / Courtesy of FORMAT

Some travelers know the Ozarks for the region’s forests and caves. Now, a new festival seeks to put Bentonville, Arkansas—home to Walmart’s headquarters—on the cultural map for something quite different.

Musicians, contemporary artists and audiences will converge in the area in September for FORMAT (For Music + Art + Technology). The new festival is being launched in partnership with Walmart heirs and the production company behind Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits Music Festival, the Wall Street Journal’s Kelly Crow reports.

The festival will take place the weekend of September 23 at the Sugar Creek Airstrip near downtown Bentonville.

Featuring interactive art installations and technological demonstrations, headliners include Rüfüs Du Sol, Phoenix, Khruangbin, Beach House, The War on Drugs, Herbie Hancock and the Flaming Lips. Featured artists include Doug Aitken, Nick Cave and Maurizio Cattelan’s Toiletpaper magazine.

In addition to the main and side stages typically seen at music festivals, musicians will also perform in non-traditional locations—a barn converted into what organizers call a “disco madhouse,” a speakeasy and hidden spots in the forest that encircles the 250-acre festival site.

FORMAT won’t shy away from bizarre artistic experiences, from an appearance by artist Doug Aitken’s mirrored New Horizon hot-air balloon, part of an opening event, to daily “invasions” by artist Nick Cave’s Soundsuits—performers in intricate costumes made of discarded material that make unique noises. Irish artist Neil Harbisson, who considers himself to be the world’s first human cyborg, will give a presentation using an antenna attached to his head to project images on a screen.

Other highlights will include a maze constructed from plastic bottles discarded by Bentonville residents and sex therapy sessions from hypnotherapist and erotic jewelry designer Betony Vernon, per the WSJ.

Shiny hot air balloon
Doug Aitken's "New Horizon" will take  flight during the festival's kickoff ceremonies.  Jamie Barron / Courtesy of FORMAT

It’s all part of an ongoing effort to turn Bentonville, where entrepreneur Sam Walton founded Walmart in 1962, into a must-visit cultural destination despite its relatively small population and small-town roots. The transformation has been ongoing: Jacobin’s Stephanie Farmer reports that Walton’s heirs are “[bankrolling] the conversion of small-town Bentonville into a playground for Walmart’s management class and supply chain vendors.”

The small city has been growing rapidly. The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Doug Thompson and Mike Jones report that the city of 55,000 grew 53 percent over the last decade, and that officials chalk up the surge to the city’s “business and cultural growth.” In recent years, multiple art museums have opened in the area. Among them is the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Its collection includes paintings by Winslow Homer, Norman Rockwell and Jackson Pollock.

“With FORMAT in OZ, we’ve tried to capture all the things that make Northwest Arkansas one of the fastest-growing and most dynamic ecosystems in the country—unparalleled access to outdoor recreation, accessible art everywhere you turn, and a culture of innovation as boundless and wild as the Ozark mountains,” says Olivia Walton, the museum’s board chair and wife of Walmart heir Tom Walton, grandson of the company’s founder, in a release.

Tom’s aunt, Alice, founded the Crystal Bridges museum. With a net worth of approximately $71 billion, the art philanthropist is the 16th richest person in the world at the time of publication, per Forbes.

Local officials say the museum has catalyzed development in the region. But others criticize what they see as the Waltons’ dominance of Bentonville and northwest Arkansas, reports Scalawag Magazine’s Oliva Paschal, who refers to the city as a “company town” in which Walmart and the Waltons’ influence is “ubiquitous and inescapable.”

The Waltons are involved in the festival. But Artnet News’ Eileen Kinsella reports that the visual art will be curated by Triadic, a self-described “creative house and cultural engine” based in New York City, London, and Vienna whose founders say they came up with the idea for the festival and spent two years looking for its home before settling on the Arkansas town.

People in colorful costumes with long, swinging threads
Nick Cave's Soundsuits will make daily "invasions" of the music festival. James Prinz / Courtesy of FORMAT

“Bentonville is entirely unique in the way culture and community are intertwined,” Triadic founder Roya Sachs tells Artnet. “I’m always amazed by what I discover when I’m there, from performances in an abandoned cheese factory turned museum [the Momentary], to James Turrell Skyscapes.”

The WSJ describes the Walton heirs spearheading the festival, Steuart, Tom and Olivia, as “outdoorsy types who like to hike and ride bike trails.” The 30-something heirs tell the WSJ they see the festival as a way to continue investing in the area’s cultural economy while satisfying their longing for live music.

Launching a new music festival is an enormous undertaking, as evidenced by 2017’s well-documented Fyre Festival, a pricey party on a private island that devolved into a fiasco when influencers and attendees found themselves stranded on an island outfitted with FEMA disaster tents, bare-bones food, and the realization that the concerts in question didn’t actually exist. Its founder pleaded guilty to fraud and was sentenced to six years in federal prison in 2018.

In contrast, the Waltons and Triadic have chosen musical festival veterans to run the show, per Artnet. C3 Presents, the event’s production company, has been responsible for everything from Bonnaroo to President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration.

General admission tickets start at $275 and go on sale on Friday, April 22.