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FORMAT Festival attendees chill out in the field. (Image © Charles Reagan)

The Heartland

Barning Man

Inside the Walton family’s new art and music festival drawing the chic-set to the Ozarks.

Tom Walton stood quietly, taking it all in. “This exceeded all my expectations,” said the tall, boyishly handsome grandson of Walmart Founder Sam Walton as he looked around at the brilliantly lit stage where the lead guitarist of psychedelic rock trio Khruangbin was actively strumming her guitar wearing what looked like a giant pink tutu. 

Walton, 39, is one of the family members responsible for bringing FORMAT, a new art and music festival, to their beloved Ozarks. An acronym of ‘For Music + Art + Technology’, the event brought 70 live musical acts, innovative contemporary artists, and 10,000 visitors together for a single weekend from September 23–25. The family is determined that a new generation of music lovers—both the ‘Coastal Elites’ and European techno-fans—see what his family sees in this corner of the American heartland.  

With the support of the Waltons, Bentonville, Arkansas, 216 miles Northwest of Little Rock, has been actively rebranding itself as an arts destination since the aughts. Surrounded by open fields that can host large-scale crowds, it has the added bonus of being a small town with direct flights from almost anywhere in the U.S., thanks to its being Walmart’s home base. (The company’s original Walton’s 5&10 still faces the tidy town square and is now home to The Walmart Museum.)

Credit for Bentonville’s transformation is largely due to Alice Walton, the matriarch heiress to the Walmart fortune, who boldly put the Ozark town on the art circuit when she opened her Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in 2011. Built by renowned architect Moshe Safdie, the futuristic museum sits on a natural hot spring encircled by wild wooded trails, steps from the town square. The grounds include a complete Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian house, relocated here, studs and all, from New Jersey in 2015; a James Turrell installation; and the Momentary, a newer multidisciplinary space. Inside, is one of the country’s most-extensive collections of American Art. Go now and you can also see billionaire Ken Griffin’s rare copy of the US Constitution—the one for which he famously paid $43.2 million at Sotheby’s last December, twice the high estimate, outbidding a crypto consortium in the process.

FORMAT producers Roya Sachs, Elizabeth Edelman and Mafalda Millies
Fatboy Slim performed in an old-fashioned red barn. (Photo by Grant Hodgeon)
Fatboy Slim performed in an old-fashioned red barn. (Photo by Grant Hodgeon)

Now the younger generation of the Walton family is taking the lead in expanding Bentonville’s artistic reach. Olivia Walton, a former tech reporter for Bloomberg and NBC who’s married to Tom Walton, became the new board chair for Crystal Bridges in 2021, with a vision to “expand the definition of art.”

The collaboration between the Walton Family and FORMAT artistic directors and co-curators Mafalda Millies and Roya Sachs, producer Elizabeth Edelman, and live experience company C3 Presents certainly met that promise. “We are excited that FORMAT will help us introduce this corner of the Heartland to art and music fans from around the world,” Olivia said of the partnership. (It was probably no small coincidence that C3 also produced the Austin City Limits Music Festival. The Waltons have been actively making a play for Texans, particularly Austinites, to leave the Lone Star State for northwest Arkansas.)

THE CUBE, a festival venue designed by guest curator Nicola Vassell and artist Uman. (Image © Grant Hodgeon)

Like a unicorn that was the original Woodstock or the first Coachella, FORMAT was fresh, unexpected, inspiring, and sprinkled with magic. Organizers Sachs, Edelman, and Millies certainly have what is known in business school lingo as “Network Power.” The three women have an uncanny ability to draw a global group of friends who seem to know what the next big thing will be.  Many of the revelers had flown in from as far away as London and Vienna. “I think if those three had been in charge, they probably could have saved the Fyre Festival,” raved one attendee on the plane ride back to New York.

Set on 250 acres of picturesque, wooded fields at the Sugar Creek Airstrip, the uninhabitable, harsh desert of Burning Man this was not. The air was dry, warm, and mild, and smelled of cut hay and approaching fall. And the space, just five miles from town, was intimate enough in size that it took all of 10 minutes to walk from one end to the other. Programming kept to adulting hours of noon–3am, allowing guests to arrive by bus or Uber daily and go back to sleep in a proper hotel in town each night. General admission for three days was $300; VIP was $900; Platinum $2500.

Hundreds of choreographed drones lit up the sky during Phoenix’s performance. (Image © Charles Reagan)
Hundreds of choreographed drones lit up the sky during Phoenix’s performance. (Image © Charles Reagan)

Art and music merged seamlessly. The two main stages, NORTH and SOUTH of OZ, were surrounded by Marinella Senatore’s 700-foot-long light-sculpture resembling an endless sparkling bridge of light. Elsewhere, guests hung out in THE CUBE, a multi-story, open-air structure designed by guest curator Nicola Vassell and Uman, an emerging, Kenyan-raised artist; SMOKEYS, an enchanted twinkling forest with a DJ stage, entered through a smoking, glowing, alien-like archway by landscape artist James Tapscott; DRAG ME TO THE DISCO, an old-fashioned red barn transformed into a disco madhouse; and NEXT DOOR, a multi-roomed immersive installation created by New York–based artists Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe. Looming over the far end of the field like a beacon in the night was Doug Aitken’s New Horizon, a mirrored hot-air balloon covered in lights.

Live-music performances also brought art and technology collaborations. In one, a swarm of hundreds of choreographed drones created by Amsterdam-based Studio DRIFT lit up the sky during Phoenix’s performance, their multicolored lights swirling above in a slow dance in tune with the music. “If you go to the East Coast or West Coast, you see art everywhere,” says Lucas Van Oostrum, cofounder of Drone Stories, who’s partnered with DRIFT before to create visual moments at Burning Man. “The beauty of the work we make is that it transmits freedom to its viewers. It’s not confined by the white space of the gallery or the museum, so it’s important for us to show the work off the beaten path.”

Dombrance’s midnight set was a highlight. The French DJ performed in the rain. (Photo by James Wyman)
Dombrance’s midnight set was a highlight. The French DJ performed in the rain. (Photo by James Wyman)

Perhaps the most magical and unexpected moment was the performance of a little-known French artist, Dombrance, who took to the stage at midnight in THE CUBE. As he started playing, through the door on the side, you could see across the field to where Rufus du Sol was finishing his epic performance on the NORTH of OZ stage. The night was exploding with light, fireworks, and confetti.

Inside THE CUBE, the sound was electrifying, powerful, and fun. Then, it started pouring. Staff and fellow DJ Isaac Ferry dutifully brought in plastic sheets to cover Dombrance’s equipment, while the artist, dressed in a blue suit and a tie, dove under it all and continued spinning as the crowd roared and danced in the rain. It was the kind of moment that people live for at music festivals. The deafening sound. The mess. The community. “Can you believe that just happened?” whispered one guest happily to her friends. FORMAT, which is rumored to take place in Bentonville for the next three years, just might make heartland lovers of us all. See you next time in the Land of Oz. 

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