Q&A on moving the Arkansas Arts Center to North Little Rock | Arkansas Blog

Q&A on moving the Arkansas Arts Center to North Little Rock

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TALK OF A NEW LOCATION: For the Arkansas Arts Center.
  • TALK OF A NEW LOCATION: For the Arkansas Arts Center.

Our item last night
about an idea to raise $100 million in public and private money to build an arts complex on the North Little Rock riverfront, with a relocated Arkansas Arts Center as its centerpiece, has spurred quite a bit of conversation.

As detailed here, the tentative idea — mostly from confidential sources — would be for $60 million from a 10-year, one-cent sales tax, half devoted to police and fire needs in North Little Rock and at least $40 million from private sources, specifically the Stephens family of Little Rock, long the major patrons of the Arkansas Arts Center. North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith has confirmed the financial scope of the project, but not specific players.

I learned late last night that another tentative piece of the idea to create a multi-building "campus" devoted to the arts and tourism could be a move of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre from Main Street in Little Rock. Under this idea, the Arkansas Arts Center children's theater would combine with the Rep's effort for children in the old facility. Robert Hupp, The Rep's director, hasn 't returned my call. And, again, all this  is just a concept at this point. (UPDATE: I talked with Hupp. He said he can't comment.) But I have confirmed that the conceptualizing is about more than the Arkansas Arts Center. A few of the questions that have arisen as I've talked with a wide variety of interested parties:

Why move the Arts Center?

The building needs a lot of work. It has leaks. It needs a new boiler. It is reaching the limit on storage space. Conservation of its world-class drawing collection is an ongoing concern. The city of Little Rock, though it has increased support for the city-owned building, can't in its current financial situation provide greatly enhanced funding. Or perhaps there's a belief it won't. Many people believe it is easier to get things done with North Little Rock's mayor-council government than with Little Rock's blended form of government —  a city manger and a mayor with limited powers and a board that's a mixture of ward and at-large representatives.

Has anybody thought about the consequences of vacating the Arts Center? At least a little. It was expanded by a $30 million private campaign some years ago. Could there be a creative process to come up with an interesting re-use.? Ideally, in this way of thinking, it would be an institution like a college or public school with bonding capacity for conversion.

Will patrons support the Arts Center in North Little Rock?

Don't laugh. The image of "Dogtown" dies hard among old-timers and, particularly, old money in Little Rock. Some people simply see the river as a barrier. I happen to think that if people will travel across the country to Bentonville they will cross a river from Little Rock, particularly if the plan were to be sold around the concentration of arts, entertainment and public facilities now becoming a solid nucleus in the core of the city, from the Clinton Library to the under-renovation Robinson Center. Also, if influential people say it's OK, this should influence others. A major investment by someone of Warren Stephens' stature would mean something to some people.

Are North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith and private supporters thinking big enough?

Again, don't laugh. $100 million is a lot to you and me. But in terms of building and maintaining major public facilities it's not a lot. Verizon Arena cost $80 million 16 years ago, when the dollar was worth more. It built an 18,000-seat arena, which is nice, but not as sophisticated or as design-important as magnetic arts facilities could and should be.

Indeed, a project not big enough to excite the imagination sufficiently might spell death of the idea before it is born. I looked the other day at details of a performing arts center project in Kansas City, underwritten by the Kauffman family and designed by the architect who designed Crystal Bridges. The family put almost $500 million into the project, including a $40 million maintenance endowment. The only city taxpayer contribution was $47 million — for a parking garage.

What about Little Rock?

Little Rock can be expected to make an effort to keep its art institutions. Leaders are rankled at North Little Rock's angling for them. The county tax on Verizon Arena was a cooperative venture, with the understanding that athletic facilities would go to North Little Rock, but exhibit halls would be Little Rock's purview. That tax helped the Little Rock convention center expansion.

Little Rock only assesses a 2-cent hamburger tax. North Little Rock assesses three. An added Little Rock penny could be imposed and dedicated to arts institutions, including providing for some elements of the Arts Center on the Main Street creative corridor. Think a "teaser" building aimed at directing people to the Arts Center in MacArthur Park.

There are also some legal questions about taking the Arts Center collection to a non-Little Rock location — a city commission governs the Arts Center — though the city apparently transferred ownership from the museum to the private foundation many years ago.

What are the chances of anything happening?

A wise man today put them to me at 20 percent.

On balance — whatever your feelings on the specifics — I'd rather be debating a $100 million cultural investment in the community than responding to a disaster.

Has anybody suggested that floating this idea was meant to spur a greater LR investment in the Arts Center? 

Yes.

UPDATE: Leslie Newell Peacock has new information on Eye Candy about Little Rock leaders' cool reaction to the idea, including an interview with Mayor Mark Stodola.

UPDATE II: The Arts Center Foundation has weighed in with a "not at this time" statement, but …...

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