I just got back from the Arkansas Arts Center, where Arts Center registrar/fixture Thom Hall gave a terrific talk on the Arts Center drawing collection and how it grew. He talked about Townsend Wolfe’s vision to collect works on paper, and covered the various genres within the collection. He pointed out the special attributes of works on paper, that drawings can create an intimacy with the artist that finished works may not, and accompanied the talk with slides from the drawing collection, starting with the first three purchased by Townsend Wolfe in 1971.
Hall spiced it up, of course — this is Sylvia Moskowitz’s alter ego, after all, speaking to the Fine Arts Club of Arkansas — noting that shadows in Susan Hauptman’s 9-foot-tall self-portrait give her a penis; that local collectors regret not buying outsider artist Bill Traylor, introduced to Little Rock years ago by Wolfe (“they’re sick about it now,” he said); a Metropolitan Museum curator’s delight in being able to muck about in the stacks and grab a Bonnard for a talk she was giving to local arts educators, and the fact that the famed Diego Rivera painting — that anyone who has ever been to the Arts Center knows — happens to be a portrait of his wife, his mistress and his dog. Why couldn’t I see that?
Hall advised the audience to find the abstract in the figurative, using Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Banana Flower No. 1” as an example of light and dark, and added that it is one of only three banana drawings in museums. He talked about finding the figurative in the abstract, reading Robert Motherwell’s acrylic on mylar study for his National Gallery “Elegy Series” as landscape — and adding that the piece is bordered in pink because the wall where the work was to hang was pink. Who knew that? He noted the difference in French and German art, the lyrical versus the aggressive, using a Max Beckmann drawing of a jazz club as an example — and added that the drawing in the collection barely made it out of a Berlin gallery before the Nazis invaded it. Of William Edmondson’s stone rabbit — Hall recalled a stonemason who, seeing the work at the Arts Center, pointed out that Edmondson “had to be” an outsider artist, because he’d gone at the stone the wrong way, against the grain. "He saw a bunny in that rock and let it out," Hall said of Edmondson.
Hall touched on the Arts Center’s significant collections of Paul Signac watercolors (given by Jim Dyke) and its 290 drawings by early 20th century American artist John Marin, a promised gift by Marin’s heirs. He revealed Wolfe’s “insecurity” when it came to post-minimalist art, and his cultivation of post-minimalist promoters Wynn and Sally Kramarsky Gallery, a relationship that led to a significant gift to the Arts Center from the Kramarskys, including work by Sol LeWitt and Richard Tsao.
While Hall covered a lot of territory, including some of his own early cloisonné paintings and his current work on paper, he was surely standing on the tip of the iceberg of what he knows about the Arts Center’s collection. Is he writing it down somewhere for posterity? “That might be a good thing for me to do,” he said after the talk.
About the future: In response to a question from the audience, Hall said the board is working with a national search firm to hire a new director but is being deliberate, in no rush, to find a the right person to lead the Arts “to the next level.” He noted that interim director Joe Lampo is among those seeking the job, left vacant a year ago when former director Nan Plummer resigned.
Hall made a reference to the budget-killing “World of the Pharaohs” exhibit, praising it for its educational value, especially for school children throughout Arkansas. But, he added, the exhibit’s September to July run was too long, and “killed” visits by those who wanted and expected to see new work every month or so at the Arts Center. Now, however, “we are back to what we are about,” Hall said: fine art and contemporary crafts that complement and expand on the arts center’s own holdings.