I got to sit down yesterday with Todd Herman, the new director of the Arkansas Arts Center, and here’s the bottom line: His passion for art is palpable and infectious and bound to stir donors into shelling out, which is exactly what the Arts Center needs.
A visitor to the Arts Center this week would be underwhelmed. A screwy gallery schedule has left both Rockefeller galleries, the Wolfe gallery and the Strauss gallery empty. Only the Signac and Stephens galleries have art on the walls, and if you are a regular Arts Center visitor, you won’t see much you haven’t seen many times before (though who can get enough of Kees van Dongen’s “Modjesko” in the Stephens gallery?).
The future doesn’t look much brighter: Only one new exhibit, “In Search of Rockwell’s America,” from International Art and Artists, will open this summer (July 29-Sept. 18), in the Jeannette Rockefeller gallery. That means that — unless the schedule changes — the Strauss and Winthrop Rockfeller galleries will remain dark until Sept. 16, and the Arts Center won’t have exhibits in all its galleries until Oct. 7, when “Will Barnet: 100” opens in the Wolfe gallery and “Cast, Cut, Forged and Crushed: Selections in Metal from the John and Robyn Horn Collection” opens in the Strauss gallery.
Less immediately obvious are the absences in staffing: To meet its trimmed down $5.5 million budget, the Arts Center is without curators for its strongest collections, its works on paper and contemporary craft, positions Herman calls "critical to the institution." So it’s only a slight stretch to say that Herman comes to an Arts Center not too much different from the one Townsend Wolfe came to in 1968: Underfunded and undergoing somewhat of an identity crisis.
The challenge ahead “I recognized coming in,” Herman said. But “the enthusiasm and commitment of the board and foundation was so impressive that I felt the institution could pull through this.” Herman said he was offered the job of director in the afternoon, had dinner with board members that evening, and at 6 a.m. on his way to the airport the next morning heard KUAR report his hiring. That his hiring was so newsworthy, he said, shows him the Arts Center is "beloved," which, in my book, he's got right.
Given the empty curatorial jobs and the Arts Center’s $2.2 million debt to the Arkansas Arts Center Foundation, Herman’s top priority, he says, is to hire a fund-raiser. The director of development job has been vacant since April 1.
Also up there at the top: A “strategic plan to move the institution forward.” What plans existed are “exhausted at this point … their time limit has passed.” It’s time, he said, to look at what new issues the Arts Center faces. (It is past time, he could have said.)
The contrast couldn’t be greater with the soon-to-open Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, a billion-dollar project of Alice Walton and the Walton Family Foundation that will feature great American art in a Moshe Safdie-designed complex in the middle of 100 acres and will be endowed to a fare-thee-well.
The Arts Center can, and must, distinguish itself from CBMAA by emphasizing its own strengths, Herman said. While Crystal Bridges will focus on American paintings and sculpture, the Arts Center can boast of a collection of works on paper that is international in scope. The Arts Center needs to make known its “stellar works,” Herman said, from 19th century France and its Old Masters as well as the American works, and it needs to shine a light on its collection of contemporary craft. (The Arts Center has the vision of Townsend Wolfe to thank for the former and of wood sculptor Robyn Horn for the latter.) Herman says the Arts Center must solidify its identity more firmly, at home and nationally.
Though his own background is in painting (his dissertation was on 16th century Venetian work), Herman says he has a "soft spot" for drawing. That's going to have to go from soft to downright mushy, but it's clear he's working on that. He talks about boosting the international aspect of the drawing collection, filling in holes — such as French academic figure drawing, for example, to emphasize the impressionist work, show what Van Gogh and others “were working against.” He wants to add more Old Master drawings, and says they are both available and affordable. The Arts Center’s pockets aren’t deep enough to buy what you might be thinking of — “if a Raphael or a Michelangelo or Leonardo, no,” he said. But it is possible to create a collection “that tells the story of the development of drawing, with a variety of media and style, by artists you might know not know as painters” but who were exemplary craftsmen. The last Old Masters sale at Christie’s auction house in New York, Herman said, “had a few very good works … in the $45,000 range.”
With its own mission and identity solidified, Herman said, the Arts Center can wander into the broader art world without making its patrons fear its lost its way, which the long-running and far less popular than expected “World of the Pharaohs” was criticized as doing. (Though it is a joke among museum professionals, Herman said as an aside, that if you can get a dinosaur making an impressionist painting of Egypt, you’ve hit the jackpot where attendance is concerned.)
Though he is on the job here, Herman is still assisting the Columbia Museum of Art in South Carolina with three shows he curated, and he grew animated talking about them. One, an exhibit of illuminated manuscripts from Southern collectors — who would have thought he’d find such a genre in the South? Another, an exhibit of the 1940s work of Mark Rothko, the figurative work that inspired his later color field work. The third: Monet’s "Mornings on the Seine" series, a group of paintings that Herman said hasn’t been shown in one space since George Petit’s exhibition in 1898. He talked about them at some length and with great fervor — “I have been known to get very excited and talk on and on,” he said. His excitement, which comes with a healthy and welcome lack of artifice, is catching, and Herman — who accompanied the development staff in its calls on potential donors and collectors — is said to have been markedly successful in both cultivating donors and raising funds for the South Carolina museum. Meeting with collectors and art lovers is something Herman will no doubt be doing here as he gets the Arts Center up to speed on its exhibition schedule (he’ll plan three years out, the institutional standard, though the current exhibit schedule ends in 2012).
Other goals: Updating the Arts Center’s tired-looking website, which has not changed in ages and could be more functional, he says, and creating traveling exhibitions of work from the Arts Center’s collection, a past practice that has slumped in recent years. He also foresees capitalizing on whatever overlap the Arts Center has with Crystal Bridges. "When Crystal Bridges opens, it's an opportunity for the entire cultural landscape to change and the state of Arkansas to wave flags and say there are two outstanding arts organizations here. Not many states can say that. And that needs to be brought to the attention of the state."
Time for Central Arkansas to get in gear.
Herman earned his doctorate from Case Western Reserve in 2002. A native of Pennsylvania, he holds a master's degree from the University of South Carolina (a school he chose because of a professor's expertise in Brunelleschi). Before his last position as chief curator, curator of European art at Columbia, he had Kress fellowships at the Cleveland Museum, in its departments of medieval art and prints and drawings.