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Arts centered where?

Desire for a new building could uproot Little Rock's longtime cultural gem and send it across the river.



A drawing in the Arkansas Arts Center's nationally recognized collection of works on paper is a charcoal by David Bailin, "Anticipated Exile." In it, a drawing of buildings against a yellow background is set, cloud-like, into a hillside. A path runs alongside it. It's hard to know if the exile is toward the buildings or away from it.

Life has been imitating art at the Arkansas Arts Center for the past month, as the details of an Arts Center in transformation have emerged. The first stroke in the picture was the revelation of a privately paid poll of voters in North Little Rock asking if they'd be willing to tax themselves an extra penny to be split evenly for police and fire needs and a museum complex on the riverfront. The picture has been sketched in slowly, and the surmise of the Times' Arkansas Blog, based on good sources and interviews with the mayor of North Little Rock, that the Arkansas Arts Center Foundation was behind the poll and that the members of its board had embarked on project to build a new arts center proved to be correct.

Rather than approach the leaders of the city where the Arts Center was founded nearly 80 years ago, Foundation board members discussed a plan for a public-private partnership with the friendly mayor of North Little Rock, a town eager to develop its riverfront and grab a little prestige. That is a part of the picture that, as is the case with all fine art, will be left up to the viewer to interpret.

As the details were filled in, the Foundation protested in a statement to the public that it has "no current plans to move the Arkansas Arts Center to North Little Rock." Well, of course not. It has no current guarantee of a steady flow of tax dollars from North Little Rock. It could, however, have that as soon as August, when a special election could be held.

The chairman of the Foundation, Bobby Tucker, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (he has not returned calls from the Arkansas Times) that no private funds had been committed to the project. He was apparently trying to discredit reporting on the Arkansas Blog that North Little Rock could expect significant gifts from the Stephens family. Warren Stephens, whose pockets are as deep as the ocean, is a longtime supporter of the Arts Center, has chaired the Foundation board and is a member of the board.

If the Arts Center — whether in Little Rock or North Little Rock — can't can't count on Warren Stephens to fork over a substantial sum for a new building, one the Foundation hopes will be "visionary," with a bigger vault to, perhaps, safely store his father's French impressionist paintings on loan to the Arts Center, why should the public be interested?

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TODD HERMAN: Arts Center director.
  • Brian Chilson
  • HERMAN: Arts Center director.

In 2012, Arts Center Director Todd Herman invited museum design firm head George Sexton to the center to assess the needs of the building and how well it was being used. That assessment provided input into the Arts Center's strategic planning in 2013 and 2014: The Arts Center needs more room for art storage and preparation. Its galleries' lighting system, now obsolete, needs replacing, and its mechanicals need updating. The Museum School is out of room. In the past few years, the Arts Center has had problems with its air conditioning, has had to replace its boilers and has had roof leaks.

Few would argue the Arts Center doesn't need more room and some spiffing up, though its galleries remain beautiful spaces in which to hang art. (One incorporates the old façade of the Museum of Fine Arts, with its WPA relief carvings.) With minor exceptions, the lower lobby, theater and classrooms have not been altered since the 1963 opening of the Arts Center. Now that it no longer uses the Terry Mansion as the Decorative Arts Museum, the Arts Center needs a gallery for its contemporary craft collection.

In a recent conversation with a reporter, Herman pointed to the many stages that have cobbled the Arts Center together and the difficulty of tying new construction to old, which would argue for a new building entirely. He is preparing a request for proposals for a new analysis of the Arts Center's needs. He declined to put a price to what it would take to either add to the Arts Center or build new.

At first, the purposely wispy picture of machinations by the Foundation to build a new arts center was a little too abstract for Little Rock. It didn't get it. In an early conversation with a reporter, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola seemed doubtful that the North Little Rock poll had anything to do with the Arts Center. (He wasn't alone: The editorialist for the Democrat-Gazette, though that paper had broken the news about the poll, didn't believe the Arkansas Blog's reporting either, calling it a "non-story.")

When Stodola finally became convinced that where there is smoke there is fire, he said, "That disappoints me greatly." The mayor said he thought he had an understanding with North Little Rock's leadership that the cities would not poach one another's assets.

Now the picture is clear: The Arkansas Arts Center may be up for grabs, going to whatever city can promise it a bundle of tax dollars.

Talk about the Shock of the New. The roots of the Arkansas Arts Center date back a century, with the 1914 founding of the Fine Arts Club of Arkansas. The Fine Arts Club brought into being the Museum of Fine Arts in 1937, in a WPA-designed building in MacArthur Park. The Junior League of Little Rock, with the help of Winthrop and Jeannette Rockefeller, began raising money in the late 1950s to raise money for a new center, and in 1960 Little Rock passed an ordinance creating the Arkansas Arts Center. The new building opened in 1963. The Arts Center has benefited from its largely Little Rock membership and patronage. Now, it seems like the venerable institution could find a new home on what some people in Little Rock think is the wrong side of the Arkansas River.

Throw in the possibility that the Arkansas Repertory Theatre and the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra could be lured to the project's new performance space, and you could have an exodus of the arts to the north shore.

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POTENTIAL SITE FOR POTENTIAL MOVE: The north shore of the Arkansas River between the Main Street and Junction bridges image
  • Brian Chilson
  • POTENTIAL SITE FOR POTENTIAL MOVE: The north shore of the Arkansas River between the Main Street and Junction bridges.

North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith, the source of the initial reporting on the Arts Center Foundation's desire for a new building, has described the north shore complex as a $100 million project. North Little Rock would contribute $60 million through a 10-year bond issue financed by the $8 million a year that would be generated by the museum's half of the new penny tax. Once the bond issue was paid off, the city would continue to levy the tax, to provide for upkeep of the exterior of the building and grounds (but not utilities or operations).

Smith says the riverfront between the Main Street Bridge and the Junction Bridge would be the "perfect place" for a multi-building arts complex. As he envisions it, the building would be cantilevered over Riverfront Drive, with a long glass front and a view of the Little Rock skyline. He'd also like to see a "full-service hotel" built nearby. (There is the little matter of the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum and submarine; under Smith's scenario, they'd have to move a league or so upstream. On Sunday, the museum announced it needed more room and was considering an expansion.)

If Smith is talking $100 million, then another $40 million will need to be found.

Which leads us back to the private money.

Warren Stephens has been involved in a private-public partnership with North Little Rock before, donating the land for the Arkansas Travelers' Dickey-Stephens Park after the city voted in a temporary penny sales tax. The city's contribution: $28 million. Ballpark revenue: $5.6 million. Warren Stephens: land valued at $6.3 million and $440,000 and change in cash.

The Stephens family's support for the Arts Center includes both exhibit sponsorships by Warren Stephens and his wife, Harriett, and Stephens Inc. support. Stephens' father, Jackson T. Stephens, gave $5 million to the Arts Center in its 2000 capital campaign, and the late financier's collection of French impressionist paintings are apparently on permanent loan to the Arts Center, rotating through a gallery renamed for him.

Others who might be counted on to provide support: industrialist James T. Dyke, who donated the Signac watercolors in the Signac gallery; Merritt Dyke, a frequent sponsor of exhibits; Curt and Chucki Bradbury, art collectors and longtime supporters; Robyn Horn, a wood sculptor and patron of the arts, especially the Arts Center's contemporary craft collection; David and Terri Snowden, frequent exhibit sponsors; and maybe John Tyson, whose art collection has a home at Tyson Foods as well as his own home. Curtis and Jackye Finch have been giving the Arts Center works from their portrait collection; a more spacious and state-of-the art vault would be in their interest as well.

If the idea for a new building has secretly been in the works for many years, perhaps the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation has been approached for a grant. The Reynolds Foundation, which is spending down its principal, has not taken grant applications in several years, so the request would have had to come a while ago. Its art grants were restricted to entities that had already received Reynolds money. The Arts Center did get a small grant to establish the erstwhile Reynolds Study Center for scholars wanting to study its collection of works on paper. A Reynolds grant would be poetic, given that the sale of Donrey Media to Stephens Media in 1993 provided a substantial amount of the foundation's assets.

Still, even $100 million may be just short of what it takes to build a showstopper facility. Verizon Arena came in just under $80 million 15 years ago. (Crystal Bridges has never made public what Alice Walton spent on the museum, designed by internationally renowned architect Moshe Safdie and four years in construction, but $300 million would have taken care of it.)

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  • Brian Chilson

As might be expected, Mayor Stodola is not crazy about the idea of North Little Rock making off with Little Rock's major cultural asset, even if the location is within walking distance, over the Main Street Bridge, of Little Rock. Yet, he's not proposed a specific way to keep the Arts Center in Little Rock, other than to say there are "options" out there.

One would be for Little Rock to add a penny to its hamburger tax, collected by the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau. That tax produced nearly $10 million in 2014. The LRCVB, however, would have to enter into some sort of binding agreement that the penny would go to the Arts Center. The Little Rock Board of Directors could add a penny to the hamburger tax by fiat, but citizens could then demand a referendum. Adding a penny to the sales tax would almost certainly be defeated, even if the board could bring itself to propose one. Little Rock could also seek a millage increase.

One board member says Little Rock needs to do "whatever it takes" to keep the Arts Center in Little Rock. "It doesn't belong in any place but in Little Rock," Ward Four Director Brad Cazort said. "This is a major attraction and amenity of this city and we have a responsibility to keep it where it belongs." He called a hamburger tax merely "an arrow in the quiver" in terms of options.

At-large Director Joan Adcock, however, is as opposed as Cazort is for, though she acknowledged, "It's not something I have paid attention to." But Adcock said the city is "coming up short" on millions of dollars of street and other improvements from the last sales tax and should keep its promises to the citizens first.

Somewhere in the middle is Dr. Dean Kumpuris, also at-large and, like the members of the Arts Center Foundation, in the upper echelon of Little Rock society. Does he think the Arts Center should stay in Little Rock? "I think we need to assess what the needs are and if there are things we can do to take care of the situation. ... We have an art collection that needs to be displayed the best way we can." Not exactly a ringing endorsement for Little Rock. Would he support a third hotel/hamburger penny tax? "I'd have to think about that."

Stodola, who, unlike his North Little Rock counterpart, faithfully attends Arts Center board of director meetings as an ex-officio member, has pointed to the $15 million or so the city has invested in the Arts Center over the years, and the fact that Little Rock has raised its yearly contribution to the Arts Center from $200,000 a decade ago to $550,000 this year. The Foundation, however, invests a couple of million every year, and bailed out the Arts Center to the tune of $3 million in 2011 when the Arts Center was suffering from the blow of a failed gift and an underperforming and costly exhibit, "World of the Pharaohs." (The Arts Center is paying the Foundation back.)

Perhaps more important than money, however, was the investment of time and energy that the men and women of Little Rock in the 1950s put into first creating the Arkansas Arts Center and then bringing it back from the brink years later when the Rockefellers, rightly, reminded the community that it was the Arkansas Arts Center and the community needed to support it with their own dollars.

Jeanne Hamilton, an emeritus member of the Arts Center's board of directors, was one of the key players in the formation of the Arts Center in 1960 and in keeping it open after the Rockefellers later pulled back some of their support. She knows more about its creation and history than anyone else in Little Rock.

"I've been around for a long time, and I'm not dumb, but obviously I was shocked when I heard what all was going on," Hamilton said. "I think the Arts Center has become a very important part of our community." She said the Arts Center had weathered challenges before, raised the money it needed, and would do it again — without moving away from Little Rock. "To move to North Little Rock would be absolutely ... I can't even think of a word. It would not be the Arkansas Arts Center as it was envisioned to be. This is a Little Rock institution, born and developed and supported by the community of Little Rock."

Another former board member, June Freeman, who also once worked for the Arts Center in its Artmobile outreach and other areas, doesn't think the Foundation is the entity that should be calling the shots. The Arts Center's Board of Directors, she said, is the body responsive to the public, and the one that will have to eventually decide what the fate of the Arts Center should be. She takes offense at the top-down approach, though it must be said that the founding of the Arts Center wasn't exactly grassroots. Its goal, however, was to bring art to the people of Arkansas, a goal expanded upon by 30-year director Townsend Wolfe, who made sure the entire community felt welcome there, both with his hires and outreach.

Board member Charlotte Brown, who as a former development director is the Jeanne Hamilton of the Arts Center's move into the 21st century, said she wants "what is best for the Arts Center, the whole community. I'm going to keep an open mind and an open heart."

Brown said she is part of the "warp and woof" of the Arts Center. "I gave nine years of my life, blood, sweat and tears" raising money for the Arts Center, achieving what was then a record sum for the 2000 expansion that added three new galleries, a new restaurant, offices, and a gift shop, all off a two-story atrium. Now, however, she added, "a lot has happened, a lot gets old and tired. We have got to be thoughtful about the future. ... I know we are sitting on a building that needs an exorbitant amount of money" to maintain.

Brown gave voice to fears that some surmise is partly behind the idea to move: safety in MacArthur Park, located on Ninth Street between Commerce and McMath. She believes going to North Little Rock's riverfront is safer "than it is to come to Ninth Street at this point in time. I love my Arts Center, but I'm not locking my doors as fast when I drive over the river."

"I know we're city owned, I'm grateful for what the city has done. But we can't go on like we are," Brown said. The Arts Center must thrive, she said, "for the community as a whole and that includes North Little Rock and the state."

Yet, she added, to assume the Arts Center will leave MacArthur Park "is premature."

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MacArthur Park may be perceived as unsafe in some quarters, though the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's William H. Bowen School of Law and St. Edward's Catholic Church and school are its neighbors in this historic part of town. People who don't work downtown, who confine their world to the Heights and West Little Rock, have an exaggerated fear of downtown because of its proximity to poorer areas.

There is also this: Older, longtime residents of Little Rock still see the Arkansas River as the Great Wall, and the north side as a foreign country no one particularly wants to visit. You don't hear North Little Rock referred to as Dogtown much anymore (and North Little Rock has embraced the name the way Obama has Obamacare, to neutralize the pejorative), but still. The river has been a psychological barrier to interaction.

Mayor Stodola sure thinks so. He doesn't think the conventioneers at the Statehouse or the tourists coming from the Clinton Presidential Center in the busy River Market district will walk the bridge to get to a north side arts center, even if it's a Taj Mahal of a joint. He thinks MacArthur Park is a good setting, and if the Foundation wants a new building, it should consider putting it there, where there is ample room to grow.

How to reuse the Arts Center building
Developer speculates.

So, say the Arkansas Arts Center Foundation decides that the best way to move forward to create a "visionary" new facility is to abandon the old building. What would happen to that building?

Jimmy Moses of downtown development firm Moses Tucker has been thinking about that.

"If the Arts Center wasn't at MacArthur Park, I would be arguing for some other institutional use that is lacking in the community right now," Moses said. For example, he said, the Arts Center could become a joint higher education facility, a campus shared by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Pulaski Technical College, Philander Smith College and other institutions of higher learning.

"Another thing I wondered about, with the burgeoning Little Rock Film Festival and Institute, maybe something could be done with them" to take the festival and film studies to the next level, Moses said.

Moses said he thinks the first option should be to see what could be done in MacArthur Park. Or, perhaps a location along Main Street, "say in the area south of Capitol but north of I-630." A consideration should be what area needs a great "shot in the arm."

The Foundation is made up of "real good folks," Moses said, and "they want to see good things happen. ... It's got to be looked at as an opportunity to grow."

There is also the issue of the Terry Mansion, deeded to the city for use as a community arts center and managed by the Arts Center. The antebellum structure is an icon; Little Rock will have to take care of it if the Arts Center leaves it behind. Moses did not have any ideas for it.

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