In what one observer characterized as a “perfect storm,” the Arkansas Arts Center's expensive blockbuster “Pharaohs” exhibit turned bust. Its deputy director of operations — in charge of the books —got the axe, it's had to reduce staff, including altering a curatorial position to a contract arrangement, and on Monday, Executive Director Dr. Ellen (Nan) Plummer resigned.
Plummer, who in 2002 succeeded long-time director Townsend Wolfe, came to the Arts Center during the last wave of economic hard times — the Arts Center had just expanded after a capital campaign that included pledges of stock made before the Sept. 11 attack that sent the market plummeting — and had to make tough budget decisions that included closing the Decorative Arts Museum (the Terry Mansion), closing the Arts Center to the public on Mondays and charging an entrance fee to larger exhibits. In her tenure, the Arts Center put on exhibits of work by Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso and “Pharaohs: Treasures of Egypt Revealed.”
Tuesday, Plummer said she couldn't talk about her resignation, which took effect immediately. She said she was proud of her work at the Arts Center and praised the staff there. Bobby Tucker, chairman of the board of trustees for the Arts Center, said the board did not ask for Plummer's resignation. He confirmed the board had terminated deputy director Rocky Nickles, saying, “We weren't getting the information from him we should have.” He said curator of drawings Phaedra Siebert had left because she'd moved to Washington, D.C., with her new baby and husband and was now working on contract with the Arts Center. Laine Harber, formerly with Alltel and Windstream Communications, started work Friday at the Arts Center as Nickles' replacement.
The “Pharaohs” exhibit cost in excess of $2 million, though it had financial support from Warren and Harriet Stephens. Warren Stephens is head of the Arkansas Arts Center Foundation, which, Tucker said, has advanced the Arts Center operating funds during what's been a tough economy for all arts institutions. He said the Arts Center's finances are in good shape, but declined to say how much the foundation had advanced, adding the Arts Center had last Friday made a payment on the principal of the loan to the foundation. Was the “Pharaohs” exhibit, which Plummer and others had hoped would draw 300,000 but has reportedly drawn only 65,000, too ambitious for the Arts Center? “No,” Tucker said. He said the board expected the show to attract only 100,000 visitors, and by the end of its run in July it mostly likely would meet that number.