There's new life stirring at Wildwood Park. Drifts of daffodils have begun to raise their heads. Swans cruise the lake. A water garden gurgles its way through the trees, over mossy rocks. The woods of the 105-acre park, still mostly as wild as the name suggests, are greening.
It's a fitting time for Cliff Fannin Baker, the park's new artistic director and CEO, to make his presence felt. His hiring early this year followed a tumultuous 2007 for Wildwood. Ann Chotard, who had run the park since its inception in 1989, resigned abruptly in March. Wildwood's board of directors considered abandoning the remainder of the season, but managed to preserve it with a quick fund-raising effort and by downsizing the staff. Wildwood's problems, however, cut deeper. Since 2003, the park has been beset with fiscal losses and shrinking donations and grants.
Enter Cliff Baker. A towering figure in Little Rock's arts scene, Baker founded the Rep in 1976 and served as producing and artistic director for more than 20 years. Even after he stepped aside in 1999, he's continued to direct at least one production a year at the theater. For the last 11 years, he's also directed one production at the Portland Center Stage every year.
Baker says he took the job because he loves Little Rock and was captivated by the park. “The energy about the place, the ‘juice' of it, is in the potential,” he says.
When he talks about his plans for the Wildwood, it's with bright, expressive eyes and an easy smile. He's clearly passionate about his job, but pragmatic, too, and it's with an almost droll matter-of-factness that he conveys what are probably his two most pressing priorities: spreading the word that Wildwood exists and moving it past high-toned cultural associations.
“A lot of people in West Little Rock don't even know what they have in their backyard,” Baker says in regard to the former. Maybe the signage along Chenal Parkway and Kanis Road is lacking, as Baker suggests. Or maybe, even though it's nearly 20 years old, Central Arkansans still don't know Wildwood.
Donated by Deltic Timber in 1989, the parkland includes 105 acres, only 25 to 30 of which are developed. The 625-seat Lucy Lockett Cabe Theater, dedicated in 1996 and named for Wildwood's longtime patron, who gave $1 million herself and another $1 million through her foundation to help open the park and build the theater, greets visitors. Farther into the park, an 8-acre lake rests at the center of the developed grounds. The Butler Arboretum lines the lake. Designed by P. Allen Smith, the 10-acre botanical display sweeps through natural woodlands and native azaleas, daffodils and Louisiana iris. A gazebo sits at the far end of the lake and a half dozen smaller gardens bloom around Wildwood. Walking and hiking trails snake the property.
“We're working on a lot of plans on how to improve the development of the park,” says Dennis Berry, chairman of the board at Wildwood. “The [volunteer] master gardeners are really helping with the trail system, which is expanding to include much of the park that hasn't been touched. We're very excited.”
The park has recently debuted its weekend hours, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Baker says they've already started to attract crowds.
Second and perhaps equally pressing on the agenda: “The Wildwood brand is stuck in the classical and the elite,” Baker says. In its opening year, Wildwood hosted Johnny Cash and Maya Angelou and seemed poised to emulate Wolf Trapp, the Vienna, Va., national park for performing arts that hosts virtually all types of performance art — from pop and country to orchestra and opera. In Chotard's latter years, the programming at Wildwood tilted largely towards opera.
“As soon as Ann retired, broadening the scope of the park became our goal,” Berry says. “We're looking at growing all kinds of aspects.”
Baker is fully committed to that idea. “Art in its eclectic outreach can really step into any interest area,” he says. “Pick any topic or issue, and you'll find that there has been a play, a modern dance or an opera written about it. We're looking at connecting diverse interests — exposing arts to health and wellness, connecting literary festivities to the outdoors.”
First on tap for Baker and Wildwood is “Blooms: A Springtime Festival” on the weekend of May 9-11. The three-day event is a melange of culture and the outdoors, with a jazz concert, a Maypole, a flower sale, an early morning birding event, costumed actors reading from “Beatrix Potter,” high tea under a tent by the lake, a brass quartet, a presentation by Liza Ashley, longtime chef at the governor's mansion and author of “Thirty Years at the Mansion,” and a new work, “The Bottle Tree,” a pastiche of recollections of former Arkansas first ladies conceived by Baker. Former governor and U.S. senator David Pryor will narrate at least some of the play, which will be performed Saturday and Sunday. The complete schedule for the weekend was finalized just after we went to press for this issue.
Baker hopes to emulate the formula for “Blooms” down the road, too. In July, Wildwood will host the closing event of a Louis Jordan festival, in honor of what would've been the Brinkley native's 100th birthday. The park will present another original production, “Jump,” and likely tie it to a fish fry. Then in October, Baker hopes to host a harvest festival highlighting Arkansas microbreweries. Additionally, Baker says he's on the lookout for everything from conferences to food festivals to Renaissance fairs.
Crucial to the revitalization of the park, of course, is improving fund-raising and adding volunteers to supplement the five-person staff. After Chotard resigned, there was speculation that the rigors of fund-raising and managing the artistic side of the park were too much for the staff. Berry says Baker, as the CEO, will be involved in fund-raising, but Sharon Blackwood, who managed Wildwood after Chotard's departure, continues on as the interim director, responsible for handling administrative duties.
Baker says that early fund-raising meetings have gone well, with old and new donors expressing interest. There's a wealth of promise at Wildwood. Only time will tell if that translates into viability.