Brooks Gibson-Wolfe flits from room to room, pointing out the works of art hanging on her walls, standing in corners and, in some cases, serving as furniture.
She has a story to go with most of the pieces, naming the artist, discussing technique or recalling where in her travels she acquired the work and who was with her. In most of Gibson-Wolfe’s stories, her traveling companion is her late husband, former Arkansas Arts Center director Townsend Wolfe, whose own artwork is well represented.
Neat lines, bright colors and geometric shapes are prevalent on his canvases. Sometimes his work takes the form of sculpture. A coffee table is overlaid with a Wolfe mosaic depicting the figure of an ancient Egyptian.
Since Townsend’s death late last year, Gibson-Wolfe estimates she has framed or reframed 60 of his pieces.
“It’s a way of keeping Townsend close to me,” she says.
At the Beaux Arts Ball — a biennial bash and one of the AAC’s primary fundraisers — Gibson-Wolfe will accept as the center posthumously honors Townsend for his immense impact on the arts in Arkansas.
“It was poignant to me because this will be the last time,” Gibson-Wolfe says. “And because it comes from the institution that he built.”
From 1968 until his retirement in 2002, Wolfe helped grow the center’s annual attendance from 80,000 to 343,000. He started the Children’s Theatre, devised an “Artmobile” to bring art to kids around the state, opened the Decorative Arts Museum, obtained financial support, directed expansions and left a collection valued at $35 million.
Townsend was a believer in public works programs that exposed as many people as possible to the beauty of art. AAC visitors didn’t have to be able to tell Monet from Manet, as long as they enjoyed the art.
“He did not have an elitist bone in his body,” Gibson-Wolfe says of Townsend.
Keeping Good Books
Along with the eclectic art collection in Gibson-Wolfe’s home, there is a wall occupied by a wide, floor-to-ceiling bookcase, volume upon volume leaning this way and that like scattered dominoes.
“It wasn’t his art, it was his books that attracted me to him,” she says.
Gibson-Wolfe is a native of Dermott and a 1979 graduate of Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. While in school she had brushes with southern-born writers like Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams.
After graduation, Gibson-Wolfe lived in New York before returning to Little Rock upon the death of her brother Sam in 1987. The loss motivated her to enter public health, and she embarked on her career as an educational audiologist, where she’s spent 24 years at the Arkansas School for the Deaf.
She had met Townsend briefly years earlier, but they truly got together in 2000 when she was volunteering at the AAC. He invited her over for wine and cheese the next night. They married two and a half months later.
“We fell in love in about 90 minutes,” Gibson-Wolfe says.
They each had New York in their background and shared a love of books and, of course, art.
“I had a passion for art but nothing like after we were married,” Gibson-Wolfe says.
Gibson-Wolfe says that before Townsend, a South Carolina native, arrived at the center, it was chronically in the red and offered a “hodge podge” of artwork.
She says it was her husband’s art appreciation coupled with an “administrative flair” that fueled the AAC’s growth in his tenure.
“In 34 years Townsend always had a balanced budget,” she says.
Amassing a unique works on paper collection, Wolfe created an exhibit of drawings few other museums were attempting and one the center could afford on limited resources. Gibson-Wolfe counts the collection as one of his most important accomplishments.
“He had the people of Arkansas take ownership of the Arts Center,” Gibson-Wolfe says. “It was theirs.”
The children’s theater was another way of reaching people who may not otherwise have an art appreciation.
“Good art grows your soul,” Gibson-Wolfe says. “Townsend made art very central to the cultural life in this state in a way it never had been before.”
For Townsend, it was about how a life lived in the arts can impact a community. He wanted as many people as possible to be able to enjoy the experience.
Stopping at a painting in her house, Gibson-Wolfe attempts to explain the piece’s origins. She draws a blank, then shrugs.
“Who cares who this is?” She says. “It’s fun.”
Pop! A Beaux Arts Ball will take place on Thursday, May 3, at the Arkansas Arts Center.
Tickets + Info: ArkansasArtsCenter.org/Pop