There was always a pitcher of iced tea sweating on the table or a pot of coffee steaming in the kitchen.
Depending on how long a guest stayed, a plate of edible treats might also make an appearance.
“A cheese biscuit somewhere was the story of my life,” says Todd Bagwell, Little Rock’s preeminent party planner as he recalled his childhood as a Baptist preacher’s son.
Bagwell quickly realized his father’s job didn’t stop at the church door. The family home was one of the hubs of the community, a social and perhaps political destination for members of the flock that made Bagwell’s parents something like a president and first lady.
It would be a faux pas of the highest order for the Bagwells not be good hosts, thus the ever-present pitcher of tea and treats on hand.
You could say it was the first brush Bagwell had with entertaining. But Bagwell, who left a career in banking in search of professional happiness, has had plenty of experience since then.
“The work is not easy,” says Bagwell, celebrating his 25th year in his chosen field, “but my point is that, with the exception of funerals and memorial services I have done for my clients, this is supposed to be happy.”
On a sunny spring morning Bagwell meets a visitor in a conference room at the Arkansas Arts Center to discuss his latest project, The Beaux Arts Ball.
Sipping coffee — like a good host Bagwell remembered to grab a Starbucks for his guest — he explained his inspiration for the ball, one of Little Rock’s most historic fundraisers.
The ball is slated for June 7 at the Arts Center and also celebrates the 100th anniversary of Little Rock’s Fine Arts Club, which helped found the current Arts Center in 1963. The original ball ushered in the concept of large-event fundraisers in the city, and in reinventing it for 2014, Bagwell is attempting to honor the past while focusing on the next generation of arts patrons.
“I believe this event is more about celebrating the next 100 years than the past,” Bagwell said.
The original Beaux Arts Ball featured the exhibit “Five Centuries of European Paintings,” on loan from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, a performance by jazz legend Dave Brubeck and an appearance by actress Joan Fontaine.
Bagwell’s nod to bygone days will be seen in projections of artworks, all of them Arts Center pieces, representing styles from the past century that range from Victorian to Andy Warhol. The theme “Dancing Through the Decades” is literal, as guests will be able to dance from setting to setting in the Arts Center lounge.
Seeing a chance to share pieces that people might not know the Arts Center possesses, Bagwell recalls an era when status and achievement in the United States were celebrated by emulating the aristocracy, when the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts were buying European art and building European-style mansions, if not transporting actual mansions from Europe.
Bagwell laments the days when government seemed to more openly support the arts and artistic expression, when there was a greater emphasis on liberal arts in education. But the passing of those days makes the Fine Arts Club and its causes that much more important, Bagwell says.
“An organization like the Fine Arts Club is far more critical now than it was 100 years ago,” says Bagwell, who has worked on Arts Center events since 2010, following his return from a stint in New York, and has been on retainer since 2011.
Looking for a new generation of arts enthusiasts and supporters, the club has, in Bagwell, someone who knows the thinking of the 30-somethings whose weddings and other social functions he has been planning all along.
The Fine Arts Club is not necessarily trying to reinvent itself, he says, but to “remain relevant and attractive to the next generations who need to be lining up to support the arts.”
In the younger crowd Bagwell sees a hunger for vintage things — “I’m at this point where if another bride asks me about burlap or reclaimed wood I might throw up,” he says — and he tries to marry such flourishes with modern touches.
At the Arts Center’s most recent, biennial Tabriz event, Bagwell used an electronic bidding system for the auction, so people could use their phones and not hover near the auction items on which they wanted to bid.
“I get it,” Bagwell said. “If they don’t have a parent who’s involved or they don’t have a big bank account, they need events that are styled to them.”
Pursuit of Happiness
Bagwell was born in Springhill, Louisiana, on Aug. 25, 1966.
He grew up in Atlanta but finished high school in Benton after his Dad took a church job in Arkansas, his wife’s home state.
Bagwell got an accounting degree at Ouachita Baptist University but within two or three years after completing college he was bored with his work in banking.
“It was just not what was meant to be for me,” he said.
Bagwell, whose early lessons on hosting came from his parents, had helped plan fraternity events in college. As he reached an age where his friends began to marry — his father performed many of the ceremonies — the friends began to ask Bagwell for planning help.
By age 25 he had built up “a cottage industry of event planning” and began bouncing back and forth between Arkansas and New York, where he took a fashion job and moonlighted as a planner. Bagwell relocated to New York for good at age 30.
“I went from A to Z real fast,” he says of his rapid transition from banker, to the fashion world to event planning and from Arkansas to the big city.
Now self-employed for 13 years, Bagwell can count among his New York clients Christie’s Auction House, Condé Nast Media Group and Vera Wang’s Bridal House.
When he returned to Arkansas to be closer to his aging parents, he found his list of clients began to include some of the more notable names in the state’s business circles.
“All of a sudden the last names were Clark and Dillard and Conner and Flake,” Bagwell says.
Soon the Arts Center was calling on Bagwell to plan its major events.
“I think it became a natural thing for me to end up partnering with the Arts Center because a lot of those families are involved,” he says.
Bagwell says he has seen how major museums in the country host an event and is happy to bring that expertise to the Arts Center on behalf of the Fine Arts Club.
“I understood the numbers,” he says. “I understood how to come in on budget. I understood how to navigate the vendor pool.”
If he has been in demand, Bagwell says, it is because he has stayed a step ahead with modern wrinkles even while turning to the past, at times, for inspiration.
“It’s not that I’ve put my stamp on events in Little Rock,” he says. “But I’ve changed them because I’ve brought aspects that are modern and technological and, believe it or not, cost saving.”
Embrace the Snob
Bagwell doesn’t look down on those who may be lacking in their art appreciation. That isn’t the approach for bringing new art patrons into the fold.
“The message is about education,” he says. “It’s about ‘Hey, we’re here, we’re an organization that promotes art in the state of Arkansas.’”
Bagwell alternately praises the wildly popular Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville while expressing a bit of envy for the museum’s endowment.
But if the Arts Center and the Fine Arts Club have to raise funds, so be it, Bagwell says; they’ve got the right man for the job.
“I embraced my snobby side long ago but I’ll tell you, like a cockroach who survived the apocalypse, this snob is better prepared for the future,” he says.
With that in mind, Bagwell refers to the Beaux Arts Ball as a “threshold event” designed to honor the past while moving into the future, hopefully with “a new and younger and vibrant group of volunteers and supporters.”
If he gets 10 new Arts Center members at $25 per membership, Bagwell will consider the ball a success. And, looking further down the line, he likes the idea of the Arts Center helping to anchor a downtown arts scene that already includes the creative corridor on Main Street, home of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, and the Arkansas Symphony, which will provide music for the Beaux Arts Ball.
Bagwell’s hope is that people taking in the Beaux Arts Ball will gain a greater appreciation of art in its many forms, join forces with the Arts Center for the foreseeable future and come away with a greater understanding of the center’s past and the Fine Arts Club’s 100 years.
“The Arts Center has been there all along,” he says.
Beaux Arts Ball
When: 7 p.m., Saturday, June 7 | Where: Arkansas Arts Center
Tickets + info: 372-4000, ArkArts.com