How The Arkansas Arts Center Is Revolutionizing The Art Experience

Just a few minutes past opening on a clear Little Rock Saturday morning, an unwinding swirl of visitors are already soaking up the sights and sounds of the Arkansas Arts Center.

A father in his 30s and his young son stroll past a canvas where massive black and white bulls trot along the gallery wall. A Korean family huddles just outside the Museum School, quietly chatting in their native language as they get their bearings. A young bohemian perches at the front of a lecture room, talking about using the overhead projector to create art, the door propped open, beckoning.

In the primary exhibition gallery two elderly women — one white, one African-American — gaze knowingly at Dorothea Lange’s photographs of the Great Depression; nearby a bespectacled young man clasps the tattoo-sleeved arm of his companion. Somewhere New Orleans jazz plays, the bright tune wafting through the honeycomb of galleries like changing light, casting classic and contemporary pieces alike in a new perspective.

Such scenes play out here every day, notes Julie Tabor, patron and president of the Arts Center’s auxiliary Fine Arts Club. But beyond the Monets, tango lessons and poetry slams, the Arts Center best displays the essence of who we are as a culture and as a city, she says.

“The arts bring so much diversity to a community; it’s the way we express ourselves,” she says. “We’re providing inspiration for a future generation of Arkansans and by having this center; it really makes Little Rock and central Arkansas a cultural hub.” She pauses. “Truthfully, though, I don’t know if it’s because we’ve put something out there for all age groups or that we all become more unified once we’re here.”

It has already been a busy 2016 for the Arts Center, and not just for the slate of Children’s Theatre productions, the growing numbers visiting the exhibits or the Artmobile scurrying to all corners of the state to introduce art to those in rural areas. In February, voters approved a $37 million bond issue that will provide extensive capital improvements for the center, as well as upgrades to the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History and to MacArthur Park, where both organizations reside.

Not surprisingly, patrons of the Arts Center were delighted with the outcome of the special election, saying investment in the arts is an investment in Little Rock’s quality of life.

“That kind of commitment in our community just speaks volumes,” says patron and former Arts Center employee Kelly Imhoff. “Art really is the cultural fabric of our community, and having that kind of commitment just says that we’re serious about providing a cultural experience to people that live here and people that visit from out of town.”

“I can’t think of any way that art doesn’t enhance your life,” added Clarke Huisman, who, with his wife, Cindy, owns Cantrell Gallery in Little Rock. “To have a facility like the Arts Center in a city the size of Little Rock is amazing. The collection that we have is so impressive; we have world-class art, not just things from this little town or that little town. People all over the world know about the Arkansas Arts Center.”

According to the Arts Center’s 2015 annual report, more than 640,000 people experienced some aspect of the center’s on-site or off-site offerings; 339,000 visited the Little Rock campus itself, an increase of some 80,000 visitors over 2014.

More than 39,500 audience members attended Children’s Theatre performances, over half of which were matinee shows specifically for Arkansas schoolchildren. Enrollment at the Museum School, which offers classes and workshops for children and adults, was at a five-year high of more than 2,500.

The Arts Center’s outreach programs touched another 30,000 people via Children’s Theatre on Tour, 17,000 through the Artmobile and various traveling exhibitions which, combined, visited 43 counties.

Mariah Hatta, a political consultant and Arkansas Arts Council member, said the Arts Center’s outreach and educational elements are particularly relevant.

“Art is so important because it draws upon all other studies,” she says. “It’s hard to describe without sounding like a flake, but it enhances and amplifies and also manifests everything that we’re taught and everything that we see.”

The daughter of an art instructor, Hatta has lived in Cleveland, Washington, Los Angeles and Tokyo and was accustomed to a robust art environment when she moved here in 2003. But Little Rock’s scene threw her a curveball.

“I had heard from friends who took pottery and ceramics classes, and I was kind of like ‘Yeah, that’s not really me.’ Then I saw some work a friend of mine was doing and when I asked where she learned how to do that, she said she took classes at the Arts Center. I had never taken ceramics except for maybe a high school art class for a couple weeks here and there. But once I started classes, every possible moment that I could, I found myself in the studio doing clay.

“It was the one thing that was absolutely pure stress relief, the opposite of the career I have, that’s almost 100 percent stress. I also made friends, and it really became a circular network that keeps growing.”

Hatta’s new social circle included members of Contemporaries, an Arts Center-affiliated group of young professionals who gather to network and enjoy various programs. It’s a vehicle through which the Center is attracting younger adult patrons and giving newcomers to the community an opportunity to assimilate.

Brodes C. Perry, a pastor at St. Mark Baptist Church, moved here from Miami – where he and his wife, Tabatha, had been active arts patrons – a year ago. He says Contemporaries helped bridge the transition.

“One of the things about being in ministry, while it’s people-intensive and there’s a lot of demands on your time, you can get fatigued from being around the same people all of the time,” he says. “One of the cool things about getting involved at the Arts Center is that it allows us to kind of breathe a bit. We’ve gained new friends and relationships and learned from other people who are of like mind and interests, but definitely from different walks of life.”

Credit: Jason Masters

Programming, from youth art outreach to the social-educational activities of the Contemporaries, is also helping change public perception of the Arkansas Arts Center specifically, and of arts and galleries in general.

“The stereotype is that the Arts Center is stuffy and only rich people can go. I hear that all the time, and I totally get that that’s the perception, but it’s just not true,” says Imhoff, president of Contemporaries. “I think that’s why I want to be involved that much more, because I want to open people’s eyes to see that the Center really does offer everybody some kind of education in the arts.”

“A couple of years ago,” says Cindy Huisman, “the Center featured photos of tattoos, and they had all of these people from tattoo parlors there at the opening. It had this really cool, different feel to it; it wasn’t stuffy, dress-up, or whatever you think a thing at a museum is going to be.

“You have to keep looking at that younger generation and draw them in and keep it interesting, because if you’re just focused on a generation that’s getting older, at some point you won’t have anybody involved anymore.”

Credit: Jason Masters

The Arts Center has tried to incorporate that multigenerational approach as widely as possible, from programming to leadership, as young mother and first-year trustee Ashley Merriman attests.

“Being one of the youngest on the board, I was very intimidated and nervous because all of the members are so skilled, and they’ve lived longer and they know more,” she says. “But they wanted that young perspective, they want to hear your ideas, they’re hungry for that.”

At the same time, even the Center’s most eager supporters agree that there is always room for improvement in the organization’s ability to tell its story as a means to attract visitors and stay visible in an increasingly crowded leisure-time marketplace.

“The Arts Center was something I always remembered and loved being a part of growing up,” says Merriman, “but before I became a board member, I didn’t realize they had so much to offer. There’s nothing that’s lacking, honestly. It’s free admission, they have the docents (volunteer museum guides) or you can go in and look by yourself. I just think it’s a matter of getting it out there, getting through to the younger people through the schools and to their parents. Being a mother myself now, I know I want that for my kids.”

“You know, it’s funny,” says Perry. “After church I talk to people all the time about going over to the Arkansas Arts Center. Many of them have been here a lot longer than I have and yet they know nothing about it at all. We’ve had some opportunities to send kids over there to do some paintings and some other things that they have going on for kids that haven’t been exposed to art before. And after they’ve taken advantage of it, they’re like, ‘Wow, I want more.’ That’s what art does.”

The Arkansas Arts Center will be the site of Beaux Arts Ball, its headliner fundraising event, at 7 p.m. May 21. Hosted by the Fine Arts Club, the ball will feature music, food and an awards program honoring three tireless supporters of the arts, Jeane Hamilton, the late Winthrop Rockefeller and Windgate Charitable Foundation.

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