Mary Ellen Irons believes that bringing art to the masses is integral to the development of young minds; it’s events like Tabriz that help the Arkansas Arts Center acquire new pieces to share with individuals and families across the state.

Mary Ellen Irons is not your typical accountant. She doesn’t dress like you might expect an accountant to dress. There are stripes painted on the walls of her office at JPMS Cox, where she is a partner. The shelves hold small sculptures and the walls are covered with artwork. Some might think that art and numbers don’t always mix, but Irons couldn’t have one without the other.

“I started painting as a hobby a couple of years ago,” she says, gesturing to a large oil painting hanging on the wall. “I painted that, and the first painting I ever did was of my dog.” She points to an impressively lifelike portrait of a Boston terrier hanging next to her computer. “Art isn’t just for artists. Painting is a good balance for me personally, because I am tense all the time,” she laughs. “Whether I’m running a business, pursuing clients, serving clients, or meeting deadlines, when I go home and start painting, two hours will pass and I don’t even realize it. No one’s yelling ‘You put too much blue in that, Mary Ellen!’”

That passion for art drove Irons to the Arkansas Arts Center (AAC), where she now serves as board president. “Here at JPMS Cox, they’ve always told us to find something you love to do and give back to your community.” Irons believes that bringing art to the masses is integral to the development of young minds in her community. “There are a lot of people here that will never go to London or Paris. Some might never even leave our town. Art provides a safe place to experience something that’s beyond the walls of our city. It creates a possibility, and events like Tabriz help to make those possibilities available to others.”

The Arkansas Arts Center’s vault is home to roughly 10,000 pieces of artwork, many of which are part of the AAC’s prestigious collection of works on paper.

Tabriz, the AAC’s biennial fundraiser, is not only a highlight of Arkansas’ black-tie event season; funds raised at the event are funneled into an Acquisitions Fund held by the AAC Foundation, which allows the AAC to acquire new pieces of art for its permanent collection. While the AAC runs and operates the museum, children’s theater and the museum school, the AAC Foundation is a separate organization that holds the art collection and allows the AAC to display the works. The Foundation’s art committee, which oversees the acquisition of new pieces for the collection, is comprised of Irons, AAC executive director Dr. Todd Herman, AAC board chair Chucki Bradbury as well as members of the Foundation board. “We acquire works a few different ways,” Irons explains. “Patrons give or loan us works to display, and when you walk through the galleries, you’ll see their names on plaques next to the artwork. We also get works of art by buying them directly from galleries or artists.” Finally, the Acquisitions Fund sets aside dollars for annual purchases based on recommendations from Herman and the head curators, who are the most familiar with the AAC’s collection.

“Tabriz was created at a time when the AAC was just getting off the ground,” Irons says. “At the time, [former executive director] Townsend Wolfe asked, ‘What can we afford?’ which is how the AAC came to have a nationally renowned collection of works on paper. We got exposure to a lot of artists at a lower price point than if we’d been trying to collect oil paintings. It became our niche.”

However, works on paper introduce their own set of challenges for the AAC. According to Herman, these pieces are particularly vulnerable to light and humidity, and despite how carefully they are handled, damage is cumulative. Once that piece of artwork is damaged beyond repair, it’s gone forever. “Think about old family papers that you might have at home,” Herman says. “They turn brown over time. The same can happen to artwork on paper as it’s exposed to light.” To keep these works on paper in top form, they are displayed in low light and kept on a strict rotation schedule of six months on view in the galleries. Then for two years, these pieces are stored in the darkness of the vault.

The AAC’s vault contains roughly 10,000 pieces of original artwork, with only a few hundred on view in the galleries at any given time, and people like Herman, Irons and the AAC’s curators are constantly working to add to it. In addition to its collection of works on paper, the AAC has a well-known collection of contemporary craft. “We’re always looking to fill gaps that exist in these collections — things like Surrealism, 19th century British landscape — in order to present as comprehensive a picture as we can,” Herman says. Recently, the AAC received more than 290 drawings and watercolors by American Modernist John Marin, which gives them the largest holdings of his work outside of the National Gallery in Washington D.C. “Even so,” Herman says, “there are a few periods of his production that are not represented in that gift, so we’ll work to fill those gaps.”

Pieces from the permanent collection are also used to complement curated and traveling exhibitions, such as the upcoming 30 Americans, which features artwork from renowned African American artists, and Our America, an exhibition of modern and contemporary Latino artists. The AAC also loans pieces from its permanent collection to museums around the country. At the moment, the AAC’s Diego Rivera cubist painting “Two Women” is being featured in a show at the San Antonio Museum. “In return,” Irons says, “they might send us a piece from their permanent collection that we could add to a show or use to collaborate with pieces that we have.”

Dress and accessories on this page from Barbara/Jean; hair and makeup by Angela Alexander.

Tabriz, a two-night event chaired by Del Boyette, kicks off on Thursday, March 12 with the Bazaar of Tabriz at the AAC. For the price of a $50 ticket, guests enjoy a silent auction, casual food and cocktails surrounded by Tabriz’s signature exotic decor. The black-tie gala will take place Saturday, March 14 and feature a seated dinner accompanied by fine wines and spirits, as well as live and silent auctions.

“There are so many people in this community that can receive a direct impact from what we’re doing,” Irons says. In addition to the galleries, the AAC offers poetry slams, tango dancing, lectures, art and photography classes for anyone who is interested in learning or participating. “Art gives people the ability to think and create and understand,” she continues. “If we can enrich a kid’s life and give them the ability to think outside the box, then I’ve checked all the boxes on my day.”

Bazaar of Tabriz
When: Thursday, March 12
Where: Arkansas Arts Center
Tickets: $50 per person

Gala of Tabriz
When: Saturday, March 14
Where: Arkansas Arts Center
Tickets: $750 per person
(Includes Bazaar admittance)

Info: 372-4000, ArkArts.com