Honoring the past, celebrating the future — it’s not uncommon for this notion to make an appearance at any given fundraiser for any given nonprofit. But for the Historic Arkansas Museum, it is the very heart of everything they do.
This is perhaps nowhere more evident than at the Candlelight Gala, the HAM Foundation’s signature event held on museum grounds, amid some of the oldest standing structures in the state. As the organization readies for the return of its biennial gala, the first since 2019, director Stephanie Haught Wade, a historian in her own right, shares her insight on the power that comes from sharing your history and the unique “HAMily” they've built around it.
You’ve held various roles within the Department of Arkansas Heritage, as well as with other historical organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Arkansas Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commemoration Committee and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. How have these different experiences informed your current role, and what throughlines have you observed?
SHW: My work experience and community involvement certainly reveal a common thread: a love of history. My education and career in the field of history, coupled with my participation in long-standing community service organizations, reflect my preference for all things with a storied past. I enjoy and find comfort in the continuity of places, established traditions and generational organizations, as long as they continue to be worthwhile, inclusive and positive in today’s world.
When I was selected as HAM executive director, I felt that all those past work and community experiences had finally come together in the ideal role. This position is my dream job, and I’m very thankful to have the opportunity to work at the museum.
How does being a native Arkansan affect how you approach your work at HAM?
SHW: I have lived in Arkansas my entire life, except for a year in Washington, D.C., and understanding our state’s culture and people makes it easier to understand the significance and importance of our state’s past. I truly care about the work of the museum and what we present to the public.
Everything we do at HAM tells the story of Arkansas’ people, so having a sense of place certainly makes my approach more grounded. HAM is the state’s primary collector of decorative and fine arts made by Arkansas artists and artisans from hundreds of years ago to the present day. I don’t take the relevance of that fact lightly.
In addition to my relationships within the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, I also view regular partnerships with other community groups, such as the Pulaski County Master Gardeners, Arkansas Unit of the Herb Society and UA Little Rock Department of History, to be crucial to our work here. These connections within the local community and state produce another impactful level to our work here at HAM.
Along with its more traditional exhibits and tours, HAM has made a concerted effort in recent years to build up its community programming, such as the new 3rd Saturday educational series and Hop-Off homebrew competition, as well as more expansive 2nd Friday Art Night activities. What was behind that shift, and how has it impacted the ethos of the organization?
SHW: The museum’s community engagement is extremely important. We are always looking for new and creative ways to bring the public into our site so they can see how truly special it is here. Events such as 2nd Friday Art Night, 3rd Saturdays Living History, Nog-Off, Hop-Off, History is Served dinners, Frolic and Territorial Fair are often as much fun for our staff to produce as they are for our visitors who attend. Each part of the museum works together to make sure these events are successful and that our guests enjoy them. Events have the ability to build community as well as to create a cooperative and creative ethos in the workplace. We refer to the museum’s community of supporters as “HAMily” because we really feel like we have created something personal.
It’s been three years since the last Candlelight Gala. What hole does it fill in the busy Little Rock event scene, and what are you most excited about for the 2022 event?
SHW: Many people have been working very hard on making this gala the best yet. Our foundation board members have really put in a huge effort, especially Board President Jonathan Q. Warren, who has led the board with incredible enthusiasm and commitment. We also have amazing sponsorship, headed by Malvern National Bank, making the gala possible.
The gala is a unique experience in part because it is held here at the museum and on our grounds, which should be something wonderfully different for those attending. At the beginning of the evening, there will be a silent auction in the galleries, a wine pull, a bourbon bar and demonstrators showing their heritage craft talents. A seated dinner, featuring an Arkansas-inspired menu, will follow on the green space by the 1850s farmstead while guests enjoy music and an amazing live auction emceed by Rex Nelson.
In addition to our foundation board, the museum commissioners and staff have all pitched in to make it a memorable evening.
Tell us about the Living Craft Fund.
SHW: The money raised from the Candlelight Gala will go to the Living Craft Fund which will bring heritage trades and crafts to our historic grounds. On our site, we currently have our wonderful, historically accurate 19th century blacksmith shop and the William Woodruff Print Shop, complete with a replica of the Ramage press used by Woodruff to print the Arkansas Gazette from this location in the early 1820s. We would like to expand our offerings of 19th century heritage trades on the grounds. We want visitors to have a hands-on experience that is as fun as it is educational.
Can you discuss why this fund and, more broadly, HAM’s work are so important to our present world?
SHW: Since 1941, HAM has been telling the story of Arkansas. It’s told through our collection, exhibits, historic grounds tours and community engagement events, as well as through publications. I hope people have seen our recently published “Arkansas Made” books, second edition. These two volumes are beautifully produced and really showcase the artists and artisans of Arkansas over the last several centuries.
We want to keep this meaningful work of telling Arkansas’ story going, and one way to do this is through significantly boosting HAM’s Living History program. The Living Craft fund will help us achieve that goal.
As the first items in the museum’s collection, the historic houses provide the perfect setting to highlight these heritage trades. With an investment in heritage trades, we can equip our spaces with historically precise materials and tools, and a master craftsman can manage them.
Hopefully, we can create that throughline from how things used to be done and how they are done today. It is important for us to preserve, document and educate on the heritage trades and crafts of Arkansas, especially in today’s present world.
You’ve spent so much of your career diving into and learning about the past. What has that taught you about yourself, and what are you most eager to pass on to the next generation?
SHW: I have always been fascinated by the past — the people, culture, ideas — and the evolution to present day. History is extremely important, including the preservation of that history, in all its forms, good or bad, and it should be passed on to future generations.
I am just one of many in a long line of directors, staff, commissioners and foundation board members who have been entrusted to care for the museum and its historic grounds. We are so grateful to the many donors, museum members, school groups and visitors for their tremendous support. I want the next generation to find value in this special place and realize it is worth protecting for their children to enjoy.
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