I got a peek Friday night at Esse, Anita Davis' purse museum at 1510 S. Main St., and fell in love. Not only am I purse fanatic, but am thrilled to see an attraction so out of the ordinary and distinctive in Little Rock, which is lacking in the out-of-the-ordinary category. Besides the collection, the museum is beautifully designed by Steven Otis. The exhibit space is long and narrow with high white walls and huge black and white photographs lit from behind of women, the vitrines down the middle.
The museum opens Tuesday with the exhibit "What's Inside: A Century of Women and
Their Handbags (1900-1999)." Davis, who is the founder of the Bernice Garden down the street, has arranged the purses and the small items women carried in them by decade, starting with the small clutches our grandmothers (or perhaps your great-grandmother) carried along with the items they may have put inside, like dance cards and calling cards. Davis has a great sense of humor, adding to the 1990s collection, for example, a small package of condoms and other tangible evidence of women's growing liberation.
Purses take the place of heads in an installation by artist Kwendeche of shiny black mannequins posed on black and white striped pedestals. Other purses are suspended over them like thought bubbles of days gone by. Davis sees the purses as more than just fashion statements, but also artifacts that will trigger memories and say something about the women who carried them.
Esse ("to be" in Latin) also has a museum store that sells high-end and lower-priced handcrafted purses, some vintage purses, scarves, jewelry, books and notecards — again, things you won't see elsewhere in Little Rock.
Hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tue.-Sun.
If there's anything that worries me it is the price of admission — $10 for adults, $8 for 60 and over, military and students (free for children 5 and under), something I was unaware of during the tour. I would hate for people not to see the museum, especially if they've just paid a mere $12 to see a self-portrait by Rembrandt at the Arkansas Arts Center. Still, Davis has done a beautiful job with Esse, and she has done much for SOMA: Made the Bernice sculpture garden, on her property, open to the public and funded the yearly sculpture shows there. Started the Sunday farmer's market at the Bernice. Created the very popular Cornbread Festival and the monthly Vintage Market. The mural on the wall of Esse, next to the Root Cafe, was her gift to the neighborhood as well. She can't give everything away. But how about $5 instead? Or am I being cheap? What do you think, readers?