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A bigger, better Arkansas Arts Center 

It will take public money; needs public's voice, too.

A WINDOW ON THE WORLD: Educator Louise Palermo and teenagers talk about art, society and social issues at the Arts Center. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • A WINDOW ON THE WORLD: Educator Louise Palermo and teenagers talk about art, society and social issues at the Arts Center.

On Feb. 9, residents of Little Rock will vote on whether to issue bonds to renovate and enlarge the Arkansas Arts Center in MacArthur Park. The 30-year MacArthur Park Improvement bonds, which will be paid off by 2 new cents added to the hotel tax by the City Board of Directors in December, are expected to produce around $37.5 million.

The Little Rock Advertising and Promotion Commission and the City Board were persuaded by the promise of a match in private funds to use the last two hotel tax pennies the law allows to be levied. The increase brings the tax on gross hotel, motel and short-term stay rentals receipts to 15 percent.

It is a truism that all great cities have great cultural institutions. There are mountains of studies showing that cultural opportunities are necessary for city vibrancy and growth, that museums encourage tourism and business besides elevating the quality of life for residents.

Particularly with the opening of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, the Arts Center has begun to look shabby. The city of Little Rock and its philanthropic support will never reach the $1 billion-plus invested by the Walton Family Foundation in Crystal Bridges, but Arkansas's capital city needs to fix up and put a shine on what is the state's largest museum outside Bentonville. The Arts Center is a city property, though it exists because of philanthropy and grants rather than public tax support, and by ordinance the city is obligated to maintain the building. To keep its accreditation, the Arts Center, according to its board of directors and a consultant brought in to inspect the physical plant, must replace its obsolete gallery lighting system; upgrade and integrate its heating and air conditioning systems; replace the breaking seats, lighting, sound and riggings in the theater (they are original to the 42-year-old theater); expand the vault for its art holdings; and improve its classroom space, also original to the 1963 Arts Center. No accreditation, no loaned exhibitions.

The Arts Center also wants to increase its gallery space and change its orientation to MacArthur Park to create a more welcoming entrance. Its Commerce Street orientation, created with the addition of a new wing in 2000, is a mistake long overdue for a fix.

Part of the proceeds from the bond issue will provide $1 million for fixes to the MacArthur Museum of Military History, which is an agency of the city's Parks and Recreation Department, and improvements for the park itself.

So what's not to like? A potential $60 million investment (a number that has been bandied about for renovation), without a tax increase on residents, in a facility that holds an outstanding collection of works on paper, offers art and theater classes and special summer theater programs, monthly art events for children and parents and a special program for teenagers, one where people go to learn the tango and hear live poetry and see children's theater. And admission is free.

But despite its offerings, the Arts Center still struggles against a perception that it is run by well-heeled snobs. To be a member of the Arts Center Board of Trustees — a city commission — you've got to come up with a yearly donation of $5,000 and another $5,000 "give or get." (Nominees are selected by the board's governing committee and their nominations are rubber-stamped by the City Board of Directors.)

The private, nonprofit Arts Center Foundation, which endows the Arts Center and owns the permanent collection of artwork, also contributes to the Arts Center's rarified reputation. The foundation did not do the Arts Center a favor when it secretly approached North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith in early 2015 with a deal that would have moved the Arts Center to the north shore of the Arkansas River if voters there would enact a half-penny tax increase to pay for a new building and its maintenance. When the survey that the foundation was using to test those waters became public, Mayor Mark Stodola and even some members of the Arts Center board were shocked.

The move was instantly seen as a scheme by the foundation to get Little Rock to pony up, though Arts Center Director Todd Herman and foundation Chair Bobby Tucker denied that, saying that had North Little Rock voters shown interest in taxing themselves to pay for a new Arts Center, the move would have been hard to pass up. "If they [North Little Rock] could have done $100 million. ... It would have been something to seriously consider," Tucker said. (He added, however, that the consultant, visiting the north shore, wasn't impressed by the location.)

RAISING ELECTION MONEY: Gary Smith is co-chairman of the Committee for Arts and History, which will pay for the special election Feb. 9 and promotional mailouts. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • RAISING ELECTION MONEY: Gary Smith is co-chairman of the Committee for Arts and History, which will pay for the special election Feb. 9 and promotional mailouts.

That the foundation would consider moving the Arts Center to North Little Rock — which, as the holder of the Arts Center's art collection, it could have forced — was seen by longtime supporters as a slap in the face to Little Rock; to the MacArthur Park location; and to the enormous effort put forth in the 1950s by the Junior League of Little Rock and other Little Rock leaders, along with Winthrop and Jeannette Rockefeller, to raise the funds to build the Arts Center. Their campaign added the theater, classrooms, new exhibit space, a gift shop, restaurant and outdoor reception space to the 1937 WPA-built Museum of Fine Arts in 1963. (In the late 1990s, the Arts Center raised $22 million (only $1 million of which came from the city) to open a 32,000-square-foot wing in 2000, bringing the total square footage to 110,000 square feet.)

Insincere ploy or not, it worked: The city increased its annual giving to the Arts Center to $700,000 (it had been $550,000 in 2014 and lower in recent years), and Stodola began to pursue the idea of a 2-cent increase in the hotel tax dedicated to the Arts Center.

Once the tax got the OK from the A and P and the City Board, a private campaign, the Committee for Arts and History, seemed to come from out of nowhere. It was formed, committee chair Gary Smith said, at the request of the mayor. It was announced at a news conference at the Arts Center by a group including co-chair Chauncey Holloman, retiring Central Arkansas Library System head Bobby Roberts, military museum board chair Ron Fuller, Clinton School Dean Skip Rutherford, foundation chair Tucker and Arts Center stalwart Jeane Hamilton. The group will raise money to pay for the special election — which will cost about $115,000 — and another $50,000 for publicity materials, which they chose the Markham Group to produce. Smith has pledged that the committee will be "totally transparent" in its fundraising and expenses, and has filed with the state Ethics Commission. The lack of public knowledge beforehand that such group would form rankled some (not even Arts Center board chair Shep Russell knew of it in advance), and a fundraiser held Wednesday was by invitation only, but Smith said nearly 400 people are part of the effort and provided a list of their names; they are all considered "honorary co-chairs."

«·»

A public/private partnership to expand a museum is not unusual (this year, the Museum of Natural History in New York is getting $44.5 million from the city toward its new $325 million building and the Minnesota Children's Museum in St. Paul is getting $14 million from the state for its $23 million expansion.) When the Milwaukee Art Museum's leadership decided to renovate its galleries and create a new entrance, it went to Milwaukee County for $10 million.

WHERE IT ALL BEGAN: The Museum of Fine Arts opened in 1937; the Arts Center has added on to it over the years, and the facade above now forms the wall of a gallery.
  • WHERE IT ALL BEGAN: The Museum of Fine Arts opened in 1937; the Arts Center has added on to it over the years, and the facade above now forms the wall of a gallery.

There are several parallels between the MAM and the AAC: Milwaukee County owns two of MAM's buildings, and had let them fall into disrepair, though it provides annual program support from property taxes and pays utilities. The museum had actually put drip pans in the ceiling to catch roof leaks, Museum Director Daniel T. Keegan said.

The museum and the county reached an agreement: The county would raise $10 million through bonds and the museum would contribute $15 million from private fundraising. Then, Keegan said, "our $15 million became $24 million." The museum is now 365,000 square feet and connects with the Lake Michigan waterfront; its dazzling suspension pedestrian bridge, designed by architect Santiago Calatrava, connects the museum to downtown.

Like the board of every cultural institution, Milwaukee's raises significant funds from members as well as those raised by museum development staff. "Our board has to be composed of people who have the horsepower and connections in the community [needed]. We're often misconstrued ... as being elitist," Keegan said. "We have 400,000 visitors a year and 30 to 40 members on our board, so we are hardly elitist. We are the only institution in many miles that offers free admission to children every day."

A great museum is "critical" to the community, Keegan said. "It is the cost of doing business. Without it, you might as well roll up the sidewalks."

There are significant differences between Milwaukee's fundraising and the Arts Center's: The county got a promise up front. The museum also owns its collection.

Here, while the money the bonds will provide is a known quantity — at least as well as bond revenues can be estimated — the private money is not. When Arts Center Director Herman and foundation chair Tucker use the word "match," they aren't promising a dollar-for-dollar match. They are waiting to see what happens in the bond vote before deciding a goal and starting a capital campaign.

Mayor Stodola says voters shouldn't worry about that. "I am confident that significant" donations will be made, he said, based on "conversations" he's had with foundation members.

Tucker said the foundation's purpose is to support the Arts Center, so the collection isn't going anywhere. Nor is it in danger of being sold off, as was the city-owned collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum when the city went into bankruptcy, which, according to a history of the Arts Center, is the reason why the foundation was created in the first place.

Stodola is indifferent to the notion that the Arts Center board should include among its membership people who don't have the means to come up with $10,000 a year. (He is an ex-officio, nonvoting member, as is North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith and representatives from both cities' Junior Leagues and the Fine Arts Club; they don't have the same donation requirement.)

DIRECTOR TODD HERMAN: If bonds don't pass, it's "back to the drawing board." - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • DIRECTOR TODD HERMAN: If bonds don't pass, it's "back to the drawing board."

Herman says the governance committee of the AAC board has discussed ways to seat someone who can't fork over the first $5,000. But he's talked to other arts facilities, he said, and has learned that their experience that board members excused from donating are "uncomfortable," that they do not feel a full member of the board.

Trustees of the Museum of Discovery, which also gets city funding and which is located in a building refurbished with city dollars, are also required to make a contribution, though it's not as large as the Arts Center's and can take many forms, such as membership purchases, MOD Director Kelley Bass said.

"Every museum faces charges of elitism," Herman said. But the Arts Center's hundreds of thousands of visitors (338,776 in 2014-15 and nearly double that when outreach is included) "are not a small cadre of elites."

Herman said he was once asked by a fundraising consultant who the Arts Center's audience was. "The answer is everybody," Herman said. And with a bigger and refurbished Arts Center, "we are looking to open the doors even wider."

The Arts Center "holds a mirror up to the world" for patrons; it offers not just entertainment but "cultural literacy," Herman said.

The Arts Center's lineup of exhibitions in the past several years has indeed held a mirror up to the world. There was an exhibit of Mark Perrott's larger-than-life photographs of people with elaborate tattoos in 2012; the city's tattoo parlors created work for the exhibit as well and the Arts Center's former director of education got a tattoo herself for the exhibit. The façade of the Arts Center and trees on the grounds were yarn-bombed by knitters in 2013. The "30 Americans" exhibit featured great contemporary African-American artists last year; "Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art" just finished its run.

There are scholarships for kids to take art and theater lessons. There is "The Gathering" for teenagers co-sponsored by Just Communities of Arkansas that blends art-viewing, art-making and a discussion of "issues of class" related to the art (the next will focus on the Dorothea Lange photography exhibit opening in February).

What other programming and art events might come to the Arts Center if the board had someone on it whose riches weren't monetary but creative?

In a discussion on board membership by the Institute of Museum Ethics, Steve Lubar, director of the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University, said that museums "help shape us as a nation, as a society. They tell us who we are, and a diverse board, selected for more than their fundraising prowess, can help hold museums to their highest aspirations."

Shep Russell, the chair of the Arts Center Board of Trustees and a public finance lawyer at the Friday, Eldridge and Clark law firm, said the board "will probably have to work on the makeup of the board" and that the governing committee would discuss it "now that we have the city's support." Russell said he could understand why some members in the past may not have understood the board was public "because of all the private funds they have to raise."

In fact, when the Arts Center board was struggling with its debt from the 2009-10 "World of the Pharaohs" exhibition, their lawyer, Phil Kaplan, had to tell them, and staff, that they were public and their records subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Russell said he wouldn't be surprised if there were still members of the board who join without knowing it's a public board.

Russell said the City Board could weigh in on membership.

Tucker said he would also "like to see some diversity on the board," which is now all white, though it hasn't always been.

If the public approves the bonds, Russell said, the city "can set whatever terms and conditions they want on issuing those bonds. ... Ultimately, the board has to be satisfied that whatever is being built is what is envisioned. ... The City Board can say, 'What are you going to build?' before they issue the bonds. I don't know if the board wants to say, 'Go out and do the best you can,' or if the board is going to want plans approved as to what's going to be done. Whatever," he added, "those plans are going to take a certain amount of money."

Besides the private match for public investment, money will also have to be private money raised to endow the expanded and improved building. Any excess raised by the bond issue will go to city parks, the Little Rock Zoo, the Museum of Discovery and cultural activities as directed by the Advertising and Promotion Commission.

Stodola and Tucker say they expect an ad hoc committee, appointed by the city, will make decisions on an architect and approve contracts. Tucker said whoever makes the "lead gift" may want to be on the committee.

Right now, Little Rock is making the "lead gift." Which, if you think about it, is perhaps better than having a multimillion-dollar gift from a private individual who then expects to have an inordinate say in what goes on at the

Arkansas Arts Center.

A big private gift caused a ruckus in Miami: When trustee Jorge M. Perez gave the museum $35 million for its new home, the board voted to rename the taxpayer-supported museum for him. It is now the Perez Art Museum Miami. Four board members who voted against the renaming quit in protest: Miami gave the land for the new museum and the city and Miami-Dade County provided capital. (By contrast, when Townsend Wolfe launched the 1990s campaign for an expansion, Jackson Stephens pledged $5 million so the Arts Center could turn down a similar monetary offer that came with renaming strings.)

The Arts Center ran into financial difficulties in the 1960s, thanks to budget overruns on its BFA program and the restaurant, and the Rockefellers, who'd been footing the bill, said it was time people understood it was the Arkansas Arts Center and not the Rockefeller Arts Center. They told trustees they would pay bills for one more year, but the Arts Center needed to raise $150,000 and meet its budget. In 1968, Jeane Hamilton, a member of the Committee for Arts and History and a trustee emeritus of the Arts Center, called a press conference with fellow trustee Sam Strauss to announce the Arts Center's situation, saying, "The Board thinks it is neither desirable nor proper that the institution be financed any longer by any one family to the extent the Winthrop Rockefellers have supported it thus far."

Townsend Wolfe was brought in to lead the Arts Center in its new direction, and one of the first things he did, in 1968, was to make a motion that the Board of Trustees appoint three African-American members, which they did. In 1969 he brought the first exhibition of African-American art to the Arts Center. Wolfe could see that public support meant public inclusiveness.

What if the public decides not to support the board issue? The Advertising and Promotion Commission will continue to collect the tax, which should produce $2 million a year, but is not obligated to spend the proceeds on the Arts Center. The proceeds from one penny will go to parks; the rest will be spent how the Advertising and Promotion Commission sees fit. "We'll go back to the drawing board," Herman said.

"I hope people realize that what we are trying to do is create something really wonderful for this community," Herman said, "without placing a burden on people."

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