Arts Center works to dig out from under 'Pharaohs' debt.

Money woes at the Arkansas Arts Center brought on by its exhibit "World of the Pharaohs: Treasures of Egypt revealed" are ancient history — or at least no longer news. It was April when a headline in the Democrat-Gazette declared the state's top arts institution "toppled" by a show that cost a lot of money and didn't generate a lot of revenue.

With the Arts Center's books seeing more sunshine than they have in 40 years, an examination triggered by questions following the sudden resignation of the Arts Center's director, the public now knows the Arts Center has a budget deficit of some $1.6 million. It owes its foundation, created to grow its endowment, $2.2 million. It will be in a hole for some time to come.

The Arts Center's leadership — board and interim director — is moving forward. A new deputy director of operations is working on next year's budget and a plan to pay back the foundation. The schedule of upcoming art exhibits and theater productions is firming up. Members of the board express optimism and recount expressions of support from friends anxious to put things right again.

But the financial curse of the "Pharaohs" lingers: Publicity about the Arts Center's financial affairs has harmed development, board treasurer Mary Ellen Vangilder reported at a meeting of the board in May. Clay Mercer, the development director, whose job it is to get sponsorships for exhibits, elaborated. "We promised things we did not deliver on," Mercer said, namely inflated attendance figures. "That's been publicly acknowledged and we've lost credibility."

But Lisa Baxter, who is organizing the Arkansas Center's biannual blowout fund-raiser Tabriz, said information can be a good thing for the public, "if we want them to feel ownership." With ownership comes support. The Arts Center needs the public's embrace. And the public needs the Arts Center.

The "Pharaohs" exhibit, from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Arkansas's first dedicated to ancient Egypt, was supposed to lead the Arts Center out of the financial desert in which it had been wandering and create a cushion for its future.

On the eve of the opening of the Arts Center's most expensive show ever — budgeted at $1.7 million — last August, Executive Director Dr. Ellen (Nan) Plummer likened the show to a "rocket engine" that would launch the AAC to being a "bigger and better art museum."

The rocket, it was thought at one time, would be powered by an estimated $2.6 million profit from the sale of 300,000 tickets and gift shop goodies. The show, planned since 2006, had done well in Canada and Idaho, the two stops that preceded the Arts Center's. Egyptomania, as materials prepared for potential sponsors called it, would surely spread to Arkansas.

But even as she predicted that the Arts Center was on the road to greater things, Plummer, and others paying attention to the region's museum-going climate, must have been worried that the rocket might fizzle. Because of the serious financial straits people were finding themselves in, the marketing department had as early as January 2009 begun to rethink how many tickets it might sell to out-of-towners. Then in May, the Dallas Museum of Art had closed its "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" ("golden" being the operative word) with an attendance of around 620,000, far short of the 1 million it expected. Though the museum declared the show an educational success, Dallas arts writers made much of the shortfall. Golden sandals and other gilded goodies had not brought foot traffic to a big tourist city. The Arts Center had based its "Pharaohs" projections in part on the Dallas museum's expectations.


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