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MOCA moves to Paragould 

Contemporary Art museum lost money in Hot Springs.

click to enlarge Dismfarmer image
  • DISFARMER

The permanent collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Hot Springs, which closed last October for financial reasons, was transported to Paragould last week by Dr. John G. Bibb, who hopes to create a museum there.

MOCA board member Richard Gipe of Hot Springs Village, who Bibb asked to handle interviews, said the museum was unable to "break even" in its home in the former Ozark bathhouse on Central Avenue. The Ozark is owned by the National Park Service, which has new, but as yet undisclosed, plans for its use, Park Superintendent Josie Fernandez said.

If the museum couldn't make it in Hot Springs, which has a population of 35,478 (2013), a gallery row along Central and notable tourism dollars thanks to Oaklawn Race Track and its proximity to Lakes Hamilton and Catherine, will it make it in Paragould (population 27,016 in 2013)?

If it can hold down expenses, yes, said Gipe. MOCA had $40,000 plus benefits in labor costs per year, and rent of $2,000 a month, Gipe said. "Utilities were huge" as well he said, since the Ozark is 14,000 square feet. Total revenue — including a $5 admission fee and special event income — was around $125,000 a year, but expenses were around $150,000, Gipe said. He said "different people stepped up big-time" to cover the deficit to keep the non-profit museum open. "At the end of the day, the community here in Hot Springs did not support MOCA to a level that it was sustainable," Gipe said. "Leaders in the Paragould, Arkansas, community have seen the value of having a museum located there."

The museum's holdings include photographs by Disfarmer, paintings by Abrishami Hessam and Max Gold, and oil silkscreens by Andy Warhol protege Steve Kaufman.

Two weeks ago, Leslie Gonzalez, a publicist for Kaufman dealer American Pop Art Inc., contacted the Arkansas Times seeking information on the location of MOCA's holdings, saying that the museum's nine Kaufman works had been on loan. Gipe, however, disputed that, saying they were a gift he'd received from Kaufman's own hands, just days before the artist died four years ago, in February 2010. He said Sunday he had spoken to Diane Vachier, with the Kaufman estate, and that "I think that issue is dead as far as I know." Gonzales said in an email that she and Vachier have asked for an update in two weeks to ease their concerns over the safety of the art.

Gipe valued the museum's art holdings at $300,000 to $400,000.

The museum is getting a state general improvement fund grant of $20,000 to pay off MOCA's debt and cover insurance, state Rep. Mary Broadway (D-Paragould) said Monday. She described Paragould's downtown as a "growing arts and entertainment district." She noted that Paragould is only 20 minutes from Jonesboro and that the Hemingway Museum in Piggott and the home of Johnny Cash in Dyess are nearby tourist destinations.

Bibb, a chiropractor, initially was interested in transforming a silo in Paragould into a museum, but that idea didn't pan out. He said Monday that he is in talks with ASU Paragould as a partner in the organization, and hopes to open the museum in a building downtown, where he and his wife have opened a small children's museum, "Just Pretend and Play." Bibb is storing the MOCA art and equipment there.

In an interview several months ago, Bibb described himself as an art lover who did not want to see the museum close and wanted to "continue [MOCA'S] legacy. ... Art stimulates the brain. It makes you think outside the box. You get different ideas and make different connections."

A new board will take over the organization, but Gipe and Tia Cadow, a patron of the museum, will remain as members.

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