Autumn temps are perfect for outdoor activities
When Dr. Todd Herman, the new director of the Arkansas Arts Center, reported for work last week, the Arts Center's galleries reflected the past year's uncertainties. The major show of French impressionist drawings and paintings gone, the two main galleries were empty, as were the Winthrop Rockefeller and Sam Strauss Sr. galleries. Only the gallery dedicated to the Arts Center's collection of Paul Signac watercolors and the Jackson T. Stephens Gallery, which features works from the permanent collection, had art on the walls. It was bleak.
Exhibits of more work from the permanent collection will open this week and next, but the Townsend Wolfe gallery, the largest, will remain dark until the first week in October. ("It's called transition," spokeswoman Heather Haywood explained.)
Not visible but important in their absence nevertheless were the Arts Center's two curatorial positions, for its works on paper and its contemporary craft collections. They've been left empty to meet a pared-down $5.5 million budget for 2012.
So it's only a slight stretch to say that Herman, who was hired in April by the Arts Center Board of Directors, comes to an Arts Center not too much different from the one Townsend Wolfe came to in 1968: Underfunded and undergoing somewhat of an identity crisis.
The challenge ahead "I recognized coming in," Herman, who was hired away from the Columbus Museum of Art in South Carolina, where he was chief curator and curator for European art, told this reporter. But, he added, "The enthusiasm and commitment of the board and foundation was so impressive that I felt the institution could pull through this." And he realized the importance of the Arts Center to the people of Arkansas, he said, when the morning after his late-afternoon hiring, as he was headed to the airport at 6 a.m., he heard the news of his selection on KUAR radio's news program. That his hiring was so newsworthy, he said, shows him the Arts Center is "beloved."
Given the empty curatorial jobs, which Herman described as "critical to the institution," and the Arts Center's $2.2 million debt to the Arkansas Arts Center Foundation, Herman's top priority, he says, is to hire a fund-raiser. The director of development job has been vacant since April 1.
Of equal importance: A "strategic plan to move the institution forward." What plans existed are "exhausted at this point ... their time limit has passed." It's time, he said, to look at what new issues the Arts Center faces. (It is past time, he could have said.)
The contrast couldn't be greater with the soon-to-open Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, a billion-dollar project of Alice Walton and the Walton Family Foundation that will feature great American art in a Moshe Safdie-designed complex in the middle of 100 acres and will be endowed to a fare-thee-well.
Herman's task will be to insure that the Arts Center distinguishes itself from Crystal Bridges by emphasizing its different strengths. While Crystal Bridges will focus on American paintings and sculpture, the Arts Center can boast of a collection of works on paper that is international in scope, he said. The Arts Center must make the public more aware of its "stellar works," Herman said, from 19th century France and its Old Masters as well as the American works, and it needs to shine a light on its craft holdings, which once had their own space in the Terry Mansion, when it was the Decorative Arts Museum. (The Arts Center has the vision of Townsend Wolfe to thank for the former and of wood sculptor Robyn Horn for the latter.) Herman said the Arts Center must solidify its identity more firmly, at home and nationally.