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Winthrop Rockefeller and the arts 

The Rockefellers a force in opening the Arts Center.

click to enlarge Winthrop Rockefeller at the groundbreaking of the Arkansas Arts Center image
  • Courtesy of the Arkansas Arts Center
  • BREAKING GROUND: Rockefeller (second from left) and others, Aug. 20, 1961.

Most Arkansans know that without Winthrop and Jeannette Rockefeller, the Arkansas Arts Center might have taken a much longer time to become reality, if ever. The Rockefellers poured both money and time into the Junior League's project, first dreamed of in 1957, to create a contemporary fine arts center.

Jeane Hamilton has a broader view of the Rockefellers' involvement, however. It was Hamilton, as project director, League president Carrie Dickinson and vice president Marilyn McHaney who first approached the Rockefellers about their idea to build an arts center. Though Rockefeller had been in Arkansas since 1953, and had been appointed by Gov. Orval Faubus to head the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission in 1955, he and Jeannette hadn't yet stepped out into the broader community, Hamilton said: "They were the new kids on the block." The Arts Center project gave them the opportunity to meet people all over Arkansas.

Though she didn't know him well, Hamilton had met Rockefeller before. She and her husband, James Knox Hamilton, built the first house in the Robinwood subdivision off Cantrell in what was then West Little Rock, and Rockefeller had moved from the Sam Peck Hotel, his first stop in the state, to a rented house on Cantrell.

"I can remember seeing him drive up and down [Cantrell] in that Cadillac," a maroon convertible, she said.

When it came time to raise big money for the Arts Center project the obvious person to approach was the state's wealthiest resident. "Why not think big?" Hamilton asked.

Hamilton, Dickinson and McHaney drove up to the Rockefeller ranch one Sunday morning in 1959 to ask WR to head the capital campaign. Jeannette Rockefeller gave the three League women luncheon, and Rockefeller joined them later. They told him they wanted to build a community arts center. "Girls, if we're going to build an arts center, it needs to be for the whole state of Arkansas," Rockefeller told them. He declined their request for him to head up the campaign, but said he'd help them find a chair. He also mentioned that a group in Virginia had created an art mobile to travel the state, an idea that could help the group make the pitch to all of Arkansas for help.

The next day, Rockefeller friend Jack Pickens called Hamilton and said Larry Kelley (both men were owners in Pickens-Bond construction) would be chairman of the local campaign. The idea came at an opportune time, city business leaders like Sam Strauss and Dave Grundfest said in giving the arts center their support, because they believed it would help remove the tarnish left by the Central High crisis.

As the fund-raising moved into a statewide campaign, Winthrop and Jeannette Rockefeller and the Junior Leaguers traveled all over Arkansas, in Rockefeller's private plane whenever there was a landing strip, making 21 trips to make the case for an Arkansas Arts Center. "We covered the waterfront," said Hamilton, raising money even from children who'd "put their nickels and dimes in fruit jars."

When the drive raised $645,000 (the equivalent of $5 million in today's dollars with inflation at 4 percent), a sum that included private gifts, public dollars ($75,000 from Little Rock) and a match from New York's Rockefeller Foundation, Rockefeller threw a party for donors at the Top of the Rock (on the 18th floor of Little Rock's "skyscraper"). Ground was broken on the Arts Center on Aug. 20, 1961.

Rockefeller's brother, David, later donated the money to buy the Artmobile. Before the Arts Center was complete, at a cost of about $1.5 million, WR had donated $432,426 and would give another $1.6 million in the years to come, according to biographer John L. Ward.

It's unlikely that the first exhibition at the Arts Center when it opened May 18, 1963, would have been paintings from the Metropolitan Museum of Art had it not been for the Rockefellers. James Rorimer, director of the Met, attended the gala, as did famed cartoonist Charles Addams and actress Joan Fontaine, dancing to the strains of Dave Brubeck's music. Just as Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art took out advertising in national media like the New York Times announcing its opening last year, the Arts Center welcomed people to come to Arkansas's new cultural showplace in ads in the New Yorker magazine, Business Week, the Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine.

The Rockefeller money would eventually prove problematic for the Arts Center; the thinking was, with all that Rockefeller dough, why should people donate their own dollars? In 1968, the Arts Center was suffering financially, thanks in part to the theatrically excellent but costly bachelor of fine arts program. It was time to change tactics.

Hamilton, then chairman of the board of trustees' program committee, was quoted in an article about the Arts Center's troubles in the Arkansas Democrat as 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." To encourage public participation in a capital campaign to raise $260,000 to keep the Arts Center's doors open and programming alive, the Rockefellers pledged $130,000 in dollar-to-dollar matching funds.

The Rockefellers "were nice folks," Hamilton said. "We always felt at ease" with them, going up to Petit Jean for the famous cattle sales, where cattlemen would bid on Santa Gertrudis cattle and visitors would party with Greer Garson and James Michener and Edgar Bergen.

The Rockefellers' efforts on behalf of the Arts Center altered their personas; WR "wasn't just some guy from New York," Hamilton said. "It gave him an opportunity to develop as an individual ... it was an important stepping stone for Winthrop." And while his new-found Arkansas identity was forged with an eye to political gain, it didn't hurt when Rockefeller did decide to run for governor. Then Arkansas had both a contemporary arts center to be proud of and a two-party political system, said Hamilton, a native of Indiana who found Arkansas's all-Democratic political system unusual when she moved to the state.

"Arkansas would not be what we are today if Winthrop Rockefeller had not come here, believe me," Hamilton said. "He brought us out of the dark ages."

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