Now in the picture, Little Rock leadership anxious about Arts Center | Rock Candy

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Now in the picture, Little Rock leadership anxious about Arts Center

Posted By on Tue, Feb 3, 2015 at 2:41 PM

THAT WAS THEN: Groundbreaking for the Arkansas Arts Center's new facility, Aug. 20, 1961. Support from Winthrop Rockefeller (second from left) and Jeannette Rockefeller (second from right, front row), was crucial to the Arts Center's mid-century growth.
  • THAT WAS THEN: Groundbreaking for the Arkansas Arts Center's new facility, Aug. 20, 1961. Support from Winthrop Rockefeller (second from left) and Jeannette Rockefeller (second from right, front row), was crucial to the Arts Center's mid-century growth.

If you are interested in the Arkansas Arts Center, you've probably read and reread Max Brantley's revelations about plans to build a visual and performing arts complex in North Little Rock that would be a new home for the Arkansas Arts Center and perhaps for the Arkansas Repertory Theatre as well.

Principals in the plan, to combine a taxpayer-financed bond issue with a $40 million contribution, presumably from Warren Stephens and family, for a $100 million complex, have kept their lips zipped (though the idea has been confirmed by sources so reliable there is little doubt the plan has been floated). Leaders in Little Rock have been left out of the loop, but are paying closer attention to them, thanks to Max's reporting.

Mayor Mark Stodola today said he would not be in favor of moving the Arts Center north of the river, since Little Rock "has spent millions" on the Arts Center since its founding by the Fine Arts Club in 1937 (read the history of the Arts Center here). The city's contribution to the Arts Center's $6.2 million budget, $486,695 in 2013-14, rose to $550,000 this year. Included in those totals are $136,695 for capital improvements. The Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau kicked in $86,758 in 2013-14. (North Little Rock provided $40,000.) Given the history of the Arts Center and Little Rock's financial support (it owns a portion of the building and the land it sits on), the mayor was a little miffed to find out indirectly about a scheme that would move one of Little Rock's star assets to the north shore.

"I serve on the Arts Center board as an ex officio member, go to their meetings regularly. This issue has not been brought up before the Arts Center board," Stodola noted. The Arts Center board of directors is a city commission nominally appointed by the mayor, who rubber stamps the board's nominees. 

"I did participate in long-range planning process the Arts Center went through last year, and there was general discussion about the future needs of the Arts Center," the mayor said, including talk of improving or building a new facility. "If that's where the dialog is going, as mayor of the city I'm going to be working very hard to suggest we look at alternatives to finance those, to improve the existing, or if new figure out where it ought to be [located]. And so I think there should be some substantial discussion about this before there’s any effort [to go forward with a move to North Little Rock]." 

(Which makes one think: Is this idea a form of blackmail? To light a fire under the mayor to find financing — perhaps by adding a penny to the hamburger tax?)

Stodola said a new Arts Center would be better placed in the River Market or along Scott Street, "where there is plenty of opportunity for development." Reminded that the North Little Rock plan would put the new arts center directly across from the River Market, the mayor said, "You think they're going to walk across the river?"

As odd as that sounds, the mayor has a point. The Arkansas River presents to some a psychological barrier, as if to cross it means a journey of many miles. It's a journey one drives for special events, such as ballgames or acts in the Verizon Arena. It's not a walking destination for tourists making the rounds between the Clinton Library and the River Market. Maybe the trolley will make a difference. Heck, maybe CAT is a secret backer of the plan!

Let's face it: The river is a social barrier as well to Arts Center patrons (read: donors) from the silk stocking precincts of Little Rock, even if they no longer refer to North Little Rock as "Dogtown."

Meanwhile, Arts Center director Todd Herman said today that the strategic plan the mayor referred to is "on hold" while some things are being are worked out "internally." The Arts Center needs to address its lack of storage space for its collection and a lack of classroom space for its museum school, Herman said. "Also the building needs some upgrades" to the physical plant. (The boilers, at least, have been repaired.)

The Arts Center's new addition — which the late Jackson T. Stephens (Warren Stephens' father) supported with a $5 million gift — is 15 years old this month. The museum school still inhabits the 1963 facility, which seemed large then, but is cramped now. If you believe the Arts Center's philanthropic and community support is steady and growing, there's no doubt it needs to expand and spruce up.

On the plan to move the Arts Center: "That's not something I would want to comment on," Herman said. 

UPDATE: Last night, the Arts Center issued this  from its foundation, in which it says, no, not planning on moving, yes, in the "early stages of examining options" for ensuring the preservation and growth of the collection.

ANOTHER UPDATE:

The Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau committed a yearly contribution to the Arts Center of $50,000 from 2012 through 2015. The sum varies from year to year because of timing of expenditures. Its 2011 contribution was $40,000. 

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