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The people's Arts Center 

The Arkansas Arts Center may no longer be the state's top cultural institution, but it remains the capital city's major cultural hub, despite its manifest needs, including a bigger and better building.

BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson

The Arkansas Arts Center may no longer be the state's top cultural institution, but it remains the capital city's major cultural hub, despite its manifest needs, including a bigger and better building. A brief idea, now shelved, to build a wholly new institution in North Little Rock had allure for its boldness. It also prompted Little Rock officials to act.

The result is a tax increase of 2 cents on every dollar spent on hotel lodging in Little Rock. An election Feb. 9 will decide if that new money will be pledged to a $37.5 million bond issue for the Arts Center (and, in much smaller amounts, to the Museum of Arkansas Military History and the surrounding MacArthur Park.)

Great cities have great public infrastructure and cultural institutions. This demands support for the only idea on the table for improvement to the Arts Center. I only hope it's accompanied by more transparency and democracy.

Transparency? First, there's the matter of who's running the election show. A committee led by a prominent Chamber of Commerce businessman emerged as if by magic to campaign for the bond issue. Who appointed them? Who picked the political consultant that is running the show? Who will pay the campaign tab? Those are all secrets for now.

Then there's the election date. Mayor Mark Stodola describes this special election as a way to focus on the issue. Baloney. A special election is a technique used by schools, libraries and others to separate money questions from the broader participation in primary and general elections. I don't have a problem with the ploy. But I also don't see any point in blowing smoke about it.

The committee pushing the election says it will raise private money to pay for the cost of the special election. From whom? The people who will benefit from construction, bond and attorney fees on the project? Or someone else?

And speaking of private money: Backers of the Arts Center expansion swear that there will be a major — perhaps dollar-for-dollar — private match of the public investment. As yet, not a single private contributor has emerged. The election record in Little Rock is littered with undelivered private money promised for public-private partnerships. The most obvious and recent is the Little Rock Tech Park, another Chamber of Commerce idea that, so far, has seen only investment of working stiffs' sales tax pennies.

The dominance of the business establishment is evident in other ways. Leaders of the Arts Center campaign said, for example, that they were certain the Interstate 30 expansion project — the highway department wants to widen the downtown concrete divider to 10 lanes — would have no adverse impact on MacArthur Park. This is more chamber of commerce-manufactured baloney. The park rots on its fringes thanks to existing freeways. If the I-30 project is realized as currently conceived, it will mean still more freeway division. We must save MacArthur Park and the Arts Center lest the urban cancer continues to metastasize.

Success for the Arts Center demands broader support. Despite drawing on mailing lists of members of both park museums, an anemic six dozen or so turned out for the bond election pep rally.

The Arts Center is too often viewed as an institution for and by elites (though there's no greater leveler than art). No wonder. The elite insiders decide who sits on the board of this publicly owned institution. Members of that board also are expected to donate $5,000 to the Arts Center annually. This is not a bad support requirement for a private, nonprofit institution, but no financial tribute should be required for public service, certainly not to govern an institution hoping to get $37 million, plus interest, in public money. Even a democratic and diverse governing body would have little say over the wizard behind the curtain, the private foundation that owns much of the collection on display at the Arts Center. Good luck getting information from it. Which reminds me: Major arts institutions in most cities look first to private philanthropy, not public tax dollars, for major support. It rarely works that way in Little Rock.

We need a great Arts Center. But if it is to be publicly financed, it needs to be the people's arts center.

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