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Unto the breach 

New director to tackle debt, identity crisis at Arts Center.

click to enlarge Todd Herman - BRIAN CHILSON

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.

Though his own background is in painting (his dissertation was on 16th century Venetian work), Herman says he has a "soft spot" for drawing. That's going to have to go from soft to downright mushy, but it's clear he's working on that. He talks about boosting the international aspect of the drawing collection, filling in holes — such as French academic figure drawing, for example, to emphasize the impressionist work, show what Van Gogh and others "were working against." He wants to add more Old Master drawings, and says they are both available and affordable. The Arts Center's pockets aren't deep enough to buy the Old Masters everyone knows — "a Raphael or a Michelangelo or Leonardo, no," he said. But it is possible to build a collection "that tells the story of the development of drawing, with a variety of media and style, by artists you might know as painters" but who were exemplary craftsmen, and that should be the Arts Center's niche. The last Old Masters sale at Christie's auction house in New York, Herman said, "had a few very good works ... in the $45,000 range."

With its own mission and identity secure, Herman said, the Arts Center can wander into the broader art world for temporary exhibitions without making its patrons fear lost its way, which the long-running and less popular than expected "World of the Pharaohs" was criticized as doing. (Though it is a joke among museum professionals, Herman said as an aside, that if you can get a dinosaur making an impressionist painting of Egypt, you've hit the jackpot where attendance is concerned.)

Though he is on the job here, Herman is still assisting the Columbia Museum of Art in South Carolina with three shows he curated, and he grew animated talking about them. One, an exhibit of illuminated manuscripts from Southern collectors — who would have thought he'd find such a genre in the South? Another, an exhibit of the 1940s work of Mark Rothko, the figurative work that inspired his later color field work. The third: Monet's "Mornings on the Seine" series, a group of paintings that Herman said hasn't been shown in one space since the Galerie Petit exhibition in Paris in 1898. He talked about the exhibits at some length and with great fervor — "I have been known to get very excited and talk on and on," he said. His excitement, which comes with a healthy and welcome lack of artifice, is catching, and Herman — who accompanied the development staff in its calls on potential donors and collectors — is said to have been markedly successful in both cultivating donors and raising funds for the South Carolina museum. An infectious passion for art is exactly what Herman will need to stir donors into shelling out, and meeting with collectors and art lovers is something Herman will no doubt be doing right away to get the Arts Center up to speed on its exhibition schedule (he'll plan three years out, the institutional standard; the current exhibit schedule ends in 2012).

Other goals: Updating the Arts Center's tired-looking website, which hasn't changed in ages, hasn't been regularly updated of late, and needs to be more functionally interactive, he says. Creating traveling exhibitions of work from the Arts Center's collection, a past practice that has slumped in recent years. And capitalizing on whatever overlap the Arts Center has with Crystal Bridges.

"When Crystal Bridges opens, it's an opportunity for the entire cultural landscape to change and the state of Arkansas to wave flags and say there are two outstanding arts organizations here. Not many states can say that. And that needs to be brought to the attention of the state," he said.

Bob Tucker, a member of the Arts Center board, said Herman would be a "good change," bringing new ideas and "new ways of doing things."

Herman earned his doctorate from Case Western Reserve in 2002. A native of Pennsylvania, he holds a master's degree from the University of South Carolina. Before his last position as chief curator, curator of European art at Columbia, he had Kress fellowships at the Cleveland Museum, in its departments of medieval art and prints and drawings.

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