Little Rock Look Back: Townsend Wolfe

Townsend Wolfe, who led the Arkansas Arts Center for 34 years, was born on August 15, 1935.  He was hired to lead the Arkansas Arts Center 50 years ago this month.

Though not the founding director of the Arkansas Arts Center, Wolfe was the director for well over half of the institution’s 57 year history. Hired in 1968 at the age of 32 (making him one of the youngest art museum directors in the US at the time), he retired in 2002.  That year he was honored with the Governor’s Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement by the Arkansas Arts Council.

A native of South Carolina, Wolfe held a bachelor’s degree from the Atlanta Art Institute and a master’s degree from the Cranbrook Academy of Art. He also received a certificate from the Harvard Institute of Arts Administration, and honorary doctoral degrees from two other institutions.  After teaching some classes and seminars at the AAC in the early 1960s, he was recruited to return full-time to the Arkansas Arts Center by Governor and Mrs. Winthrop Rockefeller.

During his tenure at the Arts Center, he first was responsible for creating financial stability. After drastic cost-cutting measures, he refocused programming which led to the creation of the current Museum School, a focus of works on paper for the collection, cultivating a thriving collectors group, establishment of a children’s theatre, expansion of statewide services, and several additions to the physical structure.  He encouraged others to collect art and expanded Arts Center programming into Little Rock neighborhoods.

In addition to serving on the National Council of the Arts, Wolfe was a member of the National Museum Services Board and the board of the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts in New York. He was curator for an exhibition in the First Ladies’ Sculpture Garden at the White House in 1995, and was the recipient of the 1997 Distinguished Service Award (outside the profession) by the National Art Educators Association.

Over the years, Wolfe has served in a variety of capacities for the Association of American Museums, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Wolfe, who died in 2017, was posthumously honored by the Arts Center earlier this year with one of its Portrait of a Patron awards.  In 1973, he received the first Winthrop Rockefeller Memorial Award from the Arkansas Arts Center.

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