19 LR Cultural Touchstones in 2019. Part 2: Changes at the Arkansas Arts Center, ASO and UA Little Rock

As the look back to 19 cultural occurrences in 2019 continues, this entry looks at personnel and location changes.

4. Groundbreaking for reimagined Arkansas Arts Center on first day of tenure for new executive director, Dr. Victoria Ramirez.  October 1, 2019, was a red-letter day for the Arkansas Arts Center.  Not only was it the first day for new executive director, Dr. Victoria Ramirez, but it was also the ground-breaking for the award-winning reimagining of the Arkansas Arts Center.

Dr. Ramirez was hired in August 2019 to take over the leadership of the Arkansas Arts Center. She came from the El Paso Museum of Art, where she has been Director. Previously she has worked at museums in Austin, Houston, Washington DC as well as Georgia and Virginia. Since October 1, she has hit the ground running with meetings and almost daily visits to the construction site.

In June and August 2019, the AAC paid farewell to its previous building in MacArthur Park in a series of events. In August, the staff and museum school moved to facilities in the Riverdale section of Little Rock which will be its home until the reimagined (and largely newly constructed) facility is reopened in 2022.  The AAC continues to offer programming, largely in conjunction with the Central Arkansas Library System and the Clinton Presidential Center.

One last AAC note of mention: in December 2019, Bradley Anderson stepped down after FORTY years as artistic director of the Arkansas Arts Center Children’s Theatre.  In his typical lowkey fashion, he eschewed a public tribute, but was feted by the staff.  Mayor Frank Scott, Jr., honored him with a proclamation, as well.

5.  Philip Mann steps down as Music Director of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra; Geoffrey Robson is Interim Music Director.  After nearly a decade on the podium of the ASO, Philip Mann left the organization in May 2019.  He was honored by the Board and musicians at final concerts in Robinson Center and the I.N.C. series.  Associate Music Director Geoffrey Robson was named as the Interim Music Director.

While he is conducting many of the concert for the ASO this season, he is sharing the podium with a variety of guest conductors.  Some of the guest conductors may be candidates for the permanent post.  In deference to those who would prefer to keep their interest under wraps, the ASO is conducting (pun intended) this search more privately than in previous efforts.  All of the guest conductors (whether a candidate or not) are being given a chance to interact with audience members.  So far, audience response to the concerts and guest conductors has been overwhelmingly positive.

The ASO has not publicly announced a timeline for naming the next permanent music director.  In the meantime, Robson and Executive Director Christina Littlejohn, along with ASO Board members and staff, continue to present an aggressive concert and outreach schedule.  Another ASO personnel change of note, longtime ASO supporter Ellen M. Gray was named an Honorary Lifetime Member of the ASO Board this year. She joins a very select few who have been granted this designation.

Image result for ua little rock logo6.  A new Chancellor and new arts Dean at UA Little Rock.  While not specifically a cultural institution, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock is definitely a player in the City’s arts environment.  2019 saw Dr. Christy Drale, a longtime university administrator, assuming the helm as the Chancellor of UA Little Rock.  She has been a valued supporter of the university’s arts, cultural and heritage offerings throughout her tenure.

While she is faced with making deep cuts at the university due to declining enrollment and the accompanying decrease in funding, it is highly unlikely that she will make knee-jerk cuts to arts funding first, which has often been the case in the past not only at this university but at many others.

Likewise, Dr. Sarah Beth Estes was permanently named Dean of Arts, Letters, and Sciences at UA Little Rock in the summer of 2019. She had previously held the position in the interim and has been a faculty member and administrator at UA Little Rock since 2006.  Dean Estes has been a vocal advocate for cross-discipline collaborations within the university as well as the importance of UA Little Rock as a community asset.

Image result for ualr public radio7 – Comings and Goings at UA Little Rock Public Radio.  KUAR and KLRE, the public radio stations at UA Little Rock saw some personnel changes of their own this year.  After leading the station as Interim General Manager for several years, Nathan Vandiver was named General Manager in December. He started at the stations in 2009 as an intern while he was a student at UA Little Rock.  From 2013 to 2016, he was program manager for UA Little Rock Public Radio before assuming the title of Interim G.M. following the death of Ben Fry.

Longtime Arts Scene host Ann Nicholson retired from the station in the fall of 2019. A British national, she was raised in India, Scotland, and England. She moved to Canada in the 1950s and the US in the 1960s. She and her late husband moved to Little Rock in the 1970s, upon which she quickly ensconced herself in the arts community. In 1985, she started hosting Arts Scene on UA Little Rock Public Radio. Since then, she has interviewed hundreds of artists, musicians, authors, and performers about projects in Little Rock.

UA Little Rock reporter Daniel Breen is conducting the Arts Scene interviews now. A graduate of Little Rock Central High School and UA LIttle Rock, Breen is an avid fan of the music scene and the arts in general in Little Rock.

Artober – Music. The sounds of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra

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Little Rock has a thriving music scene from jazz to blues to r&b to rock to soul to gospel to, well, you name it.

For over 50 years, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra has been playing a pivotal role in that scene.  While they play programs that are largely classical music, they also incorporate many different styles of music into their offerings.  Last night, they played a concert with Tony and Grammy winner Heather Headley which spanned numerous musical genres.  The ASO is led by Interim Music Director Geoffrey Robson and Executive Director Christina Littlejohn.

Incorporated in 1966, the ASO now performs more than 60 concerts per season, which includes the Masterworks and Pops Concerts. In addition, the orchestra has a Chamber Series, River Rhapsodies, at the Clinton Presidential Center, ASO, I.N.C.: Intimate Neighborhood Concerts, and a busy schedule of statewide touring and educational performances in numerous venues, along with collaborations with Ballet Arkansas and the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. Integral to the ASO’s activities are its resident string quartets, the Rockefeller and Quapaw Quartet; The ASO Brass Quintet, ASO Big Band, and the Arkansas Symphony Youth Ensembles, which comprises two string-only ensembles and two full orchestras. Through ASO education programs over 40,000 children each year experience the magic of music.

Distinguished guest artists including Bill Clinton, Itzhak Perlman, Yo Yo Ma, Mignon Dunn, Marilyn Horn, Andre Watts, Maureen McGovern, Bernadette Peters, Maya Angelou, and Doc Severinsen, among others, have appeared in concert with the orchestra in Arkansas.

Comprised of the state’s most sought after professional musicians, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra is heard by more than 165,000 Arkansans each year, and consistently plays to high critical praise.

The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra celebrates a decade of fiscal responsibility and artistic growth

The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra announced its 10th break-even fiscal year in a row at the end of June. The 54-year-old Little Rock nonprofit has broken even or finished with a small surplus each year since the 2009-2010 season while growing from a $2.8 million annual operating budget to a $3.5 million budget.

The orchestra achieved this monumental task through the support of the community, a hard-working and engaged Board of Directors, professional musicians and a culture of partnership with all musicians, leadership, volunteers and administrators.

The orchestra’s Chief Executive Officer, Christina Littlejohn, expressed gratitude to the community. “On behalf of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, ‘thank you’ to the more than 3,500 individuals who have given to sustain live music, music education and Arkansas’s quality of life. Your generosity shows how valued ASO is by the Little Rock and statewide community, and we are grateful and invigorated by your support.” Littlejohn also said the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra will continue to be a disciplined, creative and innovative community partner in Little Rock and Arkansas for decades to come.

In addition to financial health, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra’s past 10 years have been marked by many achievements:

  • Opened the Robinson Center with a free concert to say thank you to the community for the new concert hall. More than 2,000 tickets were distributed in 39 minutes.
  • Formed a financial recovery task force in 2010 which set standards and practices which enabled the paying off of $700,000 in accumulated deficit, the restoration of full-time and part-time musician pay, and issued cost of living increases.
  • Created the Sturgis Music Academy, providing string education to more than 250 students each week
  • Made Sunday concerts free for 16,000 children with the Entergy Kids Ticket.
  • Provided violin instruction to Bale Elementary School, Forest Park Elementary School, and Fulbright Elementary School with the Violin in Your School program
  • Added a new neighborhood concert series and special performances, increasing the number of musician services
  • Supported annual residencies of guest artists for the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra Youth Ensembles program starting with a residency of violinist Midori
  • Performed in temporary venues for two-and-a-half years during the Robinson Center renovation, and used the opportunity to reach and entertain new, diverse audiences
  • Nearly doubled the endowment ($4 million in June 2010 to $7.6 million as of May 2019)
  • Set a new record for the largest Annual Fund ever raised by the orchestra, over $1 million given for its annual fund in 2019
  • Received national and local coverage of orchestra programs
  • Commissioned and premiered six new works for orchestra including a commission of Christopher Theofanidis by orchestra musicians in honor of the Board of Directors
  • Board of Directors recognized as “Best Non-Profit Board of Directors” by Arkansas Business
  • Introduced SHARP, ASO’s young professionals group and growing attendance from 30 in its first year to over 200 in four years

Chris White, Market President of Simmons Bank Central Arkansas, and a member of the Board of Directors, said the orchestra’s education and community service programs, which serve more than 26,000 children each year, are the key to its future success. “Simmons Bank regards social and civic responsibility as an inherent part of everything we do. There’s real value for Little Rock and Arkansas by supporting the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, and specifically its youth programs that foster disciplined, hardworking and team-oriented people.”

The 2019-2020 ASO season is focused on the Arkansas and Little Rock community, presenting programs in partnership with other community institutions, highlighting the compositions of local composers, and maintaining a commitment to accessibility, service, artistic excellence, and fiscal discipline. Subscriptions are on-sale now and offer discounts from single ticket prices as well as benefits exclusive to subscribers, such as guaranteed priority seating and free and flexible ticket exchange.

Still time for Spoken Word submissions for CALS and ASO collaboration

The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra (ASO) and Central Arkansas Library System (CALS) have announced a collaboration in a spoken word performance event focused on themes of joy, unity and hope.

Spoken word artists ages 18 and younger should submit their work, either in writing or by video, through a participating CALS branch or via email at teenpoetry@cals.org.

Adults should submit via odetojoy@arkansassymphony.org. Submissions will be accepted until December 3, 2018, and should be limited to no more than three minutes long. Performers may perform original work or works for which they have secured performance rights.

CALS and ASO will invite youth and adult finalists to perform for a panel of judges and a live audience January 10, 2019 at the Ron Robinson Theater. At this event, performers will be selected to join the ASO on stage at Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9: Ode to Joy, February 23 & 24 at the Robinson Center.

“Whether lyrics in a popular song, libretto for an opera, or a symphonic setting of a poem, music and writing go hand-in-hand,” said Christina Littlejohn, CEO of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. “We are excited to join with another fundamental Little Rock institution to enrich our community with the power of orchestral music and language in our first spoken word collaboration.”

“Engaging people with words, music, and creativity lies at the center of our broad library mission,” said Nate Coulter, CALS Executive Director. “This collaborative performance with ASO musicians and library patrons speaking poetry will be an opportunity to express shared hopes and joys through two of our oldest and most emotionally evocative art forms. Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ is a great choice by the orchestra to inspire and embrace our library community’s aspiring poets.”

With a full orchestra and massed Arkansas intercollegiate and professional chorus, Maestro Philip Mann will lead more than 300 musicians on stage to perform one of the most powerful and recognizable works in the entire history of music: Symphony No. 9, Ode to Joy. In this first ever collaboration between the ASO and CALS, spoken word artists will perform from the Robinson Center stage during the concert.

A series of special events at CALS branches is being planned as part of the partnership, including spoken word performances, mini-concerts and educational performances by ASO musicians, and panel discussions. CALS will also curate a multimedia collection of materials on Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, its libretto, and other topics relevant to the themes of the presentation. For detailed information about events and materials at CALS and ASO, please visit ArkansasSymphony.org/spoken-word.

Tickets to Ode to Joy are available now and cost $16, $36, $57, and $68; active duty military and student tickets are $10 and can be purchased online at ArkansasSymphony.org at the Robinson Center street-level box office beginning 90 minutes prior to a concert; or by phone at 501-666-1761, ext. 1. All Arkansas students grades K-12 are admitted to Sunday’s matinee free of charge with the purchase of an adult ticket using the Entergy Kids’ Ticket, downloadable at http://www.arkansassymphony.org/freekids.

Little Rock Look Back: Robinson Center closes in preparation for Second Act

On July 1, 2014, Robinson Center Music Hall closed so that renovations could commence.  Instead of having a groundbreaking ceremony, Gretchen Hall and LRCVB arranged for a “stage breaking.”  Slats from the stage flooring were pried up with crowbars.

Twenty-eight months later, Robinson Center reopened on-time and on-budget.

(As a side note:  the Culture Vulture announced the countdown before Governor Mike Beebe and various Little Rock leaders used their crowbars for the first breaking of the stage flooring.)

Here are some photos from that ceremony.

Little Rock Look Back: Robinson Center closes for renovation

On July 1, 2014, Robinson Center Music Hall closed so that renovations could commence.  Instead of having a groundbreaking ceremony, Gretchen Hall and LRCVB arranged for a “stage breaking.”  Slats from the stage flooring were pried up with crowbars.

Twenty-eight months later, Robinson Center reopened on-time and on-budget.

(As a side note:  the Culture Vulture announced the countdown before Governor Mike Beebe and various Little Rock leaders used their crowbars for the first breaking of the stage flooring.)

Here are some photos from that ceremony.