Happy Birthday to Diego Rivera

Today is the birthday of Diego Rivera.  He is one of the Culture Vulture favorite artists, so any excuse to discuss him and his relationship with the Rockefeller family is greatly appreciated.

One of Rivera’s masterpieces is 1914’s Portrait of Two Women which is part of the permanent collection of the Arkansas Arts Center. The official name is Dos Mujeres.  It is a portrait of Angelina Beloff and Maria Dolores Bastian.  The former was Rivera’s first wife.

This oil on canvas stands six and a half feet tall and five and a half feet wide.

Influenced by cubists such as Picasso, Rivera adopted fracturing of form, use of multiple perspective points, and flattening of the picture plane.  Yet his take on this style of painting is distinctive.  He uses brighter colors and a larger scale than many early cubist pictures. Rivera also features highly textured surfaces executed in a variety of techniques.

The painting was a gift to the Arkansas Arts Center by Abby Rockefeller Mauzé, sister of Arkansas Governor Winthrop Rockefeller.  At the 1963 opening of the Arkansas Arts Center, James Rorimer, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, remarked several times to Arts Center trustee Jeane Hamilton that the Met should have that piece. Jeane politely smiled as she remarked, “But we have it.”

Of all her brothers, Abby was closest to Winthrop. The other brothers, at best ignored, and at worst, antagonized the two.  Given the complicated relationship of Rivera with members of the Rockefeller family, it is not surprising that if Abby were to have purchased this piece, she would donate it to a facility with close ties to Winthrop.

(Though the Rockefeller brothers had Rivera’s mural at Rockefeller Center destroyed, he maintained a cordial relationship with their mother Abby Aldrich Rockefeller — well as cordial as an anti-social Communist could be with the doyenne of capitalist NYC Society.)

Diego’s third (and fourth) wife Frida Kahlo will be the feature of an upcoming exhibit at the Arkansas Arts Center.

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An Appreciation of Cliff Fannin Baker

Two times Cliff Baker declined to hire me.

The first was, upon reflection, a “what the hell he thinking even interviewing me I was nowhere qualified for that job?!” situation.

The second time I had three interviews. Met the entire staff. And at the last minute some board members wanted to restructure staffing and go another direction.

I was disappointed. But because it was Cliff, I was not bitter.

I mean, that elfin grin. Those sparkling eyes. You could tell there were fifty-thousand ideas going through his mind at once. He was an encourager and a dreamer.

Cliff Baker willed Arkansas Rep into existence.  He had a merry band of players to join him.  But in the end, it was his vision, his determination, his blood, his sweat, and his tears that made the dream a reality.

The genesis for the Rep predates even the Arkansas Philharmonic Theatre. It goes back to the theatre program of the Arkansas Arts Center during its degree granting days.  Cliff worked with Dugald MacArthur who led the dramatic arts section during most of the four years the school existed.   Cliff was part of Of Prisons and Men, the environmental staging production of a new play which was critical of the Arkansas prison system.  It was aborted due partially to the involvement of actual inmates in the production (to the dismay of some in prison leadership system). Though not publicly stated, there was also some discomfort with the tone and tenor of the play.

Earlier this year, Cliff and I talked about this play.  Sometime over the years, he had lost his papers on it.  But longtime Arts Center trustee Jeane Hamilton had hers and gave them to Cliff.   As the theatre production was cancelled and later the entire degree granting program dropped for budget reasons, Jeane had encouraged Cliff to keep dreaming of theatre for Little Rock.  When Mimi Dortch was helping Cliff launch the Rep, Jeane was excited to join in.  (And it was Jeane who recruited Ruth Shepherd to become involved with the Rep.)

I was fascinated to hear Cliff talk about the visits to the prison, the rehearsal process, and the disappointment for the way it ended.  But fifty years later, it was just one stop on his career providing anecdotes from his youthful baptism into the Little Rock theatrical scene.

As a child, I was taken to a production at Cliff’s Arkansas Philharmonic Theatre in Hillcrest.  I could not tell you what it was, nor do my parents remember.  One of my babysitters was in the play.  I may not remember the play or the plot (I was five or six), but I vividly remember the cramped space. There was an electricity to it.  And it showed that theatre did not have to take place in a large auditorium.

The next year, the Arkansas Rep was born in an abandoned church space adjacent to MacArthur Park.  Operating for the first few years as a true repertory company, the same core cadre acted, sold tickets, built sets, and cleaned the building. What Cliff was creating in Little Rock was rare at the time.  Professional theatre did not exist in cities of its size.

My first personal interaction with Cliff was at Arkansas Governor’s School.  They were touring the musical Quilters to campus.  Since I was in Drama at AGS, Cliff and some cast members visited with us.  I don’t remember anything profound he said, but I remember him treating this group of 21 seventeen-year olds with respect.  Later that evening, the light board was not cooperating. So the show actually started with only house lights until the light board started functioning.  Before the show, Cliff gave brief remarks about the show.  He apologized for the technical glitch, but “the show must go on.”  About 15 minutes into it, the theatrical lighting appeared.

Over the years, I saw many shows he directed. Cliff was at home in so many different styles of theatre.

Perhaps one of my favorite Cliff memories was a decade or so back when the Rep produced A Chorus Line. I and some friends were at an event which involved a behind-the-scenes talk about the production.  By this point, Cliff had been retired from the Rep (the first time) for several years but was directing the production.  He and I were sitting at the same table.  A friend of mine who was relatively new to town quite innocently asked, “So what is your connection to the Rep?”  I just about did a Danny Thomas spit take to the drink I was sipping.  Cliff very humbly said, “Well, I have been involved since the first days of it and am now back directing this show.”  He was not upset that someone did not know who he was. He was actually very glad to see many new people continuing to be involved with the Rep.

The Cliff stories keep coming back as I write this. We all have them. He had the ability to make people feel connected, to make you feel you were the most important person in the room.  It was that gift that made him a good director, actor, producer, and fundraiser.

My last conversation with Cliff was on the opening night of Gridiron.  We had chatted earlier in the evening.  Then after the show, I saw he and Guy, right after I had passed Herb Rule.  The three of them played the key male roles in the Rep’s first production: The Threepenny Opera. I teased Cliff that it was time for a revival of that production. He smiled and said, “It was such a fun show to do.” We shook hands and parted ways. I knew he needed to work the room. This was a space filled with people who wanted to support the Rep as it refreshed itself.

When the announcement of the Rep suspending operations was made in April, one of my first thoughts was, quite selfishly, “Damn, I won’t be able to see a Cliff Baker God of Carnage.”  It was the show I had most been anticipating from this season.  As the Rep was working to plan for a new season, I was hopeful that Cliff would be able to mount that production in the new season.  A very dark comedy, it is reminiscent of some of his best work.  Alas, just as the Rep is on the cusp of a new phase, Cliff won’t be there to direct.

But Cliff WILL be there.  He will always be a part of the Rep. It is more than him, but it is very much him.

For the rest of us – those who are left to mourn, to support Guy, to face life after Cliff, I keep thinking of a line from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  In it, he said, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work.” And there is much unfinished work.  The Rep needs to return to regular programming to be sure.  But it is more than that.  We need to all redouble our efforts to exhibit the compassion, the passion, the wit, and the sincerity he showed. To inspire others to be their best whether in the arts or whatever field they choose.

Cliff Fannin Baker was a Pied Piper, and we were all glad to follow along.

Little Rock Look Back: Arkansas Arts Center study group heads to China

TIna Poe, Raida Pfeifer and Jeane Hamilton at the Great Wall of China (photo from collection of Jeane Hamilton)

On September 1, 1975, a group from the Arkansas Arts Center left Little Rock for a study tour of China. This was the first non-governmental group from the United States who had been authorized to tour the People’s Republic of China.

Fred Poe, of Poe Travel, and Jeane Hamilton were the organizers of the trip.  It was part of the annual travel seminars the Arts Center  would take to locations throughout the world to learn more about art and culture.  It took many months of planning as wells as mounds and pounds of paperwork to get this trip underway.

Persons interested in the trip had to apply and be approved by the Chinese government in order to participate in the trip.   The Chinese government selected eighteen AAC members from submitted applications and the group visited Beijing, Shanghai, Changsha, Kweilin, and Guangzhou.

The AAC Traveling Seminar participants in front of Mao’s birthplace. (Photo from the Jeane Hamilton collection.)

Little Rock Look Back: May 31, 1968 – a day of transition for the Arkansas Arts Center

AAC Logo in 1963

An arts organization in financial crisis.
Programming abandoned
Summer education programming for students
Staff laid off
A challenge grant from donors
A community fundraising drive

Sound familiar?

In January 1968, the Arkansas Arts Center made the decision to cease operating a degree-granting education program effective May 31 of that year.  Sixteen faculty members lost their jobs, though a couple were retained for other positions within the organization.

After opening in May 1963 and beginning the degree-granting program in September 1964, the Arkansas Arts Center found itself operating at a deficit each year.  While Jeannette and Winthrop Rockefeller made up the deficits, it was not a sustainable model.  (Mrs. Rockefeller had been the president of the AAC board for several years after she and her husband played leadership roles in the statewide fundraising efforts to establish the AAC.)

Though the degree-granting programs were bringing national recognition to the AAC, they had essentially taken over the entire facility.  The theatre was rarely available for children’s programming or community groups. The galleries were given over largely to the displaying the works of the students and faculty.  What had been envisioned as a facility melding world-class arts with community arts, was not functioning that way.

As such, the statewide membership program was suffering. Without the creation of programming in Little Rock, it was difficult to take any substantial arts offerings out to the membership clusters throughout the state. This resulted in the decline of memberships being purchased.

Following the announcement of the cessation of the degree-granting program, the AAC Board sought ways to more fully engage the public.  Part of this was due to the fact that the Arts Center had a deficit of $295,216 (the equivalent of $2.15 million today).  The only profitable part of the AAC operation was the gift shop.  With that level of deficit, the permanent closure of the AAC was certainly a possibility on people’s minds.

A committee studying the future of the AAC decided to focus on five (5) areas.  (And of course, AAC founding mother Jeane Hamilton was part of this effort.)  The areas were Education (community classes for children and adults), Exhibits (a return to a mix of permanent and traveling exhibitions), Theatre (partnerships with Community Theatre of Little Rock and the creation of children and teen theatre productions), State Services (refocusing the Artmobile to include educational instruction), and Membership. This would result in a net budget of $260,000.

In April 1968, a fund drive was announced led by former Little Rock Mayor Byron Morse.  The goal was $130,000, to be matched dollar-for-dollar by the Rockefellers.  As of May of that year, it had raised $108,731.

There are many parallels between the AAC in 1968 and the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s current predicament. While the causes of the financial woes may be different, the cures are very much the same.

Then, as now, the citizens of Little Rock and Arkansas had to step up and financially support an arts organization in financial crisis.  Whereas the Rockefellers were matching gifts in 1968, the Windgate Foundation is matching gifts now.  Just as the Arts Center renewed its focus on the community and redefined the way it did business, the Rep is now facing these same processes and predicaments.

What the future Rep will look like in terms of numbers and types of productions remains to be seen.  But the core leadership team is touting a mantra of Professional, Affordable, and Sustainable.  All of these are laudable. All are attainable. But all will require continued community commitment year in and year out.

An interesting side note: a key Arts Center Board member in 1968 was William Rector, the father of longtime Rep Board member Bill Rector who is currently part of the interim leadership team at the Rep.  Let’s hope Bill has the same success in his endeavor as his father did.

Viva Center Artium
Repertorium Praeter Theatrum

Little Rock Look Back: Arkansas Arts Center concludes opening festivities with Beaux Arts Ball

Starting at 9:00 p.m. on May 18, 1963, the Beaux Arts Ball capped off the opening weekend festivities for the Arkansas Arts Center.

Chaired by Jeane Hamilton and Jean Gordon (both of whom are still going strong 55 years later!), the Beaux Arts Ball featured the music of Henry King and his Orchestra as well as a performance by jazz legend Dave Brubeck and his Quartet.  King played on the dance floor while Brubeck gave concerts in the theatre at 9:00 p.m., 10:15 p.m., and 11:30 p.m.

Special guests for this black tie event included  Oscar winner Joan Fontaine, cartoonist Charles Addams (creator of The Addams Family), and James Rorimer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The event concluded at 1:00 a.m. as exhausted and exhilarated guests made their way home.

LR Women Making History – Jeane Hamilton

Photo taken for SOIREE

Jeane Hamilton has nurtured the Arkansas Arts Center for over 60 years.  She was present at the genesis of it and has remained so.  In 2007, she was awarded the Arkansas Arts Council’s Lifetime Achievement Governor’s Arts Award.

Arriving in Little Rock a young wife in 1952, she immediately set about to become involved in her new community as she and her husband James set up a household.  In the mid-1950s, the Junior League of Little Rock tapped her to chair the initiative to create a new art museum for Little Rock.  The two decades old Museum of Fine Arts was threadbare through years of neglect and unfocused programming and collecting.

Hamilton, along with Junior League President Carrie Remmel Dickinson and Vice President Martha McHaney, approached Winthrop Rockefeller (then a relatively new resident) to lead the fundraising effort for the new museum.  He agreed on a few conditions: one was that a base amount had to be raised in Little Rock first, and second that the museum would be for the entire State of Arkansas and not just Little Rock.

Hamilton and her colleagues set about to raise the funds. They raised $645,000 at the same time Little Rock’s business climate was stymied by the aftereffects of the Central High crisis.

Now a lifetime honorary member of the Arkansas Arts Center Board, Hamilton has spent much of her life working on Arkansas Arts Center projects since that visit in 1959.  She has served on the Board, chaired committees, chaired special events, served hot dogs, helped kids paint and danced the night away at countless fundraisers.  She was on the committee which hired Townsend Wolfe as executive director and chief curator.  Jeane has led art tours for the Arts Center to a number of countries over the years.

When she is not at the Arts Center, she is often seen at the Rep, the Symphony or any number of other cultural institutions.  While she enjoys seeing old friends at these events, she also loves to see a room full of strangers – because that means that new people have become engaged in the cultural life of Little Rock.

Little Rock Look Back: Opening of the Arkansas Arts Center!

On Saturday, May 18, 1963, amidst fanfare and fans of the arts, the Arkansas Arts Center officially opened its doors.  (This was thirty-five years and three days after the Fine Arts Club had opened the first permanent art gallery in Arkansas in the Pulaski County Courthouse).

The dedication ceremonies on May 18 featured U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright (who was in the midst of championing what would soon be known as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts), Congressman Wilbur Mills, Governor Orval Faubus, Little Rock Mayor Byron Morse, Winthrop Rockefeller and Jeanette Rockefeller.

On Friday, May 17, 1963, film star Gordon MacRae performed two separate concerts in the theatre space.  There were other assorted small events and tours on May 16 and 17.

The culmination of the weekend was the Beaux Arts Bal.  This black tie event, featured Oscar winner Joan Fontaine, cartoonist Charles Addams (creator of The Addams Family), James Rorimer of the Metropolitan Museum, and Dave Brubeck.  Chaired by Jeane Hamilton, the event set a new standard for events in Little Rock.

Among the exhibits at the Arkansas Arts Center for the grand opening was a special exhibit from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York entitled Five Centuries of European Painting.  In Little Rock for six months, this exhibit featured works by El Greco, Titian, Claude Monet, Odilon Redon, Pierre Renoir, Paul Signac, Edgar Degas, and Paul Gauguin among many others and spanned from the fifteenth century Early Renaissance era to the nineteenth century.

Prior to the opening, a profile on the Arts Center in The Christian Science Monitor touted the building as one of the first regional arts centers in the country to be completed. Benefiting from national ties of the Rockefeller family, the events in May 1963, set a high standard for the institution, and for other regional art museums.