On a warm Sunday afternoon, ten golden shovels turned dirt to mark the start of construction for the new Arkansas Arts Center. The activity followed a series of speeches that day, August 20, 1961.
The speakers and dignitaries sat on the front portico of the original Museum of Fine Arts in MacArthur Park. That building would be incorporated into the new structure.
Among those who took part in the speeches and groundbreaking were Winthrop Rockefeller, Jeannette Edris Rockefeller, Gov. Orval Faubus, Congressman Dale Alford, and Little Rock Mayor Werner Knoop.
The efforts to create the Arkansas Arts Center started in the mid-1950s when the Junior League of Little Rock started an effort to establish a new art museum. Next, the business community founded a Committee for a Center of Art and Science to accept funds donated.
When a suitable location within Little Rock could not be found, the decision was made to join with the Fine Arts Club and the Museum of Fine Arts. Under the leadership of the Rockefellers, the drive to form the Arkansas Arts Center was launched. In September 1960, the City of Little Rock formally established the Arkansas Arts Center.
On August 1, 1934, Tal Streeter was born in Oklahoma City. After graduating from the University of Kansas, he worked as a sculptor and artist. He died in 2014.
In 1970, Streeter and the Arkansas Arts Center Board of Trustees donated Streeter’s sculpture Standing Red in honor of Jeannette Edris Rockefeller. Mrs. Rockefeller had been a champion of the Arkansas Arts Center and had served as longtime chair of the Board. She had also been instrumental in the recruitment and hiring of Townsend Wolfe who would be the longtime director of the Arkansas Arts Center.
Streeter’s sculpture stands 27 feet tall and is 54 feet from one end to another. It consists of a T-shaped base and a perpendicular pedestal. It is in the Minimalist style of art. In creating it, Streeter focused on the placement of a thin red line into a setting. It was placed near the then-entrance of the Arkansas Arts Center (which still serves as the entrance for the Museum School and Children’s Theatre).
This was one of the earliest pieces of abstract art in Little Rock. A silkscreen by Streeter is also in the Arkansas Arts Center collection.
An arts organization in financial crisis.
Summer education programming for students
Staff laid off
A challenge grant from donors
A community fundraising drive
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.
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 11:00 am dedication ceremonies on took place in the Arts Center Theatre and 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.
The dedication ceremony was chaired by Jane McGehee, now known as Jane McGehee Wilson. Earlier this month she was honored at the Arkansas Arts Center with an outstanding patron award in recognition of her work supporting the Arkansas Arts Center for close to six decades. More information on her work for the AAC can be found here.
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.
Two days before the Grand Opening of the Arkansas Arts Center, the institution’s members were given a sneak preview. On May 16, 1963, at 8:00pm, members were given a preview of the opening exhibition: Five Centuries of European Painting.
Members were greeted with remarks by Jeannette Rockefeller, the Board of Trustees president. Following her were comments by Alan R. Symonds, who was the Arts Center’s executive director. James Rorimer, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which had created the opening exhibition, also spoke.
The exhibition featured works by Titian, El Greco, van Dyck, Murillo, Gainsborough, Monet, Courbet, Renoir, Degas, Pissarro, and Gauguin. Another artist featured was Paul Signac. Today the Arts Center has one of the largest collections or works by Signac due to the generosity of collector James T. Dyke.
Mr. Symonds had been hired by the Rockefellers to lead the planned automobile museum on Petit Jean. He was loaned to the Arts Center to get the museum open. A year after the AAC grand opening, he returned to the assignment on Petit Jean.
On April 4, 1968, when Dr. King was assassinated, Little Rock did not see the unrest that many cities did. Part of that was probably due to quick action by Governor Winthrop Rockefeller.
The Governor released a statement fairly quickly expressing his sorrow at the tragedy and calling for a day of mourning. He also made the State Capitol available for the NAACP to have a public memorial, as well as worked with a group of ministers to host an interdenominational service.
Little Rock Mayor Martin Borchert issued a statement as well:
We in Little Rock are disturbed about the incident in Memphis. We are disturbed regardless of where it had happened. Killing is not the Christian solution to any of our problems today.
In Little Rock, we feel we have come a long way in 10 years toward solving some of our problems of living and working together regardless of race, creed or color.
The city Board of Directors in Little Rock has pledged itself toward continuing efforts to make Little Rock a better place in which to live and work for all our citizens.
We feel the efforts of all thus far have proved we can live in harmony in Little Rock and are confident such an incident as has happened will not occur in Little Rock. We will continue our most earnest efforts toward the full needs of our citizens.
The day after Dr. King was assassinated, a group of Philander Smith College students undertook a spontaneous walk to the nearby State Capitol, sang “We Shall Overcome” and then walked back to the campus. President Ernest T. Dixon, Jr., of the college then hosted a 90 minute prayer service in the Wesley Chapel on the campus.
On the Sunday following Dr. King’s assassination, some churches featured messages about Dr. King. As it was part of Holy Week, the Catholic Bishop for the Diocese of Little Rock had instructed all priests to include messages about Dr. King in their homilies. Some protestant ministers did as well. The Arkansas Gazette noted that Dr. Dale Cowling of Second Baptist Church downtown (who had received many threats because of his pro-integration stance in 1957) had preached about Dr. King and his legacy that morning.
Later that day, Governor Rockefeller participated in a public memorial service on the front steps of the State Capitol. The crowd, which started at 1,000 and grew to 3,000 before it was over, was racially mixed. At the conclusion of the ceremony, Governor and Mrs. Rockefeller joined hands with African American ministers and sang “We Shall Overcome.”
That evening, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral was the site of an interdenominational service which featured Methodist Bishop Rev. Paul V. Galloway, Catholic Bishop Most Rev. Albert L. Fletcher, Episcopal Bishop Rt. Rev. Robert R. Brown, Rabbi E. E. Palnick of Temple B’Nai Israel, Gov. Rockefeller, Philander Smith President Dixon, and Rufus King Young of Bethel AME Church.
Earlier in the day, Mayor Borchert stated:
We are gathered this afternoon to memorialize and pay tribute to a great American….To achieve equality of opportunity for all will require men of compassion and understanding on the one hand and men of reason and desire on the other.
Jeannette Edris Rockefeller only lived in Arkansas for about fifteen years. But her impact on the cultural life of Little Rock and all of Arkansas continues to be felt today.
Born and raised in Seattle, as a young mother she met Winthrop Rockefeller while both were in New York. He moved to Arkansas in 1953; after their 1956 marriage, she joined him. They split their time between Little Rock and Petit Jean.
In 1959, she was asked to become involved in plans for a new art museum in Little Rock. She became a tireless advocate and fundraiser for the new Arkansas Arts Center. In 1960, she assumed the role of president of the Arkansas Arts Center Board of Trustees, a position she held until 1968. During that time period she oversaw the planning, construction and opening of the building. She also invited Townsend Wolfe, who she had met when he taught some classes at the Arts Center, to apply to become the museum’s first executive director.
From 1967 to 1971, she was First Lady of Arkansas. In that capacity, she supervised renovation of the Governor’s Mansion and started the tradition of displaying art on the walls.
Shortly after her 1971 divorce from Rockefeller, she relocated to California. She continued to be a supporter of the Arts Center. One of the galleries in the Arts Center is named in her honor. In addition, one of the sculptures on the lawn of the Arts Center, Standing Red, was dedicated in 1970 in recognition of her service on the Arts Center Board.