First Beaux Arts Bal raised money for fine art acquisition in Little Rock on December 12, 1958

Snow covered highways throughout the state on Friday, December 12, 1958.  However, the 400 guests at the Fine Arts Club’s first Beaux Arts Bal braved the roads and made their way to the blue drape bedecked ballroom of the Country Club of Little Rock. (Note, the event used the French spelling of Ball using only one “l.”)

Proceeds from the evening would be used by the Fine Arts Club to build up an acquisition fund for the Museum of Fine Arts. At the time, the club was in the process of launching an effort which would lead to the creation of the Arkansas Arts Center.

With the theme “bal de tete” (or “Head Ball”) guests were encouraged to come in their finest evening wear while sporting elegant and/or creative chapeaus atop their crowns.

Gege Darragh

Among the revelers were:

  • Elsie Stebbins, president of the Fine Arts Club, wearing a papier-mache silhouette of Arkansas adorned with the five flags which had flown over it
  • Howard Stebbins, president of Ducks Unlimited, wearing a replica of a duck blind complete with Mallard ducks
  • Daisy Jacoway, beneath a white Christmas wreath
  • Cooper Jacoway, clad in a black and white bear’s head with eyes flashing on and off
  • Carrie Dickinson, wearing a hat made of pink and red roses
  • Mayriann Hurst, bedecked in an epergne holding Christmas ornaments and fresh white orchids (as befitting the owner of Tipton Hurst florist)

Gege Darragh won a prize as “Most Artistic” hat which included lighted candles on a styrofoam base intermingled with white glitter oak leaves and silver balls. Her prize was a portrait by noted Arkansas artist Edwin Brewer.

The Hamiltons (as Marie Antoinette and her executioner) and the Kreths (as Siamese dancers)

Dr. and Mrs. K. M. Kreth won the prize for “Best Hats” which were a matching pair of elaborate gold peaked headdresses in the style of Siamese dancers. Their prize was a trip to Nassau.

The “Most Creative” prize went to Jeane and Jim Hamilton who wore hats depicting Marie Antoinette and her executioner.  They received a Swedish crystal masque.

The headgear was judged by a triumvirate of notables: Little Rock hotelier, restaurateur, and raconteur Sam Peck; future Arkansas First Lady Jeannette Rockefeller, and architect Edward Durrell Stone.

Among the many women serving with Elsie Stebbins on the planning committee were Jane McGehee, Daisy Jacoway, Raida Pfeifer, Buff Blass, and Kula Kumpuris.

Just as the Museum of Fine Arts made way for the Arkansas Arts Center, so too did this event change.  In 1971, the annual Beaux Arts Bal was replaced by Tabriz. In 1976, it became a two night event which took place every other year.

Peck, Rockefeller, and Stone judging the head wear

Birth of Little Rock’s 46th Mayor – Horace Knowlton – on Nov. 25, 1872

On November 25, 1872, future Little Rock Mayor Horace A. Knowlton Jr. was born.

In April 1920, he was elected City Clerk of Little Rock.  He served in that position until April 1931.  That year, he was chosen as the Democratic nominee for Mayor, denying incumbent Mayor Pat L. Robinson a second term.

The primary race against Mayor Robinson was close.  When the results were first announced, it looked as if Mayor Robinson had prevailed.  But after challenging ballots, Mr. Knowlton was declared the winner.  Since Little Rock was primarily a Democratic Party city, unsurprisingly Mr. Knowlton was elected Mayor in April 1931 and served two terms as Mayor.

He oversaw the start of some of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs in Arkansas during his tenure.  In 1934, he negotiated the purchase of Gillam Park for the City which established the first public park in Little Rock for African Americans.  While a segregated park would today be wrong, in the 1930s he was viewed as very progressive for providing a public park for African Americans.  One of his final acts as Mayor was to participate in the groundbreaking for the Museum of Fine Arts building in City Park (now a portion of the Arkansas Arts Center building in MacArthur Park).

Following his departure from public office, Mayor Knowlton and his wife (who had been an elementary school teacher) eventually moved to Florida and resided in the Tampa Bay area.  His son and grandson (Horace III and Horace IV) have both been lawyers in the Tampa Bay area.  Mayor Knowlton died on February 14, 1965.  He is buried in the Oak Grove cemetery in Conway.

Artober – Art that Changed Me. The 1937 Museum of Fine Arts Entrance

October is Arts and Humanities Month nationally and in Little Rock. Americans for the Arts has identified a different arts topic to be posted for each day in the month.  We end today with “Art That Changed Me.”

So many possibilities:  Oliver!, the first production I saw; reading The Comedy of Errors (first Shakespeare play I read); the Missouri State University production of The Normal Heart; seeing George Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island La Grand Jatte or a Jackson Pollock piece both at the Art Institute of Chicago; Diego Rivera’s Two Women in the Arkansas Arts Center collection; hearing David Belcher play the piano in Rhapsody in Blue or the Arkansas Symphony playing Firebird Suite; the list goes on an on.

I grew up with the arts. I grew up valuing the arts. Art has moved me, made me laugh, made me cry, made me think, pretty much my entire life. All art changes me in some fashion.

So, I’ll cheat and talk about Art that Changed Little Rock.  Again, many choices, but it is easier to be more objective about that.  With the recent re-exposure of the original 1937 facade of the Museum of Fine Arts, that made me think of photos of the original building which were sent to me by Lally Brown. She is a granddaughter of Nettie Robinson, who was the first (and longtime) director of the Museum of Fine Arts.

For many years, this facade was inside a gallery of the Arkansas Arts Center. I have long said this facade was one of my favorite pieces in the Arkansas Arts Center collection. Now, it will once again be a portal through which people will enter and experience the arts.

Photo from the collection of Lally Brown.

The Museum of Fine Arts changed Little Rock. It was the first cultural institution that was an art facility. It provided a place to take classes and started to inspire people to aspire for more and better art.  It served as the foundation for the Arkansas Arts Center and all that it has offered. Most of Little Rock’s performing and visual arts entities can trace their heritage to the Museum of Fine Arts.

It all started here.

Photo by the Arkansas Arts Center

 

Forerunner of Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock’s Museum of Fine Arts opened on October 5, 1937

On Tuesday, October 5, 1937, the Fine Arts Club of Little Rock held its first meeting in the new Museum of Fine Arts.  But it was not a typical meeting. It was an Open House and Dedication for the new building.

Construction on the 10,140 square foot building had commenced with the January 3, 1936, groundbreaking.  By September 1937, the keys were presented to the City, marking the end of the construction process.

During the October 5 events, a letter of congratulations was read by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and WPA Administrator Harry L. Hopkins.  A letter which had been prepared by Sen Joe T. Robinson prior to his death was also read.  Mayor R. E. Overman, architect H. Ray Burks, and Fred W. Allsopp spoke at the event.  The latter was chair of the museum’s board.  Over 1,000 people were in attendance. At the time the city’s population was around 87,000.

The museum officially opened its doors to the public on October 28, 1937.  Nettie L. Robinson, a longtime member of the Fine Arts Club, was its first director and would serve in that capacity for two decades.

The original facade of the Museum can still be seen inside the Arkansas Arts Center.  Once the expansion and renovation of that building is complete in 2022, the original entrance will be highlighted even more with the new design.

Artober – Past, Present, Future

October is Arts and Humanities Month nationally and in Little Rock. Americans for the Arts has identified a different arts topic to be posted for each day in the month. Today looks at “Past, Present, Future.”

In keeping with that, today features images of the original 1937 Museum of Fine Arts, the 1963 version of the Arkansas Arts Center (the successor to the previous museum), the 2000 edition of the AAC, and the 2022 future look of the building.

The first building faced north onto 9th street.

The second building shifted the focus of the building. It faced south into MacArthur Park with the original entrance now being covered and part of the back of the building.

By 2000, the entrance had shifted to the west facing Commerce Street (though the 1963 entrance remained as a convenient entry for the Children’s Theatre and Museum School.

Finally, in 2022, the main entrance will return to the newly uncovered 1937 facade on the north.  It will be situated inside a courtyard framed by the new two story cultural living room at the historic crescent drive inside MacArthur Park. Standing in the center of the courtyard, in front of the historic facade will be Henry Moore’s Standing Figure Knife Edge (Large).  Studio Gang is the lead architect for this project with SCAPE serving as landscape architect.  Polk Stanley Wilcox is the associate architect.

The Arkansas Arts Center was formally established on Sept 6, 1960

Architectural model of the original Arkansas Arts Center which would open in 1963.

On Tuesday, September 6, 1960, the City of Little Rock Board of Directors adopted ordinance 11,111 which formally established the Arkansas Arts Center.

In July 1957, the City Council of Little Rock granted the Museum of Fine Arts the authority to solicit and receive funds for expanding that museum’s physical plant.  During that process, it had been decided that the museum needed an expanded mission and a new name.  By the summer of 1960, the museum supporters had raised sufficient funds to proceed with constructing the new facility.  Therefor the new ordinance was prepared and submitted to the City Board.  (In November 1957, the City Council had been replaced by a City Board.)

Ordinance 11,111 set forth that the Museum of Fine Arts would be known as the Arkansas Arts Center and that the previous museum’s board would serve as the board for the new museum.  The Board of the Arkansas Arts Center was given the authority to have the new building constructed in MacArthur Park and the existing building modified.  As a part of the planning for the new museum, the City committed $75,000 for the capital campaign.

The groundbreaking for the new museum would take place in August 1961.  Mayor Werner Knoop, who signed Ordinance 11,111, took part in the groundbreaking.

Media attending the September 6, 1960, City Board meeting were more interested in discussion about a potential leash law for dogs within the City limits.

August 20, 1961 – Groundbreaking for Arkansas Arts Center

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.