Art Works Blog

Postcard from Arkansas and Kansas

Here I am with my fellow panelists from the creative placemaking discussion at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre in Little Rock. From l-r: Joy Pennington, Arkansas Arts Council; Beth Weidower, Arkansas Delta Rural Heritage Development Initiative; Bob Hupp, Arkansas Repertory Theatre; Warwick Sabin, Oxford American

This month the Art Works tour took me to Arkansas and Kansas. This was a trip where we covered a lot of ground---figuratively and literally. Our first stop was in Bentonville, Arkansas, where we toured the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. This is an amazing museum. This was a revelation. First of all, obviously, they have a tremendous collection. But even more than the collection, it’s the setting of the museum and the spirit of the people who are there. It was funded largely by Alice Walton (and Walmart sponsors the admission to the museum), but you would never know it because Alice Walton’s name is nowhere on the museum that I could tell.

The museum is set over a series of lagoons---literally bridging the lagoons---hence the name Crystal Bridges. The lagoons are sourced by a crystal spring, and the surrounding woodlands have several hiking trails. It really is in the most serene wooded setting. The exterior of the museum is arresting; it was designed by the Israeli architect Moshe Safdie. It’s bold, and it’s tasteful. It’s just a compelling place, and it relates to the community. I mean, this is a page out of our playbook, or we’re really ripping pages out of their playbook, because it’s all about being an asset and a gift to that community. And they’re drawing people from all over.

Our guides for the tour were Crystal Bridges Director Don Bacigalupi and Deputy Director of Museum Relations Sandy Edwards. Don is totally committed not only to the museum but to its relationship with the community. It’s all about people. For many of the people that are visiting this museum, it’s their first museum visit ever, and now I bet they are going to be lifetime art lovers. As you go from one room to another, there’s often a little passageway with natural light, that "refreshes your palate" and resets your mind for the next exhibit. The people I saw visiting the museum were incredibly diverse. We’re talking diversity of geography, age, race, rich and poor. I really just came away saying, “Wow, this is some place!” (You can take a look at some of the collection in the blog we posted last week about the Crystal Bridges “Strong Women” tour.)

At lunch, we met with John and Robyn Horn with the Wingate Charitable Foundation. Robyn is an amazing person---she’s both a significant visual artist and a philanthropist, and, again, is very committed to this community. Robyn was a very winning, compelling person, and someone I’d like to know more. Her husband John, a letterpress printer, is also a very straightforward and genuine person. It was great to meet them, and I hope that’s the beginning of an ongoing relationship.

From Bentonville we went on to Fayetteville to visit Northwest Arkansas’s regional theater, which is called TheatreSquared. We met in their building with Artistic Director Robert Ford and Managing Director Martin Miller. I remember a long time ago hearing Bob talk about his feeling that this area was ripe for a permanent theater, and they have really made this work here. The theater produces a lot of new work. They do significant work, and, against all the odds, it has survived all these years. I think it’s a significant part of their community, and it’s an example of creative placemaking. These guys are incredibly committed to what they’re doing and they’ve been successful at it.

I should mention that Joy Pennington, the executive director of the Arkansas Arts Council, joined us in Fayetteville and stayed with us for the rest of our Arkansas visit. She’s very, very dedicated to the arts and to her communities. Joy not only set the agenda but was our guide and navigator through much of the days in Fayetteville and then Little Rock. I can’t imagine how we would have functioned without her.

In Fayetteville, we also visited with the Northwest Arkansas Community Creative Center to learn about its Clay 4 Cancer project. What they do is take adult cancer patients and engage them with the arts, using clay to create works of art. We met with a couple of the women who were engaged with the project and heard them talk about how meaningful it was to them. A lot of the work we're doing now, in partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services, has to do with the intersection of the arts and different kinds of physical and mental therapies. These women talked about how meaningful it was for them to actually engage with their hands in artistic expression while they are dealing with their disease. It was not only a distraction from the disease, but it was a way for them to find purpose and expression in their lives. It was very heartening to listen to their stories. Susan Hutchcroft, the executive director there, was our host, and it was great to see the work that’s being done at this Community Creative Center. This is the kind of thing that the NEA needs to highlight, as it really is at the intersection of arts and people’s real lives.

We also met at the Walton Arts Center with Barb Putman, the center’s foundation relations officer, and we saw the great work they have been doing there. They present all sorts of performing arts events, like theater and classical music ensembles, and they also host visual arts exhibitions and offer all sorts of workshops and classes and professional development opportunities. Walmart and the Walton Foundation have really been important supporters of this community, including the arts.

That night it was on to Little Rock, for a jam-packed agenda the next day. We began in North Little Rock at the Argenta Arts Foundation, meeting with the Argenta Board of Directors and the other Argenta arts organizations. We were hosted by Mayor Patrick Hays, who became an instant friend. He’s one of these guys that you spend five minutes with and you feel comfortable, you feel relaxed. He’s very dedicated, and he’s been---outside of maybe Mayor Joe Riley in Charleston---the longest-serving mayor that I’ve encountered. He has such a winning personality, and he gets it about the arts. He really understands the role of the arts in the revitalization of North Little Rock. What you have in North Little Rock is good bones for renovation, and they’re using the arts to bring the main street and the neighborhood back. The Argenta Arts Foundation is dedicated to this. What they’ve been doing is buying old buildings, repurposing them, and using the arts and arts organizations to create renewed vitality in the neighborhood. We were walked through all this by Board member John Gaudin, who is the guiding force behind all this. He gave a great presentation all about creative placemaking, and how the arts can be used in neighborhood revitalization. He even had a quote from HUD secretary Shaun Donovan about the importance of the arts in urban renewal. We took a picture of that, of course, and I’m sending it to Shaun first thing! So the Argenta Arts Foundation is really a perfect example of an arts organization devoted to creative placemaking, and to using the arts to revitalize places and to change places.

We also toured the Argenta Community Theatre, which is a very important and engaged theater in that community. They have a wonderful, very versatile space. It’s one of the most versatile spaces I’ve seen anywhere for a theater; it can be anything from an experimental black box to a sit-down, traditional theater, and they do all kinds of eclectic work there.

We then had a very moving visit with the folks of the Thea Foundation. We had a presentation by Executive Director Paul Leopoulos, and his son Nicholas, who’s the foundation’s assistant director. I also met Annette Butler, who directs the Arkansas A+ Schools program, which is affiliated with the foundation. This visit was all about arts education, and the story behind this foundation is quite moving. Paul’s daughter Thea was killed in a car crash right at the point when she was starting to blossom as an artist, when she had found the arts as a way for her own personal self-expression. The arts played a huge role in her gaining confidence and a sense of identity, in her coming into her own. Then, through a tragic intervention of fate, she was killed during her high school years. Paul started the foundation, named for his daughter, and dedicated it to the area of arts education. He does a presentation that just blows you away, not only because it’s personal, but he has a tremendous amount of data about how when there are arts in the curriculum, when kids are exposed to arts, they perform better in other subjects. They often do better in testing, and they go on to have richer, more engaged, more fulfilling lives. He is all-in on the importance of arts as part of a complete education.

What has happened, I think, is this A+ schools movement began in North Carolina, and really took root in Oklahoma in a big way and now is gaining traction in Arkansas. I was wearing a little button for two or three days that said “A+ Schools.” And it really is a movement to integrate arts into school curricula. What they’ve found is that they need to convince the superintendents and school principals and states and boards of educations that the idea is not necessarily teaching art, but it’s using art---I would call it “art-infused education”---it’s using art as an educational tool. They have a program where they train teachers in arts education, and what they’ve found is that when these teachers return to the schools and start using art as an element of their curriculum and in their teaching, there are dramatic results. You really have profound changes in educational outcomes, and Paul and his group are very, very committed to this. I’m going to talk to our own arts education people to make sure they’re aware of what they’re doing out there. It was very, very impressive. This has the makings of a national movement, as these things can go from state to state and get the kind of results that they have in Arkansas.

In the afternoon we met with Mayor Mark Stodola, the mayor of Little Rock, who’s a very, very engaging guy, a dedicated public servant and, again, totally understands the role of arts in his city and his community and has made sure that the arts make a difference. That meeting also included Steve Luoni, who runs the University of Arkansas Center for Community Design in Fayetteville, and Marlon Blackwell, an architect who is at the university and also has a private practice. Steve and Marlon have been essentially contracted by the city for the NEA Our Town-funded project there. What they have envisioned is creating much more of a cluster of cultural institutions, to form a cultural corridor really, along Main Street in downtown Little Rock. Right now the cultural institutions in Little Rock are spread out over a wide geographic area. What they’re talking about is creating a real arts district downtown, and this I think would be great for the city. It’s an example of the best kind of creative placemaking---creating and changing a neighborhood through the use of the arts---and I’m looking forward to going back in a year or so and seeing what they’ve done. I think Little Rock is going to be a great showcase for the NEA’s investment.

After that meeting we went on to a panel about creative placemaking at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. Bob Hupp, who’s the artistic director there, was on the panel. Anybody who knows the theater knows Bob Hupp. He’s running, I think, one of the important resident theaters in the country and he has a great history in the professional theater. The panel also included Warrick Sabin, who’s the publisher of the Oxford American, which is now based in Little Rock. He has done great work with that publication. I remember when I visited Jerry Lee Lewis that with all those trophies he had on the wall, the one thing he wanted to show me was an article about him in the Oxford American. Beth Weidower, the director of the Arkansas Delta Rural Heritage Development Initiative, also participated. She’s a star and gets it about creative placemaking as well. It was a really good back-and-forth with the panelists that afternoon, again all about creative placemaking. The panelists totally understood the relationship between an artistic institution and its community.

Ginger Beebe, wife of Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe, made the opening remarks for the panel. She has a reputation in Arkansas as being very arts supportive. It was great that she came to kick this off, and that she very much cares about the role of the arts in the whole state of Arkansas.

Then we were off to Topeka….but that’ll be in part two of my postcard next week, so stay tuned!

Want to learn more about the Oxford American? Check out our Art Talk with founder and editor Marc Smirnoff

Check out Panel 3 from our recent arts education convening---Improving Arts Learning Through Standards and Assessment---to hear from Jean Hendrickson of Oklahoma A+ Schools.

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