It's easy to talk trash about Pine Bluff these days but do it in front of Rachel M. Miller and a barely discernible grimace flashes across her face. She's good at hiding her anger behind softly spoken words and a smile.
While nursing a craft beer at Little Rock's Stone's Throw Brewery, she's quick to defend the state's 10th largest city, and southeast Arkansas' biggest, offering a litany of possibilities and positives — such as the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas.
So perhaps it's not a surprise that she's the center's executive director. She asserts that the institution holds a unique position as a critical community cornerstone upon which the city can rebuild.
The list of negatives is long. When The New York Times came down to look around, it left with a Pine Bluff pictorial that showcased a bleak, desperate landscape — shrinking population, few good jobs, high unemployment, failing school district and the ravages of drugs and crime on the community.
Some of Main Street's buildings are falling down, literally — at least three in as many years. The most recent sits somewhat catty-corner to the Arts & Science Center. With a collapsed roof, the derelict closed Main Street and forced visitors and workers to approach the center from the rear. It was months before the mountain of debris was cleaned up and hauled away.
Not a good look for downtown.
But the Arts & Science Center, Miller says, is a force for change in its 10-county service area. It reaches out to engage the community. And thanks to a recent $2.2 million grant from the Windgate Foundation, a historic, two-story commercial building on Main Street known as The Annex will be renovated to become The ARTSpace for Creative Thinking & Entrepreneurship.
The building, owned by the center, will have offices and studio spaces for an arts education community-support partner and longer residencies for teaching artists; classrooms to accommodate more than one school group at a time; youth theater workshops and an art-entrepreneurial workshop series; a public gallery space where University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff art students, area schoolchildren and regional artists can display and sell their work, and an event space for the center's arts-integrated healthy living initiative and monthly art nights.
The center will expand programs in partnership with UAPB's Economic Research and Development Center ("The Incubator"), the state Department of Education and the Delta Consortium for Arts and Innovation. New programs will be funded by grants, donations and by in-kind partnerships.
A PINE BLUFF POSITIVE
Miller has been on the job about 18 months, she says, while standing in front of a painting by Norwood Creech that's one of her favorites on display at the center, Big Diversion — Beans and Cotton at Twin Ditches. After Creech's solo show #GildTheDelta this year, the permanent collection added her work Looking to The Woodz, Lepanto, Poinsett County, Arkansas, 2016.
Miller took the job because "I felt that it would be, and still do, a completely new adventure."
The center turned 50 this year, and it has an impressive art collection, about 1,300 original pieces, with a narrow focus on Arkansas artists, as well as the work of Delta and black American artists. Its 22,000-square-foot building at 701 Main St. will be 25 years old in 2019. The Arts & Science Center was accredited by the American Alliance of Museums in 2001 and re-accredited in 2016, a distinction held by less than 4 percent of America's museums, Miller says proudly.
But unlike the larger Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the Arkansas Arts Center, the Pine Bluff center's budget and staff are tiny, so much so that each employee's job description includes multiple duties, and they are expected to throw in whatever other talents they possess, such as writing or photography.
Miller is no exception.
She has taught writing at UA-Pulaski Technical College, was an education outreach specialist at Arkansas State University and an Arkansas Historic Preservation education outreach coordinator. Her doctorate in heritage studies is from ASU. Her job makes use of everything she has learned.
So one day, Miller's speaking to the Pine Bluff Rotary Club and the next, she's holed up in her office researching and writing grants. The day after, she's chatting it up with state officials and her board members.
She isn't excited about public speaking but stoically adds, "It's part of the job ... I'm best one-on-one."
She thinks the most important part of her job is caring for the center's legacy and its intangible but real impact on Arkansas' art community.
"It isn't easily quantified," Miller says.
PAYING ITS WAY
For more than 40 years, Adam B. Robinson Jr. has given his talent to the Arts & Science Center, whether serving on the board, raising money, performing or however he's needed. It's his passion.
Despite the city's woes, he says, the center will survive.
"It's financially solvent," says Robinson, who is president and treasurer for Ralph Robinson & Son Funeral Home.
When the center was just an idea, he says, "we were given good, sound advice and told we needed to establish an endowment." So from the original money raised to start the center, a significant part was put into the endowment. "We continued to build on it. ... We haven't spent money we don't have," Robinson says.
Money for programs and exhibits comes from grants and fundraisers. Also, he says, "The level of interest has remained high and is even growing."
In 2017, the center had about 30,410 visitors and program participants — up from 7,044 in 2016.
"We've remained relevant by sticking to our core values. We've built a legacy and it's more than an art collection hanging on the wall, it's about fostering artists," he says.
The center is a communitywide collaborative effort, and "so far, it's been successful beyond our wildest dreams, and its importance to southeast Arkansas can't be overstated."
But Robinson adds, "We're not done yet. It's a work in progress."
LIVING THE LEGACY
Pine Bluff native Jeff Donaldson (1932-2004) was a founding member of the late-1960s Chicago-based movement AfriCOBRA — African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists. Later, he became the first black American to earn a doctorate in art history and was influential in the Black Arts Movement.
Kevin Cole, a member of AfriCOBRA, says that the Arts & Science Center invited him to show his work decades ago, long before he was celebrated internationally. "It wasn't ever about color. It was about the quality of work. That's what I always enjoyed about the Arts & Science Center."
His first solo show was at the center.
He and glass artist James Hayes — who held one of his first shows at the center — were asked to produce pieces for the 50th anniversary. Unveiled Oct. 18, they are part of the permanent collection.
AN EYE FOR TALENT
Miller, like her predecessor Lenore Shoults, now the center's curator, holds firm in her belief in the city, but she and the staff aren't waiting for a rising from the rubble. The staff is hard at work fostering young talent.
Shoults says, "We look for emerging artists whose work has coalesced into a cohesive statement and established artists with new work. As an accredited museum ASC can provide a showcase for artists, and the galleries are stunning spaces."
For example, "David Bailin and Delita Martin created very large pieces for their solo exhibitions because ASC's Kennedy Gallery can accommodate big work."
Miller adds that such exhibits allow for a greater insight into an artist's overall period of work — for the audience but also for the artist.
Justin Bryant's work first crossed the radar of then-curator Courtney Taylor when his triptych All the King's Men was juried into the 2015 Irene Rosenzweig Juried Biennial exhibition. Two years later, he held his first solo exhibition, "Color in Space: The Art of Justin Bryant" at the center. It included 19 pieces, and two were added to the center's permanent collection: the triptych and Lakeport.
"The staff was inviting, encouraging," Bryant says. "They respected me as an artist and treated me as a professional." Even more, he was able to interact with peers and be influenced by them.
A show at the center is a priceless opportunity for young artists because, Shoults says, "the exhibitions must be educationally relevant, we comply with environmental standards, and the artist is added to a roster of important artists who have exhibited here."
Bryant says the staff members have "a good eye for talent, plus they give Arkansas artists a platform and a voice."
The center's reach extends beyond Pine Bluff. For instance, ASC's 2016 exhibition, "Here. African American Art from the Permanent Collection of the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas," influenced Hearne Fine Arts' 2017 show titled "AfriCOBRA Now." In turn, these inspired Crystal Bridges' exhibition "Soul of the Nation," Miller says proudly.
ON THE RISE
"There's something in the air," Bryant muses. It may have its roots in old Southern traditions, like customs and restraints, colliding with new attitudes, as well as the stresses and the seemingly insurmountable problems Pine Bluff finds itself mired in.
Whatever it is, Bryant says, "It's culturally enriching."
"We have to keep relevant to the current generation. We have to keep it fresh," Miller says.
While Markeith Woods attended UAPB he found a second home at the Arts & Science Center.
"They gave me direction and a helping hand," and, he says, he was exposed to a larger world of art and rubbed shoulders on occasion with his art heroes such as Cole, Danny Campbell, Basil Watson.
"They inspired me, shaped me, transformed me," says Woods, who is an art teacher and a working artist.
Miller has one foot firmly planted in downtown Little Rock and the other in downtown Pine Bluff. Her daily drive to work takes about 38 minutes, but the contrast between the two cities is stark.
Nonetheless, her conviction doesn't waiver. She has seen Little Rock's decaying downtown brought back to life and she's confident: "It can happen in Pine Bluff."
The Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas is at 701 S. Main St., Pine Bluff. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday. Call (870) 536-3375 or visit asc701.org.
Style on 12/03/2018
Print Headline: Artistic endeavors