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Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas offers Pine Bluff hope through education, empowerment

by Jennifer Nixon | February 4, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.
Rachel M. Miller, executive director of the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas, arranges blue boxes in a children’s play area at the center. The ASC, celebrating its 50th year, offers a wide range of programming for all age groups.

PINE BLUFF -- People in Pine Bluff have heard the jokes. They've heard the statistics. They've seen the boarded-up buildings.

But they also see things that others don't.

For instance, just a couple of blocks away from buildings that are falling in on themselves, there's a solid red brick building at 701 S. Main St. Yes, downtown has boarded-up windows and crumbling masonry, but at the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas, there is unmistakable energy, creativity and determination.

That determination can also be found in civic groups such as Pine Bluff Rising, a movement using social networking to empower citizens, and Go Forward Pine Bluff, a wide-ranging, broad-scoped initiative aimed at boosting Pine Bluff across the board: education, economy, quality of life, public image.

One of the strongest pillars of that movement can be found at the Arts & Science Center (ASC), which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Rachel Miller, who lives in Little Rock and has worked all over the state, became executive director of the center in April and has come to know this town and its community.

"What you know, you should not put much base into it because there is so much going on here," she says.

Lenore Shoults, curator at the center, agrees. A New Jersey native, she has called Pine Bluff home for seven years and is a firm believer in the future of the city and the center's ability to act as "that cultural crossroad."

Ryan Watley, chief executive officer of Go Forward Pine Bluff and a Pine Bluff native who grew up participating in the center's programming, also agrees.

"It plays such a pivotal role," he says. "Without the ASC, many youths would go uneducated in certain aspects that the school districts do not cover. I tell parents all the time, the more time their children spend at the ASC, the better off they'll be."

Founded in 1968, the Arts & Science Center primarily provided art classes. In 1971, it became a commission of the city of Pine Bluff. Over the years, the center has gradually grown and expanded to include a theater, a permanent art collection, summer camps, panel discussions and other programs for all ages. The center moved into its current building in 1994.


The ASC plans to continue using those programs and its status as an established, respected community organization to help lead the charge forward -- in part, by looking back.

The Pine Bluff area has been home to the Quapaw Indian tribe, French traders and trappers, white pioneers and, especially in the years after the Civil War, a vibrant black entrepreneurial middle class.

"Most of the state doesn't realize how distinctive this community's culture is and how it played a pivotal role in the development of cultural diversity throughout this region," Miller says.

One of the ways the center plans to highlight the city's culture and history is with its inaugural Crossroad Festival, Feb. 22-24. It is supported by a grant from the Arkansas Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as Go Forward Pine Bluff and the city of Pine Bluff.

The festival, Miller says, will take "an interpretive perspective. We're looking at it through the historical lens, but also through a contemporary lens. How has [Pine Bluff] progressed forward into what makes us a community now?"

Miller says they will do that through a variety of programs, such as a documentary on Cajun and Creole music meant to celebrate the French legacy. There will also be a musical night with the Delta Rhythm & Bayous Alliance. That event will feature Milt Jackson, the Brian Austin Band and Detroit Johnny paying tribute to Jefferson County-connected blues and jazz legends such as "Big Bill" Broonzy, Sippie Wallace, Miles Davis and Bobby Rush.

On the morning of Feb. 24, members of Oklahoma's Quapaw Indian tribe will present performances, traditional crafts and cooking demonstrations. That afternoon, Voices in the Past, a predominately black living history group, will present a program on prominent Pine Bluff and Jefferson County residents.

It's not the only way the Arts & Science Center will celebrate its 50th year, Miller says.

"One of the big things that we've set out to do for this year is to really emphasize the programs that we already have in place and the long-term community sponsors."

That can be seen in the center's art galleries where pieces from the permanent collection and on loan hang in "UAPB & ASC: Five Decades of Collaboration" through November.

Shoults says that UAPB and ASC have been partners from the beginning. The center has regular exhibits of UAPB students and teachers. The university's faculty assists in educational programming and panel discussions on history, archaeology, music and art.

"What you always want to be doing is bringing new information forward," Shoults says. "And providing a vetted interpretation to the best of what that current research can provide."


Prominent artist Kevin Cole, a Pine Bluff native and UAPB graduate, had his first exhibition at the center, where he got his start taking art classes. Another Pine Bluff native, Jeff Donaldson, was an internationally known artist and founding member of the AfriCOBRA protest art movement, which began in 1968.

Pieces by both are in the collaborative exhibition.

In addition to its UAPB connection, the Arts and Science Center showcases artists from across Arkansas and the Delta, such as Norwood Creech, whose "#Gildthedelta" is on display through April 21, and photographer Margo Duvall, whose show "The Women Are Stronger" opens Thursday.

Three of the artists represented by Little Rock artist and gallery owner Kyle Boswell of Boswell Mourot Fine Art -- Delita Martin and Dennis and Jason McCann -- had major exhibits at the ASC in 2014 and Boswell says they were very positive experiences in what he calls "such an interesting facility to have in a city such as Pine Bluff."

Most of the activities and programs at the center are free, a major asset in an area that serves a large number of low-income families. For many local children, like Kevin Cole before them, their first experiences with art, cultural heritage and STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Art Mathematics) initiatives, are through the programming at the Arts and Science Center.

"Those first exposures shape their identity," Miller says. "Shape their personal and professional trajectories."

Much of its programming is geared toward student development. There are literacy and "baby coding" programs for preschoolers; after-school programs and summer camp opportunities for school-age children. There's a tinkering studio, classes in video editing and coding.

Much of the STEAM programming comes courtesy of the Arkansas Discovery Network, a consortium of museums, schools and libraries around the state that pool their resources to bring in expensive exhibits and to train their staff in STEAM activities.

ASC has been a member since the network was launched in 2006.

Pody Gay, the network's director, says the organization's staff has worked very closely with the ASC over the years and "they've been a really good partner and a really good friend to us. They have a lot to offer."

The ASC also collaborates with the Arkansas Arts Center and others to bring touring Children's Theatre productions and the Artmobile to the Pine Bluff center and other places in southeast Arkansas.

One example of the center's holistic approach is ASC's locally produced theater program. The young participants don't just learn to act, dance and sing. They also learn how to direct, write scripts, do sound and light design, create costumes, build scenery and create special effects. They learn graphic design and how to promote their productions.

Those skills can eventually be translated to other areas that could help them find jobs and careers in the future.

"That's something this community is lacking when it comes to preparing their young people for future careers and also encouraging them to look at what's already here in Pine Bluff that they can contribute and stick around for," Miller says.


There's also a conscious effort to provide multi-generational activities and programs for all ages, whether that's adult art classes or the monthly Second Saturday Family Funday. And panel discussions, such as a 2016 program with original and current AfriCOBRA artists, are regularly scheduled.

To promote health and physical activity, the Arts & Science Center has a community bike repair studio, where volunteers help community members fix their bicycles. They can then use those bikes for exercise and take their new repair skills back to their neighbors.

"Just the sense of empowerment that they're able to take care of their own bikes" is a boost, Miller says.

The ASC also consistently seeks out community engagement. Next month, they'll hold a public reading of a new musical by Charley Sandage, Charlie Crow and David Eshelman about the Brooks-Baxter War. The community will be invited to attend and provide feedback, which will then help the playwrights tweak the work before staging it in the center's Bellamy Theater later this year.

Shoults says the answer to how an arts center in a struggling community has stayed as active and vital for as long as it has is simple: accountability.

The Arts and Science Center is one of fewer than 1,000 museums in the United States that is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, an organization with what Shoults calls "worldwide-caliber standards." There are only eight Arkansas museums on the list. ASC was first accredited in 2001, re-accredited in 2016 and comes back up for review in 2026.

Accreditation isn't easy to achieve -- or maintain.

"We have a judge and jury that's going to hold our feet to the fire," Shoults says. "A lot of people can sit around this table with all these wonderful ideas. But we actually have to prove that we got the idea, we funded the idea, we delivered the idea, we evaluated the idea and it was actually in service to the public."

One of the major goals of groups like Go Forward Pine Bluff and Pine Bluff Rising is to enhance and improve the quality of life and, Miller and Shoults point out, the arts play a major role in that.


Miller says, "If you do not protect, preserve and promote your community's cultural heritage and the arts, it's very hard to sustain that community. It's really hard to attract new business. It's really hard to sustain and attract new residents."

Boswell, who says he's always open to more of his artists having shows at the ASC, shares their sentiments about the role of art and its ability to draw people in.

"Wherever you have galleries and museums and music venues, that's going to draw a population back. It's going to bring people in."

Miller saw the community's dedication as soon as she arrived in April.

"The first month I was here, people [were] coming up to me and saying, 'My heart and soul are poured into this place. I will do what I have to do to make sure that this institution continues.'"

"You can't fathom how much the community loves this place," Shoults adds.

Boswell witnessed that support for himself during the Martin and McCann shows.

"[They] drew a crowd," he says. "There were really great turnouts the days and evenings I would go down there. [Even though] Pine Bluff has gone through such a decline, there's still a large population of people interested in art."

When the ASC came up for its American Alliance of Museums re-accreditation, they were asked, "What difference would it make if you closed?"

The response from Miller and Shoults was a strong "No! It would just rip the heart out."

And when Watley was asked the same question, he said, "I never thought anyone would utter 'It closes down.' I hope it's a long way from even thinking of mentioning that."

According to Miller, closure isn't even on the horizon. The ASC plans to continue to use its programs to help propel the city forward for the foreseeable future.

"This is the perfect time for people to start paying attention to what's happening in Pine Bluff," Miller says. "We're going to surprise you."

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

Photo by John Sykes Jr.
Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas curator Lenore Shoults shows off an untitled swing dance painting by Harlem Renaissance artist Palmer C. Hayden. This summer, students at the ASC summer camp will use the painting as inspiration for film projects.
Photo by John Sykes Jr.
Now 50 years old, the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas is a pillar of the Pine Bluff community. Curator Lenore Shoults says, “Think how much has crashed and burned after 50 years. We’re still here. There are so many people from different backgrounds that are so involved in progressing this community.”
Photo by Democrat-Gazette file photo
Pine Bluff native Ryan Watley, Chief Executive Officer of Go Forward Pine Bluff, is shown in this file photo.
Photo by John Sykes Jr.
The Catherine M. Bellamy Theatre at the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas hosts film screenings, panel discussions and theatrical productions. ASC Executive Director Rachel M. Miller explains that the ASC’s theater program is designed to prepare students for a variety of careers.
Photo by John Sykes Jr.
The Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas has an active STEAM Studio where students of all ages get hands-on, creative lessons thanks to the ASC’s participation in the Arkansas Discovery Network.
Photo by John Sykes Jr.
Two Toward Revolution by Jeff Donaldson is on loan from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff for “UAPB & ASC: Five Decades of Collaboration” at the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas. Donaldson, a Pine Bluff native, was a founding member of the AfriCOBRA protest art movement.

Style on 02/04/2018

Print Headline: Golden year: The Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas offers Pine Bluff hope through education and empowerment


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