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HIGH PROFILE: Accountant Laine Harber proves that art and money go together with expansion of Arkansas Arts Center

by Ron Wolfe | June 2, 2019 at 4:30 a.m.
“People are going to come here just to see the building when it’s finished. And when they see what’s inside, they’re going to come back again and again.” - Timothy Laine Harber

Laine Harber can say he is no artist, but he paints an expansive picture of the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock.

"I love this place," Harber says, "and it's a labor of love."

Harber is the center's interim executive director, doubling as chief financial officer. He is the one-man proof that art and money go together, and he exhibits a bold design that will transform one of the city's oldest institutions.

The plan calls for $128 million worth of renovations and new space as envisioned by the Chicago architectural firm, Studio Gang. The architect's scale model of the completed building unfolds like a paper sculpture of many boxes, remaking not only the Arts Center but also its surroundings in MacArthur Park.

"People are going to come here just to see the building when it's finished," Harber says. "And when they see what's inside, they're going to come back again and again."

The Arts Center topped off years of fundraising with May's announcement of having raised $118 million toward the goal. The count includes more than $86 million in donor pledges and $31 million in city bond money, generated from hotel taxes.

That much money, "it's hard to put my head around," Harber says. "But I understand where each dollar goes. I can see how it adds up to that much."

Visitors can see for themselves in the current exhibition, "Then Now Next: Reimagining the Arkansas Arts Center." The show starts with a sketch of the center's history from 1937, when it opened as the Museum of Fine Arts. It goes on to visualize the new center that will reopen in 2022.

But the gallery will close June 30, along with the 58th "Young Arkansas Artists Exhibition" and 61st "Delta Exhibition" of work by artists from Arkansas and neighboring states.

The Arts Center building will shut down, too, for the redesign that will bring about more and larger galleries, and new room for stage productions by the Arkansas Arts Center Children's Theatre -- and a second-floor atrium of so many uses, it's hard to describe in one word.

"Cultural living room," Harber calls it. Grab a coffee, celebrate a wedding, maybe just have a moment's quiet with a view over the landscaped park. He imagines people are going to want to live there.

Meantime, the center's 100 full- and part-time employees, office doings and museum school classes will move a brush stroke away to temporary quarters in the former Walmart Neighborhood Market in the Riverdale Shopping Center on Cantrell Road.

"The next couple of years are going to be a challenge," Harber says. "We have to make sure people know the Arkansas Arts Center is not closing, by continuing to offer as much as possible.

"We think it's going to be a big opportunity to gain new friends."

And he is aware, yes, of all those rumors that the same space might have become a Trader Joe's. He intends for people to like what he has in mind as much as wine and cookies.

Watch and see, Harber says, his trim beard set on it: "We are going to fill that parking lot."


Harber took charge of the Arts Center when the former chief, Todd Herman, resigned in 2018.

The center's trustees are in search of a new, permanent director, from a list of potential candidates with one omission: Harber.

"I don't have an art background," Harber explains why he is not up for the permanent directorship -- and why he looks forward to resuming his focus on finances.

He excels at figure studies, but only so long as the figures are money -- such as the Arts Center's annual budget of $6 million to $7 million. And he credits others for raising so much of it for him to balance nine years running.

"Harriet and Warren Stephens are the capital campaign co-chairs," Harber says. "We would not be where we are today without their continuous support."

Harber could put a frame around some of his financial achievements at the Arts Center. In particular, he cites "turning around a $2 million operating loss in fiscal year 2010, to a positive bottom line."

It's not the same, though, as knowing a Monet from a Manet or a Montague Moore.

"Laine told me he didn't see himself as a candidate for the executive director position when I asked him many months ago," board of trustees president Merritt Dyke says.

"You must have a very good working knowledge of the art world in the United States to be an executive director of a museum of this size," the board leader says. But the board is under no deadline to hire a new director.

"Laine has done an excellent job as chief financial officer and interim director," Dyke says -- especially, "given the historic transition the Arkansas Arts Center has seen and continues to go through since he took over."


The Arts Center's 2009-2010 Egyptian relics exhibit, "World of the Pharaohs," lingers like a mummy's curse -- a name to be said in hushed tones, even now.

The failed show lurched to the end, and closed with a "Pharewell to the Pharaohs" and phooey party amid the ruins of the museum's finances.

Goodbye as well to "Ankh-en-orange-en," the do-it-yourself mummy that visitors were invited to make out of withered citrus fruits. But not many did. Attendance dried up, too.

The Arkansas Arts Center Foundation "bailed out the financially strapped museum to the tune of $2.3 million," the Democrat-Gazette reported. "But the center's problems go deeper," headed toward "$1.2 million in the hole."

Harber joined the staff as deputy director of operations and chief financial officer in April 2010, in a chariot-race commotion of money losses and management turnover.

The trouble started "before my time," he says, "but I think it was a big reason I was hired."

He attributes the exhibit's shortcomings to a "perfect storm" of complications. For one, it opened on the sandaled heels of the nation's 2007-2008 mortgage collapse and financial crisis.

Other museums had found treasure in similar displays, but no more. People turned their attention from the land of King Tut to spend their ticket money on another boy king, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Harber couldn't save the show, but the money part? There, he could go to work.


"I filled a need at the Arts Center," Harber says. "I came in at a time when it was financially struggling, and really needed financial discipline.

"People knew what their jobs were," he says. "There just wasn't a discipline around budgeting. You can't spend more than you have, it's that simple."

The Arts Center is hardly the first creative entity in need of money management. In classical oil painting, a list of the great names is pretty much a list of guys who went broke. El Greco. Vermeer. Van Gogh.

Or as Picasso said: "I'd like to live as a poor man with lots of money."

Picasso started drawing as soon as his mother gave him a pencil, and Harber learned early in school that, "I love math. I was always good at numbers."

He majored in accounting at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, his hometown, and minored in telecommunications and information systems management.

His after-college job with the Memphis office of the accounting firm Arthur Anderson led to audit work for Alltel Wireless, headquartered in Little Rock. Harber watched the books for Alltel in Savannah, Ga., and Jacksonville, Fla.

The company was a giant among service providers, a presence in 34 states, millions of subscribers. And as they used to say about working for Alltel, Harber recounts: "All roads lead to Little Rock."

Harber moved to Little Rock almost 20 years ago, becoming Alltel's director of financial planning and internal reporting. The capital city "immediately became home for me." He settled in with church and community ties, and held his ground through Alltel's acquisition by Verizon Wireless in 2008.

Huge money negotiations came down to at least one apparent change for people outside the industry. Alltel's TV commercial spokes-character, Chad the phone guy, went away. But not Harber.

By then, he had become vice president of financial planning for Windstream Communications, the $6 billion data network that spun off from Alltel.

And by then, it was time to take a break from the sea of finance in favor of a smaller body of water, Arkansas' Lake Ouachita.


"I don't like to think of myself as a typical accountant," Harber says.

He is a man of business over make-believe, absolutely: never watched Game of Thrones, unable to name a single Hobbit. But still, "I've got a feel for operations," he says, and not only business operations -- also those that take place off the side of a boat.

"My passion is scuba diving."

He started with "a relatively impromptu certification process at Mountain Harbor on Lake Ouachita." Twenty deep-blue years later, after dozens of dive trips to more Caribbean destinations than Capt. Jack Sparrow -- Bonaire, Cayman Brac, Little Cayman -- he is certified at the advanced open water and rescue diver levels.

"I love the warm, clear, blue water," Harber says. "It's the only time I can turn my mind off of everything else."

On shore, he dives into volunteer work for numerous charities and community service organizations, serving or having served on nearly a dozen boards and committees.

The accountant goes in knowing that "every board you're on is going to pigeonhole you as the treasurer," Harber says, "but that's OK."

In particular, he cites his involvement with Just Communities of Arkansas, for which he is current board member and past chairman. The organization's stated mission is to promote a society "where every person is valued, every voice is heard, and everyone has a fair chance to succeed."

"Growing up in Memphis, I saw a lot of racial division," Harber says, "which was always hard for me. Seeing people treated less than equally is something I struggle with."

The organization's current co-chairman, Miguel Lopez of First Community Bank, knows Harber as a 'loyal, generous and dependable" friend," who never lets other job pressures diminish what he does for Just Communities.

"One of the biggest differences Laine made as chair was in making our board more diverse," Lopez relates. "He made an intentional effort to make sure we looked more like the community we serve.

"This intentionality reflects in his work at the Arts Center as well. For this past exhibit showcasing the life of Frida Khalo [earlier this year], Laine did a superb job in making sure our city's burgeoning Hispanic population was well informed and felt welcomed at the Arkansas Arts Center.

"He's a gem. And we as a city are lucky to have him."


"Being single with no kids," Harber says, "you create your own family."

Mother, father, brother: one family. Work: a second family. Volunteer connections: a third. And church family, and within the church: choir family.

He belongs to First United Methodist Church of Little Rock, in part because the church has made "a conscious decision to stay downtown and serve the community." It fits with "a lot of things I really care about."

Senior Pastor David Freeman knows Harber as "more than just nice, but someone who is very intentional about their kindness."

The pastor was especially impressed when Harber "served on the board of directors of our Child Development Center, and was the chair of the finance committee. During this time, the Child Development Center had a financial turnaround, and he led the way. It was a lot of work requiring attention and time."

"What makes this remarkable to me is that he didn't have a child in that program, or a niece or nephew -- he did it because he believed in creating a place where children are loved and cared for."

Besides, there's the choir, in which Harber sings baritone.

The choir sang in New York last spring, Harber says -- an eight-part harmony performance of composer Mark Hayes' Spirit Suite.

For all his job and vacation travels and scuba destinations, "it was my first trip to New York," he says, "and I got to sing at Carnegie Hall."


"Creativity takes courage," as the painter Henri Matisse said. But come down to it, art takes more than creative vision and a purity of ideals.

As Van Gogh knew when he mooched coins off his brother, Theo, to buy paint: Art takes money.

Michelangelo needed a ceiling to paint on, and Da Vinci a wall on which to hang the Mona Lisa, and walls and ceilings cost what buildings cost. Some of the world's great museums are made by the wealthiest donors, the Carnegies, the Gettys, the Guggenheims -- and in Arkansas, the Waltons.

Harber confronts the question of why Arkansas needs another big art museum in addition to the Walton-financed Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. To paint over the competition?

"I don't look at it that way at all," he says. "Our mission and theirs are not the same." Crystal Bridges singles out American art, and the Arkansas Arts Center makes a show of international works as well as American.

"All this does is raise the quality of art in our state," Harber says. "It creates new excitement, and it provides another world-class institution."

Revised and expanded time and again over the years, today's Arts Center is "basically, eight different buildings," Harber says -- eight different structural types, architectural styles, mechanical systems."

The new Arkansas Arts Center will bring the whole works together, just as "we are bringing the community together through the arts."

He anticipates new attendance above today's 200,000 visitors a year, and "the impact should be very positive for this area."

"That's our dream," Harber says. "And it's happening."

Photo by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/JOHN SYKES JR.
“I don’t like to think of myself as a typical accountant.” - Timothy Laine Harber

High Profile on 06/02/2019


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