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OPINION | REX NELSON: Arkansas’ arts renaissance

by Rex Nelson | March 20, 2022 at 1:43 a.m.


I'm touring the Art Group Gallery at Pleasant Ridge Town Center in west Little Rock with Bob Snider, a longtime friend who worked for U.S. Sen. John L. McClellan in Washington, D.C., before returning to Arkansas to launch a career in the financial sector.

When Snider retired in 2008, he began to paint.

"You can only play so much golf," the Camden native says. "I was an art major in college at Ouachita, but I figured I would starve to death if I tried to do that coming out of school."

Nine years ago, several Arkansas artists formed the Art Group. There are now 19 partners. Their gallery is filled with oils, pastels and watercolors. Watercolorist Donna Twyford, the newest partner, is hard at work as we walk around. Holly Tilley serves as general manager of the gallery, though she receives no pay. The Art Group has no paid employees.

"We're running a commercial business on a volunteer basis," Tilley says. "We even picked up two additional partners during the pandemic. About every art discipline you can imagine is represented here."

Ned Perme, who retired from KATV, Channel 7, in Little Rock after a long stint as a weatherman, is among the partners. The gallery covers 3,000 square feet. The space once housed a retailer that sold kitchen supplies, so there's a full kitchen that comes in handy when there are receptions. There's a satellite gallery at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Little Rock.

"When I visit another city, I want to see things that are authentic and local," Snider says. "This is the kind of place that allows people to experience what Arkansas is all about."

Tilley spent 35 years in advertising and marketing (20 of those years were with Systematics and Alltel) before deciding to paint for a living.

"Our partners are full-time artists," she says. "This is a career for them. We have big aspirations here. Our vision is to make and sell as much local art as possible. We also give back to the community by giving lessons to people who don't think they can paint. We bring in world-class art teachers for workshops. We're constantly pushing ourselves to get better."

I've written a series of recent columns about how we've entered a golden era for the arts in Arkansas. There's the expansion of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the blossoming of The Momentary, its sister institution in Bentonville. There's the transformation of the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts and the planned development of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra's Stella Boyle Smith Music Center in Little Rock.

There are tens of millions of dollars for the arts being showered on colleges and universities by the Windgate Foundation and the Walton family. Individual artists are picking up on this momentum as the Arkansas arts scene comes back strong after two years of uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

To attract and retain the kind of young, talented people Arkansas will need to succeed in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, there must be a focus on the arts and the state's ample outdoor recreational attributes. It's the kind of vision that philanthropists such as brothers Steuart and Tom Walton paint when they say Arkansas should be to the central third of the country what Colorado is to the western third: a refuge for those looking to get away from the coasts while still being able to enjoy quality-of-life amenities.

Due to this wave of momentum, I expect record attendance at arts-related events across the state this spring. In central Arkansas, the seventh annual ACANSA Arts Festival of the South began 10 days ago and runs through the end of this week. The festival was the brainchild of Charlotte Gadberry, who visited Charleston, S.C., in the spring of 2012 and was amazed by the energy she sensed in that city. People were walking the streets until late at night. Restaurants and hotels were full.

When Gadberry asked what was going on, she learned about Spoleto Festival USA, which uses historic theaters and churches in Charleston for performances of chamber music, opera, jazz, choral music, theater and dance. Gadberry couldn't help but think how nice it would be to have a similar festival in Arkansas.

In 2014, the first ACANSA Arts Festival was held after Gadberry pulled together a group of more than 100 volunteers. The festival's name comes from a Quapaw word meaning "Southern place." ACANSA started small but was growing when the pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 events. Festival organizers remind me that it took Spoleto decades to become one of the leading performing arts festivals in the world.

In Carroll County, meanwhile, the Eureka Springs School of the Arts is organizing the annual Artrageous Parade for May 7. Eureka Springs has more artists per capita than any other city in the state, and that number is growing.

Just to the west, the Northwest Arkansas Council in 2019 established CACHE, which stands for Creative Arkansas Community Hub & Exchange. CACHE brings together artists, cultural businesses and nonprofit organizations in an attempt to make the region one of the top places in the country for those interested in the arts.

CACHE is involved in arts infrastructure development, programs to increase participation in the arts, grant-making, data collection and advocacy. Northwest Arkansas Council leaders realize that advancing the arts is as important to the region these days as ensuring the construction of what's now Interstate 49 and Northwest Arkansas National Airport was back when the council was just getting started.

During the pandemic, CACHE took over what had been the Arts Center of the Ozarks in Springdale with the support of the Tyson Family Foundation. The center was known for theater productions, visual art and production classes. It began as the Springdale Fine Arts Association in 1967. Last fall, CACHE announced that the name of the center had been changed to 214.

Just as a visit to the Art Group Gallery reminded me of the vibrancy of the arts scene in Arkansas, so too did a lunch meeting with those leading an organization known as Arkansas Learning Through The Arts. ALTTA, which is affiliated with the national Young Audiences Arts for Learning organization, is run by a group of people who live in the Hot Springs Village area.

When Martha Smither moved to Hot Springs Village more than two decades ago, she brought extensive experience with the Young Audiences Arts for Learning affiliate in Dallas. She founded the Arkansas affiliate in an effort to better integrate arts into the classroom curriculum of schools statewide.

Smither told an Arkansas Community Foundation writer in 2019: "Our mission is not just to put arts in the classroom but also to improve student achievement. We provide high-quality dance, music, theater, poetry, storytelling, watercolor, and crafts and pottery workshops in regular and specialty classrooms. Our intention is to be in half the schools in Arkansas in the next 10 years. We want to concentrate on rural and underserved areas where students don't have a lot of opportunities for arts enrichment."

Craig Welle, who became ALTTA's executive director, first met Smither when Welle was director of enrichment curriculum and instruction for the Dallas Independent School District. Welle ended up at Hot Springs Village and took over the Arkansas affiliate.

Workshops sponsored by ALTTA are conducted by teaching artists and tied to the Arkansas Department of Education's literacy, social studies, math, science, art, music, theater arts and dance curriculum frameworks.

"The 'a' in the STEAM movement is what we're all about with arts added to science, technology, engineering and math," Welle says. "In science there's a scientific method, and in the arts there's a creative process. They're actually similar. Science can be creative, and the arts require deep understanding to master. What we're doing is adding the creative process to STEM."

Creative juices are flowing across Arkansas these days. It's an exciting time for the arts.


Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the new name of the former Arts Center of the Ozarks. Last fall, CACHE announced that the name of the center had been changed to 214.

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