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OPINION | REX NELSON: A place for the arts

by Rex Nelson | November 2, 2022 at 4:14 a.m.

For supporters of the arts in Arkansas, the news in September was welcomed and celebrated. Minneapolis-based Artspace Projects announced that it has partnered with the Windgate Foundation to build a mixed-use project for the arts in Little Rock's emerging East Village. The neighborhood also will be home to the state's first dental and veterinary schools, which are being developed by Lyon College.

In August, I wrote a cover story for this newspaper's Perspective section about East Village because I consider it to be among the most exciting developments in the state. The four- story, 94,000-square-foot development, which will be known as Artspace Windgate Campus, will have 60 live-work units for artists. It's expected to be completed by the fall of 2024.

Artists and their families will be actively recruited to Arkansas. There will be 10 artist-in-residence studios, event and gallery space, an outdoor courtyard and 16,000 square feet of commercial space for arts and cultural organizations.

Robyn Horn, the Windgate Foundation board chairman, said: "Providing the creative community in central Arkansas with a place to gather, live and work is essential to the growth of our culture and economy. Our belief in this project and our confidence in Artspace is what propelled Windgate Foundation to initiate it. The response from artists in the area was enthusiastic."

Artspace has taken part in more than 50 projects across the country during the past four decades. The nonprofit organization has invested almost $750 million in arts infrastructure.

The announcement came during the most dynamic period for the arts in Arkansas history. We all know what's happening in northwest Arkansas with expansion of the already world-class Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, the addition of The Momentary at Bentonville, continued growth of the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, and the classy 50,000-square-foot facility for TheatreSquared in Fayetteville.

In central Arkansas, the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts (formerly the Arkansas Arts Center) is using internationally known architects and landscape architects to create a stunning facility in Little Rock's MacArthur Park. The museum has raised more than $150 million for the project. The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra is planning to build the $4.5 million Stella Boyle Smith Music Center between the Clinton Presidential Center and Heifer International campus. The facility will cover 20,000 square feet.

Throw in the $71 million renovation of the Robinson Center from 2014-16, and that adds up to more than $225 million in capital investment for the arts just in downtown Little Rock. That's impressive for a city of 200,000 people.

Bryan Frazier doesn't want to stop there. I'm visiting with Frazier over lunch about the Little Rock Arts District. Neither the Museum of Fine Arts nor the Artspace Windgate Campus will be in the district's boundaries. But Frazier--a visual artist, singer and songwriter--believes there's room for more. He hopes to extend the focus to working artists and small venues that support their work.

For five years, Frazier was assistant manager of community radio station KABF-FM. The station was having trouble when he arrived, and others selfishly were hoping those 100,000 watts of power would become available to them. Frazier helped establish a new board, installed a more modern control room and rebranded the station with 40 fresh shows.

"I could never have imagined how much the community would come alive for us," he says. "It was inspiring. During my stint at KABF, I bought a commercial property and started Capitol View Studio. I also established the nonprofit Arkansas Music & Arts Foundation, which eventually became the Little Rock Arts District. The studio was our hub and was across the street from the Salvation Army on Cross Street, an area of downtown Little Rock that's completely forgotten by many."

Frazier joined the Salvation Army's advisory board in an effort to clean up its property. The neighborhood has improved considerably in recent years.

"Now we have a business known as Shift, which is a place for cyclists to hang out, and the police camera that had to be installed because of violence five years ago has been taken down," Frazier says. "Those of us involved with the foundation decided that it could be much bigger. That's when we launched the arts district with a boundary from Broadway to the state Capitol, from Interstate 630 to the Arkansas River, and down Seventh Street to the White Water Tavern.

"It's large, but it incorporates most of the city's creative-based businesses. We felt that's what the heart of an arts district should be--small arts-based businesses. We have more than 30 creative businesses in the district. This area is also the original city of Little Rock. An arts district is like a multi-layered cake. You must have all layers for it to be a community. There must be working artists, affordable housing and art supply stores."

The Little Rock Arts District, which was established as a nonprofit organization, hopes to soon embark on grant programs and art space development projects.

"With East Village blowing up and SOMA thriving, this district would complete the picture while connecting the Clinton Center to Union Station," Frazier says. "We know it won't happen overnight. I look at it like I did the River Market District when I moved here in 1998. I knew that would take time. But sure enough, it happened. We're hopeful for what this area can look like in 10 years."

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at

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