For MaryRoss Taylor, serving as the head of the Arkansas committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts is a full circle moment.
Being an arts appreciator and organizer is something she did with enthusiasm and ease from an early age, as a gallery sitter when she was a teenager and organizing a showing of a well-known collector’s work when she was in college. But her career took her in a different direction.
Now that she’s retired, Taylor is back in her home state of Arkansas and doing something she has long enjoyed — making the connections for female artists to get their work shown.
Moving into this particular role is entirely natural for Taylor, her cousin Kyle Klein says.
“It didn’t surprise me at all … she’s really committed to the things she cares about and actively involved in them,” Klein says. “She’s so well respected in the art world … she’s made her mark on (it) even though she’s not an artist herself.” Klein pointed to Taylor’s strengths as a leader and her ability to make decisions without wavering as two elements that have helped her succeed, throughout her life and now in this position.
“MaryRoss is an Arkansas treasure,” says Lawrence Fikes, executive director of the Pine Bluff affiliate of the Arkansas Community Foundation. Taylor recently rotated off the organization’s board of directors, where she was chairperson for the grant committee. “She brought a regional and national perspective on early literacy, family, food security education and health issues.” Demara Titzer, who serves on the Arkansas committee of National Museum of Women in the Arts, cites Taylor’s pure enjoyment as a clear advantage to thriving at the head of the committee.
“I have led and served on several boards and worked on numerous committees but have never experienced working with someone who accomplishes so much with exactitude yet absolute joy in the journey and the accomplishments,” she says. Taylor’s leadership style ensures their board achieves its goals and then some, while staying true to its foundational tenets and founders.
“It is a legacy that we are all inspired to succeed, in order to honor our founder Helen Walton,” Titzer says. “Her leadership of [the committee] would make Helen Walton proud.” This year marks the 35th of the Arkansas committee’s operation, which comes on the heels of the reopening of the National Museum for Women in the Arts in October. A total of 40 Arkansas women are currently on the juried art registry, a way that the organization exhibits works online, even though the Natural State’s team always finds a way to organize in-person exhibitions, something that not all states manage to do. Taylor would know, having served on the National Museum of Women in the Arts committees of Texas and New Mexico.
“Like a lot of women of my generation, I wound up in my ideal occupation through a side door, essentially through volunteering,” Taylor says. “Women have been the volunteer force that has brought culture to the wilderness.”
A PINE BLUFF GIRL
Taylor spent her childhood years in Pine Bluff, where she and her brother grew up in the very house that her father was born in. Her mother’s parents lived right next door. When their parents were growing up on that street, they were neighbors.
“Daddy owned a car, which was unusual, and he would toot the horn and offer my mother a ride as she walked to school, hoping for her company,” Taylor says. “It worked.” Taylor’s father, Pinchback Taylor Jr., known as Pete, wore cowboy boots with his business suits and would tuck a rose into his buttonhole every day before he went off to work — a nod to his mother, who had been known for her roses.
Pete inherited a real estate and insurance business, but his passion was timber and farming. He would take his daughter with him on his frequent tours of town, stopping to talk with his many acquaintances and giving her a unique look at their hometown.
Back then the roads weren’t what they are now, so any time she and her dad took off, “everybody’s parting words were ‘Now, don’t get stuck in the mud!’” In those days, she got to wander around businesses that other kids didn’t, one a well-known baseball bat manufacturer that was running out of an airport hangar and another a bow and arrow factory. But what they both loved about the outings were chances to stop and look at trees.
Taylor couldn’t stand piano lessons as a child, but thanks to her mother she took art lessons from Townsend Wolfe, who would later become the director of the Arkansas Arts Center (now the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts). At the time he traveled in from Memphis Art Academy to conduct classes for the ladies art club, called the Brush and Palette Club. It was full, mainly, of the mothers of Taylor’s friends.
“A lot of them were really talented artists,” she says, wondering now if that was her first introduction to the artistic women of the Natural State. “There were all these very talented women in Arkansas who were doing all these other things, but who had the interest and ability to make really good art.” Many of the women did more than one creative thing. Some of the mothers were more serious in wanting public recognition and feedback. They entered competitions and organized shows of work locally. Still others were rooted in functional art, such as needlepoint or playing piano for their family’s enjoyment.
“Lots of women make lots of work that they give away and don’t keep any record of,” Taylor says. “That’s a historical truth across the board.” Taylor gained some artistic skill there herself, but didn’t ever think of it as a path she might follow. Young MaryRoss was at once smart and serious, yet tomboyish and playful. Klein, two years her junior, says Taylor was a mentor.
“She’s always been so smart and just really a leader,” he says. “We would go down (to Pine Bluff) and whatever she wanted to do, we would do. It was great. I always trusted her.” Taylor never seemed to be at a loss for something interesting to do, Klein says, but should she find herself just sitting around, she would read magazines, even at 8 and 10 years old, making her one of the few kids who related well to the adults in the family. But she seemed to know how to fit in in many circles.
“She could do everything,” Klein says. There was a lot behind the Taylor house that spanned maybe half a block. Taylor would play touch football there with her brother and all the other guys. “I wasn’t out there playing, but she was. And just having a great time.” Taylor wouldn’t hesitate to swim, play tennis or golf either. One of her trips up Klein’s way in North Little Rock was to the Sylvan Hills Country Club for the state golf tournament, in which she did well.
But it was competitive tennis that took Taylor farther. It began as one of the few things she had in common with her brother, the two playing doubles together as a hobby. She spent a summer at a tennis center in Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile back home in Arkansas, Taylor’s math teacher had taken notice of her bright student and suggested to her parents that boarding school would be a good option to make the most of her senior year rather than taking a slew of electives.
Taylor proposed the Shipley School in Bryn Mar, Pa., her parents agreed, and she got in.
Taylor felt at home at the all-girls Shipley School, thanks to her tennis camp experience. Both the school and the camp were in the Quaker tradition, which placed a big emphasis on social service.
“Father was extremely emphatic that if you were fortunate to have more than you needed, it was your responsibility to give back to your community and to better things,” Taylor says. “So I came up with this really strong sense of engagement with my place, both in terms of geography and in terms of larger community … in being part of something together with other people.” “Philanthropy is a part of her DNA,” says Fikes, who first met Taylor in high school. “Her family has a remarkable history of giving back to our area that includes land donated for community and family activities, scholarships and endowments. MaryRoss has quietly, and often anonymously, continued that legacy.” Taylor earned her first special opportunity in the arts when Shipley’s art teacher selected her as the one senior to participate in weekend programming at the Moore College of Art and Design. Each Saturday morning for a semester, she rode the train into downtown Philadelphia and took a class with college undergraduates.
She didn’t know it then, but Moore was the first art school in the United States to admit women. Later, in the ’70s, the Women’s Caucus for Art was headquartered there due to that history. For the longest time, Taylor says, women weren’t allowed in life drawing classes because they weren’t allowed to see nude people.
After graduation, she applied to Vanderbilt and was accepted. Getting in “was no small matter because they had an extremely strict quota on girls,” Taylor says. “They had three times as many male undergrads. Only 25% could be girls.” When she became the president of Chi Omega, she had to decide what their social service project would be. Taylor knew that one of the pledges was the stepdaughter of Morton D. May, an important collector in St. Louis. Taylor recommended to her organization that they present an exhibition.
“When I think back, what’s marvelous is that the sorority went along with it, because it was such a different thing to do for the service project,” Taylor says.
She reached out to the art history professor who ran the campus gallery, then worked with the pledge, asking her to approach her stepfather about what level of involvement he might be willing to have. As a result, May wound up underwriting the exhibition.
Taylor and her sorority sisters were able to learn the ins and outs of professional art handling, including the considerations necessary for the care of important collections; security and climate control in the historic building that was a former home; and having the right personnel.
INVITED TO THE TABLE
One summer in Pine Bluff, while she was home from college, Taylor worked as a gallery sitter — she sat at the front of the converted fire department while folks took art classes where the fire trucks used to be. Taylor spent that summer watching avant garde black and white films by Jonas Mekas and Andy Warhol projected onto the wall.
She was also driving to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for art lessons, but viewed both the job and the classes as sidebars.
“It didn’t occur to me that people actually had full-time jobs sitting in art centers watching movies while other people took art classes,” Taylor says. “I’m of a generation that (thought) you can be a nurse, teacher or secretary.
“As much as I enjoyed making stuff, I didn’t have anything urgent to communicate … since I didn’t have the aspiration to be an art major and become a professional artist, I didn’t think of it as a career path for me.” Taylor took her time getting into the professional world, first seeking additional higher education. She attended graduate school in Austin, Texas, where she had moved with her then-husband. While there, she and her classmates discovered that the faculty wouldn’t put the names of female students who were married on the list of possible job candidates that they sent to potential employers.
“It was assumed that we would go where our husbands went,” she says. “And they didn’t want to hamper the male graduate student opportunities by diluting the pool, so there was quite a little kerfuffle.
“Coming out of that period [of] women’s opportunities and limitations professionally, it was pretty natural for me to get interested in the history of women’s arts.” After her Austin years, Taylor moved to Houston, where she opened the University Boulevard Bookstore and was constantly surrounded by all kinds of people, especially artists and writers. She gained a reputation there as someone who could speak easily to both the business community and the artists, so she was often invited to be on panel discussions. She felt like it was the best of both worlds.
It opened her eyes to her flair for organizing and logistics. What bored her fellow artists and writers was something she enjoyed. Eventually Taylor used the bookstore to organize bringing artist Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” exhibition to Houston.
While it was up, Taylor would pop in regularly and look around. On one of those visits she witnessed a family, three generations of women, standing at rapt attention at the place settings of the gigantic dinner table for that imaginary dinner party of great women.
“And I thought to myself, ‘I do not have a book in the store that I could get three generations involved with like that,” Taylor says. “All of a sudden I saw this hugely expanded possibility. My thrill was that I was the one who had gotten this thing in front of them that they were so engaged with.” When she took off to work with Judy Chicago and her organization, people questioned why she would give up the bookstore that had her name on it, but Taylor knew the truth: She was doing the same thing but in a different format. She was presenting someone else’s works.
Taylor moved to San Francisco and throughout the ’80s helped “The Dinner Party” travel through every province of Canada, as well as London and Frankfurt, Germany; and saw it personally to Montreal, Edinburgh and Melbourne. In some cases the work went to substantial museums, but in other cases it was an “ad hoc bunch of women from the community who got together.” Not unlike her role to come.
“One nice thing about working with the Arkansas committee and with the women’s museum is that there’s such a great diversity of art made by women,” Taylor says.
“No question in my mind that I was drawn to this because I came out of a generation that was expected to limit ourselves to operating in some fairly narrow spheres. The same generation that got more education was living in a faster pace and wanted to be engaged in more things.”
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Jan. 26, Pine Bluff
FAMILY: I love seeing three generations at once in Little Rock.
THE THING THAT MAKES ME LAUGH THE MOST: The best of "Saturday Night Live."
A TYPICAL SATURDAY NIGHT FOR ME INCLUDES: Home cooking.
THE WORK OF ART THAT HAD THE BIGGEST IMPACT ON ME WAS: Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party."
A FANTASY VACATION DESTINATION OF MINE: Polar flight to see the Northern Lights.
MY FAVORITE PLACE IN ARKANSAS IS: Pine Bluff.
THE QUESTION PEOPLE ASK ME THE MOST: "Where are you?" Answers: Little Rock, Houston, Pine Bluff, on the road again.
MY MOST UNUSUAL TALENT: Tying a knot in a cherry stem with my tongue. (Only 15% of people can.)
A FAVORITE MEMORY FROM MY CHILDHOOD: Every Christmas Eve the Little Rock cousins came to Pine Bluff for family dinner and we got to open one present early.
AMONG THE MOST DELICIOUS MEALS I'VE EVER HAD WAS: Dover sole with beurre blanc in Paris at Mere Michele, now closed.
SOMETHING I THINK EVERYONE SHOULD TRY AT LEAST ONCE: Downhill skiing.
WHEN I HAVE AN HOUR OF FREE TIME, I SPEND IT: Texting and emailing to catch up with friends.
THE ACCOMPLISHMENT I'M MOST PROUD OF: Rebooting the Lawndale Art Center in Houston as executive director.
THREE WORDS THAT DESCRIBE ME: Enterprising, analytical, loquacious.