The arts in Arkansas

In late September, I wrote a column for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about what the Arkansas Arts Center means to our state. I referred to the opening of the “World of the Pharaohs” exhibition as a high-water mark in the 50-year history of what’s now the arts center. This exhibition was brought to Little Rock by Warren and Harriet Stephens and will run through July 5.

Officials at the arts center hope the current exhibition will attract 300,000 people during its run of slightly more than nine months. People are traveling not just from Arkansas but from surrounding states to view an exhibition that includes statues, sculptures, mummies, jewelry and Egyptian art spanning more than 3,000 years of history.

The Arkansas Arts Center has extended its hours for this event. The hours are from 9 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. each Tuesday, from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. each Wednesday through Friday and from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. on weekends.

Soon after that column was published, I received a delightful letter from Jeane Hamilton, an honorary lifetime member of the arts center board. I had noted in the column how the late Winthrop Rockefeller had taken on the Arts Center as a pet project, believing that Arkansans should have access to some of the same cultural amenities to which he had access back in New York.

“We would not be what we are today without the arrival of Win Rockefeller in our midst,” Ms. Hamilton wrote. “It was my memorable experience to be one of the three young women to go up to (Rockefeller’s ranch atop Petit Jean Mountain) for a late Sunday luncheon with Win and Jeannette in February 1959. … Our mission was to ask Win to be chairman of our forthcoming fund-raising campaign. We were then thinking in terms of a Little Rock Community Arts Center.

“After we presented our ideas to Win, I will never forget what he said: ‘Well, girls, if we are going to build an arts center, it needs to be an Arkansas Arts Center serving the whole state of Arkansas.’ Win agreed to serve as vice chairman for a statewide campaign. He also suggested the idea of an Artmobile that would travel throughout the state, which he and his brother, David, later gave to us. The rest is history.”

And what a marvelous history it has been.

In 1959, when those three Little Rock women made the trip to Petit Jean, the public high schools in Little Rock were closed. The televised images of the Little Rock Central High School crisis of 1957 were fresh on the minds of people across the country. Economic development had come to a halt.

Nan Plummer, the current Arkansas Arts Center director, wrote me after the column about “an arc from those dreadful days of 1959 to the celebration of ‘World of the Pharaohs,’ encompassing 50 years. … I am keenly aware of this trajectory — all the names of our great benefactors and founders you cite are on the walls around me, if not on my lips, every day. It’s both exhilarating and humbling to work in an art museum, where the creative intention of geniuses to communicate their ideas from the distant and not-so-distant past fills the rooms, and where the benevolence of so many over so long a time makes all our efforts, big and small, possible.”

You owe it to yourself to visit this remarkable exhibition. While there, think of the cultural amenity the Arkansas Arts Center has become for the people of our state during the past five decades.

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