With news now trickling out about an idea to move the Arkansas Arts Center to North Little Rock as part of a downtown arts development, North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith has now issued his first specific confirmation of the idea in a prepared statement:
The Arkansas Arts Center is an important part of the cultural experience for all of us in Central Arkansas. My conversations with the AAC Foundation about their future plans are exciting, welcome, and most importantly for everyone to remember, merely conversations.
North Little Rock has been a long time financial supporter of this important facility, their programs, and experience that the AAC provides, regardless of its location across the river. We pride ourselves on a regional vision of service to our community. North Little Rock’s support for the crucial role the AAC plays in our community will continue long into the future, no matter any decisions they make regarding location.
The Foundation, which owns the art collection displayed in the Arts Center, issued a statement last night through Chairman Robert W. Tucker that the Foundation has no “current plans” to move, but that the existing museum needs renovation and expansion and that the Foundation had been talking to officials in both Little Rock and North Little Rock about options for the future.
The North Little Rock interest in a combination sales tax/philanthropic contribution to a $100 million project (or more) caught Little Rock by surprise. Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola told Leslie Peacock yesterday that the city had a variety of ideas about helping the arts center and was intent on keeping the institution in Little Rock.
Smith has talked about a $40 million private contribution and our sources have said the Stephens family — major art collectors, long-time Arts Center supporters and also active in governance of the Arts Center Foundation — would be the major backer. But another source raised yesterday the possibility of additional private contributors and perhaps a larger project than Smith originally outlined. He’s talked of multiple buildings along Washington Avenue between Main Street and Verizon Arena, with some structures cantilevered over Riverfront Drive to be a visual presence on the riverfront.
The Foundation itself is now being placed in the lead of the effort to address needs at the Arts Center. It reported assets in the most recently available IRS filing of $34 million — $6.6 million in buildings and equipment and $25 million in securities.
Smith had talked to the Arkansas Times about the general project, but not specific players. A survey was done recently — its results not yet known — on how North Little Rock voters would respond to a temporary sales tax increase of one cent, with half going to police and fire and half going to a bond issue to help build the arts complex. Smith said the current tax revenue could support about a $60 million bond issue and he mentioned $40 million as a potential contribution from an unnamed philanthropy.
The North Little Rock plan will pressure Little Rock. It has a third penny of hamburger tax that could be imposed by City Board vote that could be devoted to parks. The park use supported earlier burger tax expenditures on the presidential library. The Arts Center is in MacArthur Park. That money also could pay the parks budget and free money for other uses.