After yesterday’s item about discussions
of a new building for the Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola sent an observation via e-mail:

Speaking of private funding, you should ask Joe how’s the money raising going for the Maritime Museum and the Hoga?

As for the LR option(s), we will have more than one to choose from. We just weren’t given any advance notice.

Joe is North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith, who’s been aggressively working on an idea to build a $100 million arts complex downtown on the Arkansas River.


Others working on the idea for a new arts center differ with Stodola’s position that he was surprised by developments. They say he’s known, as an ex officio Arts Center trustee, for months of the strategic planning process and the needs for facility improvement.  When I mentioned that to him in an e-mail, he responded:

The notice I had was a request to attend a meeting at Stephens where they advised me that a poll was being conducted in NLR and they didn’t want me to hear about it on the street. As Joe mentioned, this issue had been discussed with him for 6-8 months. 

Some points (and Little Rock will get a poll, too, about its citizens thoughts on paying to build a new facility):


* Little Rock  does seem to have gotten serious about keeping the Arts Center in Little Rock.

* As yet, no specific commitments of public money have emerged from Little Rock  in league with Joe Smith’s intentions to build a campaign for a penny sales tax that could produce $8 million a year, enough to support a $100 million bond issue.


* Little Rock required a huge campaign for its last sales tax increase, which is already a half-cent more than North Little Rock’s. Revenue has fallen below expectations. The city’s budget is strapped.

* A third cent could be added to the hamburger tax, a portion only recently committed to the Robinson Center renovation. The city has a couple of mills of property tax available to pledge to capital projects, but that would require an election.

The main thing is that North Little Rock is moving. Smith has talked of an election as early as August. If there is to be a competition, Little Rock soon will have to show its hand as to specifics.

The core issue remains, as discussed here yesterday and in a Democrat-Gazette article this morning quoting Bobby Tucker, the Stephens executive who leads the Arkansas Arts Center Foundation, which owns all the art displayed in the city-owned building in MacArthur Park. That is, a building project that doesn’t include a substantial private commitment on the front end is doomed at the ballot box. If the proposal can be cast as an idea by the small group of wealthy people who’ve long dominated Arts Center operations (in no small part because of their major gifts) to have taxpayers pay for a better building for their stuff, it will fail. (And should. I can’t think of a great arts institution in America that doesn’t rest on a base of private giving.)


If Tucker honestly believes what he said yesterday — that this is to be a project solely funded by sales tax dollars (which includes groceries at the city level) — he can pack up his Carroll Cloar paintings and take them to the house.

However, I have informed reasons to believe private contributions WILL be evident and publicized as the proposal firms up. 

PS — Yes, Stodola is right. North Little Rock is struggling for money to improve the Maritime Museum and finish the long languishing project to bring the former Navy tug Hoga to North Little Rock. Indeed, any riverfront development for an Arts Center will demand moving the unsightly assemblage of barges, sub and other stuff somewhere else on the shoreline lest it obstruct the Little Rock skyline view. But that’s a trifling issue against a $100 million Arts Center.

PPS — I think this political struggle, with its element of support for major aesthetic infrastructure, is not only interesting sausage-making but mportant to a metropolitan area that aspires to greater things. But I also judge from reader reaction a lack of high interest outside the relatively small circle of Arts Center devotees.

It is possible that the Arts Center’s image, at least in some circles, is that of an elite institution controlled by elites . It could explain why  1)  the museum has lagged in city support over the years and 2) a community-wide expression of support won’t be easily obtained.