Little Rock Culture Vulture

As mentioned last night, the director of the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, Victoria Ramirez, favored the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette with a belated partial answer on what had happened to “Standing Red,” the minimalist sculpture missing from museum grounds for months after gracing the entrance for decades.

It was, as had long been suspected, turned into scrap. Of minimal value, needed repairs, not a fit with the museum’s reconstruction. Or so the explanation went.

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Among the many questions still remaining is one to which we already know the answer.

Why wasn’t the fate of the sculpture disclosed long ago?

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Answer: The private Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts Foundation owns the museum collection and effectively runs the museum. it does not talk to the public and thinks operation of the museum is none of the public’s business. The leaders of the foundation board are billionaire Warren Stephens, chair, and Ben Hussman, wife of the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the state’s largest newspaper, vice chair. Even the D-G couldn’t wring a comment out of either of them yesterday.

Ramirez had originally said, as persistent questions appeared on social media (our Leslie Newell Peacock got stonewalled when she first asked then-Chair Bobby Tucker the     foundation secretary about Standing Red months ago; Tucker didn’t return calls from another Times reporter), that she could NOT talk about the foundation’s collection. She finally said last week that it had been “deaccessioned” — or gotten rid of. No further details were given.

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Then came a Dem-Gaz op-ed over the weekend by a former museum administrator, Leon Kaplan, who blistered both the decision and the organization’s lack of transparency. Perhaps that encouraged Ramirez’s Nixon-style “limited hangout” for the D-G on Monday.

Her comments to the D-G’s Neal Earley by no means answered all the questions. They only presented still more reason to question the foundation’s stewardship. Do you really want to invest your time and money in a place that allowed the Terry Mansion to fall into ruin and imperiously refuses to discuss what happened to the mansion’s endowment fund? That sent an iconic sculpture to the scrap yard? That went for months without answering the simple question — where’s Standing Red? That has such obvious low regard for the public it expects to flock through the doors of the rebuilt museum? (And when might that reopening date be? Good luck getting Warren or Ben on the phone or an answer from the museum.)

If you CAN get Stephens or Hussman or Ramirez or any other figure of importance in Warren’s Fine Arts Club to talk, here are some other questions to ask:

Ramirez said Sotheby appraised the sculpture at $1,500 in 1991. That was 31 years ago. Was a more recent appraisal done? If not, why not? And if it was determined long ago that the sculpture was too expensive to maintain, why didn’t the board act sooner?

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Did the Board make any effort to determine if there was a market for the sculpture? Might there have been someone in the community who would have been happy to take the piece for use and continue its presence in the community as a tribute to museum benefactor Jeannette Rockefeller?

If the decision to get rid of it was made in February, why wouldn’t the museum answer questions about the piece for months afterward? Also, was there a board process that led to that decision?

Does the board have written policies on disposing of items in its collection? If so, were they followed?

Are there Board minutes of discussions about Standing Red? (The foundation will claim exemption from the Freedom of Information Act. Ramirez, as board secretary, is in a different position as museum director. The museum sits on public land, occupies a public building, gets annual financial subsidies from the city, is getting $32 million in public tax money for its reconstruction and is nominally governed by a city-appointed board that includes the mayor. Hard to see how she can claim an exemption for HER work.)

Was Standing Red sold to a scrap dealer? For how much? Where did the proceeds, if any, go?

Was there an estimate on repair to the sculpture? What was the specific nature of the disrepair Ramirez cited as justification for scrapping it? Needed paint?

One more thing I ran across on the web. The American Alliance of Museums has a code of ethics for museums.  Why? Because:

Museums rely on the public and are one of the most trusted institutions in society, therefore they need to maintain the highest level of accountability and transparency.

The Alliance’s core standards seem worth noting in the recent inglorious context of what I prefer to remember as the Arkansas Arts Center.

  • The museum is a good steward of its resources held in the public trust.

  • The museum identifies the communities it serves and makes appropriate decisions in how it serves them.

  • Regardless of its self-identified communities, the museum strives to be a good neighbor in its geographic area.

  • The museum strives to be inclusive and offers opportunities for diverse participation.

  • The museum asserts its public service role and places education at the center of that role.

  • The museum demonstrates a commitment to providing the public with physical and intellectual access to the museum and its resources.

  • The museum is committed to public accountability and is transparent in its mission and its operations.

  • The museum complies with local, state and federal laws, codes and regulations applicable to its facilities, operations, and administration.

  • The governing authority, staff and volunteers legally, ethically and effectively carry out their responsibilities.

    Oops. I forgot to include my standing reference to the city’s plan to have taxpayers subsidize a parking deck for employees in billionaire Stephens’ downtown office building.

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