Within the last few weeks, it became clear that a rare episode of bold thinking in metropolitan Little Rock was going to end with a whimper.
North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith emerged several months ago as the advocate of an idea to leverage taxpayer support — $100 million in a potential multi-year city sales tax increase — with the promise of private contributions to move the Arkansas Arts Center from the only home it has ever known, in Little Rock’s MacArthur Park, to a futuristic riverside perch in downtown North Little Rock.
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Multiple surveys were taken. Little Rock leaders harrumphed. The Arts Center leaders did less than they should have in talking about the center’s needs.
In the end, Mayor Smith pulled back. He said more study was needed. What he meant was, the North Little Rock bubble was dead. Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, to save face and not unhappy North Little Rock’s dream had died, unveiled some ideas about property the Arts Center could acquire for a new location. Missing: money to pay for any of the property, much less a new building.
So. The Arts Center will limp along, with token public funding and the major operational money coming from some signature fundraisers and the same wealthy patrons who’ve traditionally supported it.
This is all a shame. When I arrived in Little Rock, the Arts Center was the most exciting, maybe only, cultural outpost in town of consequence. It had a cutting edge film series. Adult and children’s theater. Thriving arts classes. The parking lot was filled daily with students on field trips. It had an artmobile.
The Arts Center is still a wonderful place. The Children’s Theater thrives. Classes still draw many during the day. But the city has more attractions — the Presidential Library, the Museum of Discovery, The Rep and more — that provide competing field trip allure.
The most striking thing about the brief debate of a new arts center was how little anyone seemed to care. Heights snobs wouldn’t dream of crossing the river to Dogtown. The hope that 2nd-city status might spur a groundswell for Joe Smith’s big idea on his side of the river didn’t materialize. If anything, the opposite occurred. I’m told the polling showed strong support among lower income and minority voters in North Little Rock, but tepid response among the higher income neighborhoods that are Joe Smith’s base. He plans to run for office again, remember. Thus, more study.
Many people believe the Arts Center is elitist, mainly a reflection of the dominance of wealthy people in governance and fundraising. The arts are anything but elitist. They are an open door to personal growth. The tools of entry are as modest as a piece of charcoal and a scrap of newsprint or a pinhole camera.
The Arts Center’s base supporters are aging and in some cases tired of the struggle. They are rightly discouraged by a lack of broad support, whoever or whatever is to blame. Many of them also don’t like the MacArthur Park location. I don’t happen to share that view, but it is now clearer than ever that the only way out is a philanthropic contribution of unprecedented size, not a public investment.
The city of Little Rock can’t give its policemen a raise; it will struggle to come up with the money for a transit system worthy of a big city; its schools are under attack by malicious forces, and, for a bonus, its leaders demonstrated no urgency about sustaining an institution that was Arkansas’s Crystal Bridges years before Walmart went public.
I applaud Joe Smith for thinking big. But in doing so, he managed to unintentionally illustrate, again, the metro area’s lack of stature.