The otherwise mostly procedural, but abnormally well-attended monthly Central Arkansas Library System Board of Directors meeting yesterday, took an interesting turn in its final minutes. Three impassioned community members were given the floor to advocate on behalf of the Galleries & Bookstore at Library Square, whose fate has been murky since the announcement in December that the space would be closed in late spring or early summer of this year to make room for the Main library’s operations while the primary building undergoes extensive renovations.
While no official statement has been released explicitly stating that the Galleries & Bookstore will not return after renovations are finished, the likelihood seems low, especially if the hope is that the space will come back in its current form. In a New Year’s message posted on the CALS website on Jan. 6, Executive Director Nate Coulter mourned the loss of the space in a way that hinted at permanency: “We lament losing the space for local artists and authors to sell their work at CALS, but we are optimistic that when the Main Library is completely restored, it will contain some retail space for marketing used books and perhaps some art… Once the dust (literally) settles at Main, we will regroup and determine what that space will become in the future, whether it houses a small café or a retail space, we are unsure at the moment.”
Richard Pruitt was the first community member to speak, and began with a simple and sincere plead: “Please don’t close the gallery.” After riffing for a moment on Little Rock’s “reputation problem,” which he attributes in part to a low prioritization of the arts, he asked for any attendees to make it known if they were present specifically to defend the longevity of the Galleries & Bookstore. At least ten hands were raised. “If word gets out, there will be more people coming,” he said. “Don’t offend and alienate your best supporters.”
Two other speakers argued for the indispensability of the space, citing that it “highlight[s] the cultural heritage of the city,” provides “access to artistic expression and literacy” and that it would be a shame for the building to turn into another “empty downtown skyscraper.”
A handful of board members offered their perspective in response. Audrey Evans and Tameka Lee thanked the speakers for their input, encouraged them to keep sharing their opinions and said that there would be public meetings in the near future for further conversation about what’s ahead for CALS. Both also emphasized how important it is that the Main Library have a space for their most essential service, book lending, during the renovation period. That seems like a somewhat moot point, however, given that community concern seems to lie with the long-term plans, not a temporary closure. A more convincing response came from Jo Spencer, the financial director at CALS, who stated simply that from 2016-2022, the Galleries & Bookstore had a net loss of over a million dollars, even excluding overhead costs. Since CALS has an “obligation to be good stewards” of their taxpayer dollars, she believes it’s not a sustainable model.