Arkansas Arts Center $37 Million Bond Campaign Launches

Jan 5, 2016

A fountain outside the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock.
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

Backers of a bond issue to revamp the Arkansas Arts Center and also the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History and MacArthur Park launched their campaign Tuesday. Revenue from a two-cent hotel tax was passed by city officials last November for renovations and will be pledged to $37.5 million in bonds if passed in a special election February 9.

Gary Smith chairs the Committee For Arts and History behind the campaign effort. He told onlookers at the Arts Center that upgrades are in need.

“The Arts Center has faced an accreditation problem and that’s something that has to be addressed. We’ve got to have better storage facilities here. The facilities are over 50 years old and if you want to bring in world class exhibits you’ve got to have a world class place,” said Smith.

After the event Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola said investing in cultural institutions is both a point of civic pride and a means to attract development.

“This is our capital city, this is our shining star. We want to be progressive, in the vanguard of providing cultural amenities and we need to provide facilities that reflect that,” he said. “I think we’re going to be in a great position to compete with anybody in the country.”

Bond supporters also promised that private investment will materialize to match the public investment derived from the hotel tax and bond proposal. After remarks Chair Smith said “there’s not anything concrete yet” but he believes private investment will emerge.

Outgoing Central Arkansas Library System Director Bobby Roberts with a jest expressed his vote of confidence in the capacity of private donors.

“I’ve always admired the ability of the Arts Center to raise money in the private sector. The library as you know has been pretty good at raising money in the public sector. If we can tie these two together and vote for this we’d be in the right place," he said to the amusement of those in attendance.

"Those public private partnerships are very important to the city and very important I think to how we develop the community,” said Roberts before referring to private developers that participated in the recent construction of the Rob Robinson Theater on the library’s main campus downtown. “I don’t doubt we’ll raise at least as much money.”

Preceding the city’s November decision to support a two-cent hotel tax for renovations to both the arts and military history museums officials in North Little Rock expressed interest in developing a new facility to house the Arkansas Arts Center Foundation collection. The foundation is a private entity that houses its collection in the city-owned center in downtown Little Rock.

Responding to a question Mayor Stodola dismissed North Little Rock as a threat to the Arts Center and said the Inland Maritime Museum is a “great compliment” to the MacArthur Museum. The mayor also said the proposal is not a response to the success of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The Bentonville museum opened in 2011 with the backing of Walmart heiress Alice Walton.

"Crystal Bridges is an iconic museum of its own and I think this arts center can compete at a similar level,” said Stodola. The mayor went on to suggest that Little Rock generally offers superior arts offerings.

“We’ve got the ballet, we’ve got the symphony, and we’ve got the professional reparatory theater. Northwest Arkansas doesn’t have any of those. They may have a symphony of some fashion or another and I’m sure it’s good. I’m not at all opposed to them having as many of those things as they want but it’s just a different environment,” he said.

Chair Smith emphasized the condition of the current facility as a primary reason for the tax and bond.

“This has been going on for a long time, primarily because the storage facilities here are antiquated. We do not have the facilities to draw the people in. It’s not, listen we’re thrilled for Crystal Bridges. We think there’s synergy for the state having this facility and Crystal Bridges as well. It’s not a reaction to that at all. It’s just a matter of taking care of what we have,” said Smith.

Neither Smith or Mayor Stodola think an Arkansas Transportation and Highway Department plan to widen nearby Interstate 30 will negatively impact MacArthur Park or the two museums. Several state legislators and neighborhood associations have voiced opposition to the I-30 expansion in part claiming it harms areas close to expanded lanes.

NOTE: The author of this post is a member of the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History board.