Fort Smith Regional Art Museum Celebrates 75 Years in 2023

 

The world of 1948 might feel completely foreign in the age of smartphones and self-checkout lines, but it gave us a number of historic happenings. The first monkey astronaut was launched into space. NASCAR was incorporated. Stevie Nicks was born. Against this backdrop, in Arkansas, the seeds of another artistic and cultural legacy were being planted in the city of Fort Smith.

 

What residents and visitors know today as the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum started under the Arkansas Association of University Women 75 years ago. That group would become the Associated Artists of Fort Smith, and then the Affiliation of Fine Arts, exhibiting works and holding classes throughout the city.

 

 

In 1968, the AFA made its home in the restored and historic Vaughn-Schaap House, christening the space as the Fort Smith Art Center. The Art Center was a hub for local and regional artists over the next several decades. In 2013, RAM officially opened at 1601 Rogers Ave. near the heart of downtown, thanks to Arvest Bank’s donation of the building in 2009.

 

This year 2023 marks a decade since that move and three-quarters of a century since the museum’s creation. RAM has a full calendar of events and exhibitions planned to celebrate these achievements, looking back at the last 75 years of Fort Smith history and preparing for even greater things in the years ahead.

 

On Jan. 21, the museum kicks off the festivities with an intimate reception for supporters. The next day, a collection of special exhibits will open to the public, each demonstrating RAM’s commitment to connecting people and art on regional and international levels.

 

A traveling collection of ceramics by Pablo Picasso will be on display through April 23. The 46 works come from a span of two decades towards the end of the artist’s life when he worked with the Madoura pottery studio in France. Bringing a world-renowned, household name to RAM for its anniversary year was one of the key goals of the gallery manager and staff.

 

RAM’s Dr. W. E. Knight Porcelain Gallery contains the largest collection of Boehm porcelain on display in Arkansas.

 

Two more exhibits tell the story of RAM, and of Fort Smith itself, thanks to the careful preservation work of countless volunteers. The first, “Art Center to Museum: The Last 75 Years,” details RAM’s transformation over more than seven decades. The museum is scanning a warehouse-full of historical photographs and news clippings to create the displays. When the exhibit opens, guests will be able to see an entire gallery of memories and milestones from the museum and the city that created it.

 

The second exhibit, “75 Years: The RAM Permanent Collection,” highlights the beauty and diversity of the works RAM has acquired throughout its history. The museum’s full permanent collection now numbers over 500 pieces, and those selected for this exhibit will tell the stories of some of the artists and works that have helped RAM grow into the cultural cornerstone it is today.

 

In February, the museum is also putting together a special event to spotlight the many board members who have given their time and energy to promoting RAM and its work. The museum is gathering tales from past board members of special memories or challenges they helped overcome and turning them into a keepsake booklet for reception guests.

 

Another, yearlong project comes thanks to one donor purchasing a time capsule for the museum. The first commemorative items will be placed inside during the Jan. 21 reception, but museum staff will be collecting literature, letters and other objects throughout the year. Guests will also be able to contribute to the capsule’s collection until it is interred in December, not to be opened for another 75 years.

 

Development Director Julie Moncrief joined RAM’s small staff in mid-2019, shortly after the position was created, to keep up with the needs of the growing museum. Her focus has been on increasing the museum’s membership and corporate partners, as well as securing grant funding and getting the word out about everything RAM has to offer. The museum is free for guests, so these relationships are the backbone of RAM’s funding and she’s especially eager to use the 75th anniversary as a springboard for even more improvement.

 

“I’m excited to be a liaison to the community, and to build strength for this institution that started 75 years ago with basically nothing,” Moncrief said. “We really are playing a huge role for the multistate region in fostering art appreciation.”

 

One of the most significant changes Moncrief is helping the museum manage is the transition from a house museum and art center to a fully-fledged art museum. In addition to tripling its gallery space, the renovation of RAM’s current home brought it more in line with national museum standards. An investment in climate control, for example, has allowed the museum to host more traveling exhibitions from across the country.

 

RAM is also a member of the American Alliance of Museums, the first step in becoming a fully-accredited institution. This will  give the museum greater access to resources and credibility on a national scale.

 

“There’s also the fact that at an art center, normally, you can buy art off the walls,” Moncrief said. “At an art museum, you don’t see price tags. It is more about viewing curated and professionally exhibited art.”

 

Moncrief is also in charge of the museum’s 75th anniversary gala, “Evening in Paris,” themed around the artistic and cultural “belle epoque” (beautiful era) of the late 19th century. The event will be held April 29 at the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education Research Institute Health and Wellness Center. Three large screens in the wellness center will show pictures of volunteers, artists and others who have been involved in RAM’s success.

 

The gala will capture the essence of a small outdoor cafe in Paris, with a “Chat Noir” themed bar, French food and musicians playing during the happy hour. There will also be living history artists acting as painters from the era, such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro (played by a local realtor with the beard to match, according to Moncrief). Thanks to the work of local visual artists, there will also be a silent auction featuring a variety of paintings inspired by the impressionist and post-impressionist styles.

 

“[When picking the theme], we asked, ‘What do art museums do for people?’ They take you places, and they educate you in a fun way,” Moncrief said. “We are so happy with the fun that the artists have had doing that. We hope that it will go well and that everyone will take home a piece of Paris.”

 

An important facet of RAM’s work, even outside of anniversary years, is to highlight and support local and regional artists. Two exhibits, “Joan Irish: Landscapes Near & Far” and “Fred Cousins: A Retrospective,” run through mid-January. Joan Irish is a plein-air painter from Mena. Fred Cousins, who made his career in the furniture industry, spent his free time crafting beautiful paintings. The museum has put these pieces on display as a tribute to his art and memory.

 

The museum also holds regular exhibitions from local schools in its Student Gallery. “Southside Art: Creations from Every Level” will run from January to April and showcase the work of Fort Smith Southside High School students across a variety of media and subjects, from wire sculptures to oil paintings.

 

“When you look at our calendar of events, you’ll find regional artists, our permanent collection and traveling exhibitions as well,” Moncrief said. “But we’re never at a point where we’re not lifting up regional artists. That is our main mission.”

 

Another way RAM keeps a connection with regional talent is through its annual invitational. The deadline to enter the event, themed “Odyssey”  is  March 17 In honor of the museum’s 75th anniversary, entry fees have been waived. In addition to cash prizes for the top three winners, the first-place winner gets a solo show in 2023-2024.

 

“It’s been a great connection with the community and with all of us. Now that we’re beginning our next 75 years, I know we’re going to be focusing on ways to do that more than ever,” Moncrief said. “We bring in other exhibitions for our community to appreciate, but we never want to move a degree away from our relationship with our local and regional artists.”

 

One of those relationships has been made permanent, thanks to the collaboration of the artist’s family. John Bell, Jr. was born in 1936 with cerebral palsy and spent his life in a wheelchair. He graduated from the University of Arkansas, studying the old masters of European art. In addition to being a staunch advocate for increased accessibility, Bell became one of Fort Smith’s most prolific artists before his death in 2013.

 

John Bell, Jr. in his studio

 

“John Bell, Jr. painted Fort Smith’s history,” Moncrief said. “If you go to the doctor or the dentist in Fort Smith, you’re going to sit in the lobby and look at John Bell, Jr. prints, because our community has been in love with him for the last 50 years.”

 

In 2021, RAM received all of Bell’s remaining art from his daughter, Lisa Bell Wilson. The collection includes over 100 paintings, artifacts and lithographic prints. The museum also created the John Bell, Jr. Legacy Project to protect, preserve and educate others about the artist and his work.

 

“We’re raising money for that, because we need to get a conservator in order to make a timeline of every single sketch, watercolor and oil painting that we have of his,” Moncrief said. “We want people to be able to see his art in 500 years.”

 

In looking to the future – whether the years number 75 or 500 – Moncrief pointed to a few of RAM’s guiding principles.

 

“We want to serve, affect and change lives, and we want to see that happen every day,” she said. “You’re not really serving if there are some groups who feel they’re not welcome. We want people to see the talent of our region’s artists and what Fort Smith has been able to do as a community over the last 75 years. We want this to be on your list when you come.”

 

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