Arts and Culture in Arkansas
With just under three million residents, Arkansas is one of the smallest states in the Union by population. When it comes to arts and culture, the state has always seen its neighbors Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi and Missouri occupy more of the national limelight.
Yet this green, forested expanse of mountains, plateaus, and river plains has managed to produce a disproportionate share of great musical and film artists, as well as create an ambitious, fiercely independent array of cultural institutions. These include symphony orchestras, a major repertory theater and several-dozen community theaters, ballet companies, renowned music and film festivals, and an energetic array of local and regional museums and art galleries.
Although dominated by its capital and largest city, Little Rock, which sits at the state’s geographical center, Arkansas has managed to create thriving regional hubs. In many ways, smaller towns like Conway and Fayetteville rival Little Rock’s vitality, and the happy tension among these communities and the capital keeps the entire state on its cultural toes.
The state’s "gatekeeper" institution may well be the Little Rock–based Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, which plays to more 250,000 people per year. Started in 1966 by a fiercely dedicated group of sponsors and musicians banding together to pay off the debts of predecessor orchestras, the Arkansas Symphony has attracted such international classical music luminaries as Yo-Yo Ma, Van Cliburn, Alicia de Larrocha, Mignon Dunn, Andre Watts, Ann Hampton Callaway, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Mark O’Connor, and Sir James Galway.
Outside of Little Rock, the northern Arkansas town of Conway (population 58,000) hosts the Conway Symphony Orchestra, formed in 1984 as a joint effort between Hendrix College and theUniversity of Central Arkansas. The orchestra’s members, professional musicians from all over the state, perform six times a year at concerts noted for their relatively low ticket prices. The southern city of El Dorado, just north of the Louisiana border, has been the home of the South Arkansas Symphony Orchestra since 1956. The orchestra plays a nine-month schedule that includes classical, pop, jazz, and seasonal music, as well as opera.
Arkansas’ most famous operatic production is Opera in the Ozarks, an annual event since 1950 at Inspiration Point in the state’s extreme northwestern corner (a location festival organizers tout as one of the most beautiful scenic overlooks in the south-central United States). Opera in the Ozarks’ motto, "Where the Students Are the Stars," emphasizes its worldwide reputation as a training program for serious students seeking a career in opera. Its May–June series of operas is elaborately produced, with full orchestral accompaniment and professionally made scenery and backdrops.
At the University of Arkansas, upper classmen and singers drawn from the community form theUniversity Opera Theater, which presents a major spring production with choral accompaniment that occasionally includes the North Arkansas Children's Chorus. The ensemble is noted for its willingness to perform at non-traditional venues, such as churches and the Dickson Theater, a Fayetteville rock club. The group has staged two Arkansas premiers, of Britten’s Turn of the Screw, and Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine.
Founded in 1978, the state’s oldest continuously performing ballet company, Ballet Arkansas, is a Little Rock–based troupe that traces its origins back to that city’s Civic Ballet. Since then, the company’s highlights have included performances by Cynthia Gregory, a prima ballerina of the American Ballet Theatre, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, the great Latvian dancer who starred with the New York Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.
The Arkansas Festival Ballet, founded in 2000, combines an ambitious schedule of performances throughout the state that also provide training and performance opportunities for dancers at various levels of expertise. The company designs its repertoire to appeal to both children and adults, presenting such ballets as Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Les Patineurs, and The Nutcracker. Its mixed-bill productions often present modern dance and excerpts from well-known ballets.
Fort Smith, on the state’s border with Oklahoma, is home to Western Arkansas Ballet. Noted for its annual production of The Nutcracker, it is now establishing Cinderella as a popular seasonal offering. The company also has a dance academy that teaches a range of techniques, and offers a summer session for aspiring dancers.
The biggest recent news story on the Arkansas museum scene is the 2010 opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, a complex of curved glass and steel forms designed by internationally renowned architect Moshe Safdie. Among the works in its permanent collection are Kindred Spirits by the Hudson River School master Asher B. Durand; Charles Willson Peale’s 18th-century painting of George Washington; Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington (The Constable-Hamilton Portrait); Spring by Winslow Homer; Martin Johnson Heade’s Cattleya Orchid, Two Hummingbirds and a Beetle; and Marsden Hartley’s Hall of the Mountain King.
Perhaps the state's most important fine arts institution, and the glue that has held Arkansas’s arts scene together, is the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock. Founded in 1960, it features seven galleries, an internationally recognized collection of drawings, a children’s theater, and an ambitious statewide outreach program.
The state’s universities also boast several galleries. Arkansas State University Fine Arts Gallery at Jonesboro features local and regional art, while the Fine Arts Center Gallery at the Fine Arts Center of the University of Arkansas’ Fayetteville campus presents themed shows throughout the year and hosts touring exhibits. The Fayetteville site has several other art venues, including Bogle Exhibit Hallat Old Main, Mullins Library, the Paul Young Jr. Gallery at Vol Walker Hall, and the Anne Kittrell Art Gallery at Arkansas Union. The Fine Arts Center also has a sculpture garden with an assortment of works that are rotated in and out.
Harding University's Stevens Art Center in Searcy has two galleries that feature student and faculty works, as well as visiting exhibitions. The art gallery at Southern Arkansas Unviersity's Brinson Fine Arts Building in Magnolia features works by students, faculty, and national and international artists. The Fine Arts Galleries at the campus offer a gallery and college musicals and dramas.
Venues in the state’s cities and towns include the Fort Smith Art Center, Springdale’s Arts Center of the Ozarks, which presents gallery showings, dramas, musicals, and classes, and Pine Bluff’s Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas, which has four galleries and year-round exhibitions. TheSouth Arkansas Arts Center in El Dorado, which hosts traveling exhibits, features two visual arts galleries, a ballet studio and classrooms for art education.
A repurposed 1909 U.S. federal courthouse is now home to the Texarkana Regional Arts Center, which offers lectures, classes, and concerts. Its three galleries host traveling exhibits. The Fine Arts Center of Hot Springs has four galleries and hands-on children’s exhibits and mounts six theater productions annually.
Eureka Springs’ The Artery is a non-profit open-air gallery that consists of 4-by-8-foot murals painted by local and visiting artists. When a mural is sold, a new blank space takes its place, creating a fresh display and sales opportunity for another artist.
The Twentieth Century Doll Museum and Doll Hospital in Newport features thousands of dolls in floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall displays. A doll repair shop is also onsite.
Some of nation’s most notable musicians were born in Arkansas and inspired by its southern roots. Perhaps the most famous, in terms of his eventual influence on the course of American music, was ragtime composer Scott Joplin. His early 20th-century rags heavily influenced the new form of music called jazz that was beginning to coalesce in the South.
Every modern musical genre came to see notable contributions by Arkansans. The seminal country singer Johnny Cash was preceded by Patsy Montana, and then later bookended by the formidableCharlie Rich. Early blues singer Bill Broozny paved the way for Sunny Boy Williamson and Son Seals, while the rise of rock sent crossover Arkansas-born country artists Conway Twitty, Ronnie Hawkins, and Glen Campbell on to national acclaim. Gospel singer "Sister Rosetta" Tharpe rose to fame in the 1930s with what music historians later characterized as a daring mix of sacred lyrics and primitive rock ‘n’ roll. In recent times, the gospel quartet (now trio) Point of Grace has achieved a big presence in Christian music circles.
Arkansas keeps its music traditions alive with several annual festivals, including Riverfest in Little Rock, a three-day spring event that has featured such acts as ZZ Top, REO Speedwagon, The Doobie Brothers, LL Cool J, B.B. King, the B 52s and Pat Benatar.
The Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival in Helena, started in 1986, is an outgrowth of the legendary "King Biscuit Time" show on radio station KFFA 1360-AM, the longest-running blues-oriented show in the country. The festival site is near the Delta Cultural Center, which hosts "King Biscuit Time" and itself is one of the most important preservers of blues music in the United States.
In late summer, the Albert E. Brumley Gospel Sing, a tradition since 1969, holds out in Springdale, near Fayetteville in the Ozark Mountains of the state’s northwest. Albert Brumley, who founded the event, was a noted gospel music composer whose most memorable song, I’ll Fly Away, was featured in the hit 2000 Coen Brothers movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Since 1990, The Old School Bluegrass Band, a quartet based in Jacksonville, has been playing up to 40 engagements per year around the state offering traditional bluegrass, country, and gospel music. In Fayetteville, the Old State House Museum's highly acclaimed exhibit, "Our Own Sweet Sounds: A Celebration of Popular Music in Arkansas," ran for two years and is now available in a 120-page book that can be ordered from the museum online.
THEATER AND PERFORMING ARTS
Arkansas’ incredibly lively theater scene is anchored by the venerable Arkansas Repertory Theatre(the "Rep") in Little Rock. Founded in 1976, the company offers a mix of contemporary and classical plays on its two stages, such as Evita, Hairspray, Hamlet, The 39 Steps, and A Raisin in the Sun. The Rep is notable for its outreach to communities across the state, including its "Free Shakespeare in the Parks," an intensive two-week summer program for young artists, and performances in small communities around the state.
Children’s Theatre at the Arkansas Art Center is a professional company that ranks among the best regional theaters in the country. Its repertoire of children’s plays are fully staged productions that have included Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp, Merry Christmas Mouse!, Little Women and Mr. Popper’s Penguins. Beyond the state’s big theater companies, almost 40 smaller community theaters have banded together to form the Arkansas Community Theatre Association.
Founded in 2005 in Fayetteville, TheatreSquared is a regional professional theater that mounts four full productions per season and presents the Arkansas New Play Festival, where it introduces new works to regional audiences over a span of 60 performances statewide. In Conway, The Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre has been offering family-friendly summertime productions since 1906. It produces a repertory of professional productions each summer, happily venturing into non-Bardic plays with such productions as Alice in Wonderland, Dracula, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Some notable Hollywood names were born in Arkansas or grew up there. Billy Bob Thornton, Mary Steenburgen, and George Hamilton are probably the state’s most recognizable living actors, but all-time greats from the "The Natural State" include Dick Powell and Alan Ladd.
Although Powell started out as a movie crooner, he later took up hard-edged roles, such as Phillip Marlowe in 1944’s Murder, My Sweet, and later produced the highly rated and acclaimed Dick Powell Show on TV. Ladd, who appeared in more than 150 adventure films and westerns, is best remembered as the enigmatic gunfighter Shane in the 1953 movie of the same name. The state’s many famous entertainers are honored at the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame in Pine Bluff.
Some memorable Hollywood films have been shot in Arkansas or have used state landmarks as a backdrop. In the opening scenes of Gone With the Wind (1939), North Little Rock’s Old Mill can be seen. In Biloxi Blues (1988), Fort Chaffee and Van Buren stand in for a Mississippi boot camp, while in the 1986 thriller Under Siege, the Arkansas State Capitol stands in for the U.S. Capitol. Fort Chafee was a stand-in again in 1995 when it doubled as an Alabama airbase in The Tuskegee Airmen, a film about the legendary all-black World War II fighter squadron.
Billy Bob Thornton returned to his native Arkansas for his 1996 film, Sling Blade, using Benton and Malvern as the backdrops for his fascinating tale about a mentally disabled man facing a huge moral quandary. TV’s 1982 miniseries The Blue and the Gray features scenes shot on Van Buren’s main street, while Benton hosted the 1973 filming of White Lightning, a Burt Reynolds vehicle that wasn’t a memorable film but did well at the box office.
The 10-day Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, held in the eponymous town each October, has developed an international reputation as the premier festival of its type since its founding in 1992. Depending almost entirely on work by volunteers, the festival screens about 100 documentaries each year and draws up to 30,000 visitors.
Perhaps the best-known native Arkansas writer is best-selling novelist John Grisham (The Firm, The Pelican Brief), although poet and memoirist Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) is internationally renowned. Other notables include Douglas C. Jones, who wrote the provocative alternate history novel The Court Martial of George Armstrong Custer in 1976. Dee Brown’s 1970 nonfiction work Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970), which is told from Native Americans’ point of view, was on the bestseller list for more than a year and has never gone out of print.
Arkansas has never been noted as a major center for painting or the visual arts. However, some of its artists have enjoyed national success, such as portraitists Louis Betts and DeWitt Jordan. SurrealistCarroll Cloar and muralist Louis Freund were also known nationally. Freund’s wife, Elsie, was a respected watercolorist. The fame of the Eureka Springs couple helped them establish the town as a leading regional art center.
Currently the state’s best known painter is Fayetteville resident Donald Roller Wilson, noted for his work on three Frank Zappa album covers and his kitschy but sly Rembrandt-style renderings of animals dressed in old-fashioned costumes. Wilson’s works hang in such prestigious venues as the Chicago Art Institute, New York’s Whitney Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Hirshhorn Museum.
HANDICRAFTS AND FOLK ART
Unique among America’s state parks, the Ozark Folk Center State Park in Mountain View is dedicated to preserving folk art and homemade crafts from the Ozark Mountains. Artisans who operate shops at the site demonstrate skills that early settlers relied on to help them survive in a tough land—some skills that are now only known to a few.
In the milder seasons of spring and fall, the Ozarks also host several arts and crafts fairs. In the eastern part of the state, Arkansas Delta Made is a trade group that represents that region’s folk artists and craftspeople.
-World Trade Press