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FORT SMITH ART SCENE

As the Fort Smith community has changed during the past two decades, places where various forms of art are exhibited or practiced evolved during that time as well, and will continue to evolve in the future. 

FORT SMITH LITTLE THEATRE

One notable example of this is the Fort Smith Little Theatre. Its website states the theatre got its start in 1947, when the Young Ladies Guild of Sparks Memorial Hospital decided to sponsor an amateur play called “Mr. and Mrs. North” as a way to raise funds.
Nancy Blochberger, funding chairman of the theatre, said about 1,500 attended this performance.

“They had such a great response from the community, and felt that there was indeed a need to have a community theatre so they incorporated, and quickly started doing shows on a regular basis, and we have been performing steadily every year since 1947,” Blochberger said.

The website states productions were staged in local school auditoriums, hotel ballrooms and lecture halls. In 1952, the group purchased an old grocery store and renovated it into a theatre-in-the-round. This building on North O Street was home to the theatre until 1986, when the present theatre was completed at 401 N. Sixth St.

“They had to cut back on the construction because they didn’t have quite enough money, and it was 20 years later before we added on the back of the building, and what we called completed the plan,” Blochberger said.

A major lobby renovation was also done in 2013.

Carole Rogers, incoming president of the theatre board of directors, said the theatre puts on six of what it calls full productions. These are full-length plays that run two weeks.

In terms of the types of plays the theatre puts on that have changed over time, Blochberger said it has tried to incorporate the talents of people in the local area, particularly younger people that have theatre training.

“They’ve come through one of the youth organizations or from UAFS or other colleges,” Blochberger said. “They have training in lights, and they have training in costuming, and they have training in makeup, so we have been able to incorporate some plays to keep those people engaged and interested in volunteering.”

Examples of such plays include “Frankenstein,” which the website states was performed in 2016, as well as “Night of the Living Dead,” which will be performed during the 2018 season.

“We’ve added wonderful new lighting to our existing stage lights this year that we were able to upgrade, and that’s exciting for people that have training in lighting design. We’re giving them tools, and giving them plays that use those tools, and that will help keep those trained people engaged in being a volunteer at the theatre.” Blochberger said.

Danica Bishop, 8, shows off her paint-infused Christmas ornament after completing the project during the Regional Art Museum program at 1601 Rogers Ave. 

FORT SMITH REGIONAL ART MUSEUM

Another local arts institution that is no stranger to change is the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum. The museum website states the museum facilitates nationally and internationally recognized traveling exhibitions, as well as rotating exhibits of works by local and regional artists. When asked about the importance of mixing these elements and having that variety, Daleana Vaughan, education director for the museum, said she thinks it is good to have diversity.

“I think it’s good to have diversity, and it just stimulates our culture,” Vaughn said.

Melissa Conry, market coordinator for the museum, said its permanent collection is growing constantly.

“We have porcelain, we have dolls, we have, of course, photographs and paintings, and some of it’s from the 1920s, and some of it is from this year. ...” Conry said.

The museum website states the institution also offers classes for children and adults, lectures, opening receptions, children’s art camps, galas, free Saturday programming, after school programs and artist-led workshops.

According to an information packet Vaughan provided, the current museum began in 1948 as the Fort Smith chapter of the Arkansas Association of University Women (AAUW). The organization held its first exhibit in 1950, and became the Associated Artists of Fort Smith (AAFS) in 1951. The group exhibited art and held classes in various locations in Fort Smith before purchasing the Vaughn-Schapp House in 1960. After the AAFS incorporated as the Fort Smith Art Center in 1968, the house served as its home until the donation of the former Superior Federal Savings and Loan Bank building at 1601 Rogers Ave.

The museum website states Arvest Bank donated the 16,000-square-foot building to the art center in January 2009. The art center was fully re-branded and opened in January 2013 as the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum.

Conry said with its new director, Louis Meluso, the museum is going to be doing many changes for the better soon.

“We’re kind of hoping to expand our education program as well,” Conry said. “We have a bright future ahead of us.”

WINDGATE ART & DESIGN

The “Tossed About” steel and aluminum sculpture created by local artist Greer Farris seen in front of the Windgate Art & Design building. The 58,000-square-foot visual arts facility was completed in 2015.

One change in the Fort Smith art scene manifested itself in the creation of a brand new institution. The Windgate Art & Design building at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS) was completed in fall 2015, the UAFS website states. It brought all classes in photography, printing, sculpture, and art history into one facility, as well as freshmen programs in drawing, 2-D and 3-D design, typography and digital imaging.

Don Lee, associate professor and head of the UAFS art department, said the purpose of the building is to house the UAFS art department and support the curriculum. It is also meant to serve as an exhibition event space as it relates to art and culture.

“And we’ve done well with that as well,” Lee said. “I’ve got grant money to provide for exhibitions, and we’re having great success with that, attracting a lot of people and so on.”

The website states the building is also home to letterpress and printmaking operations, graphic design laboratories and a film theater.

Lee said the Windgate Art & Design building having such a variety of facilities is important in that it is global and real-world.
Lee said he tells students that that means they have to be more informed.

“If you’re in an academy, it’s pretty clear what the rules are,” Lee said. “If you’re part of a group, it’s pretty clear what the concepts are. If you’re working as an individual, you kind of need to know your history and your methods and process in order to be qualified, I think.”