story by Brittany Ransom
Lee Ortega was faced with quite a challenge when she assumed the role of executive director for the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum in February 2011. Not only was the organization in the middle of a major capital campaign to help renovate and move into a new location, but it was redefining itself and its mission as it transitioned from a local art center, to a regional art museum capable of hosting internationally-acclaimed exhibitions.
"What drew me to Fort Smith was the position at RAM," said Ortega. "It provided the rare opportunity to open the community’s very first art museum. This is the type of position where you can truly make a difference, so that was the biggest draw for me, both personally and professionally."
Before coming to Fort Smith, Ortega served as the director of Marketing and Public Relations for the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach. She spent 18 years working professionally for cultural and educational institutions, starting her career in the arts in the curatorial department at the Albright-Knox Museum in Buffalo, N.Y.
She then served as director of the Annina Nosei Gallery in the Chelsea arts district in New York City and later as director of Exhibitions for the Savannah College of Art and Design.
After a national search, Ortega was hired by RAM and began her first day on the job on Feb. 15, 2011. She immediately hit the ground running working with the board to oversee construction and renovation, raise funds, recruit new members, and begin realigning elements of RAM's mission and presence within the community. It was a lengthy process and it would be nearly two years after her arrival that the public would be able to the true fruit of Ortega's and the organization's labor.
RENOVATION AND GRAND OPENING
While there are many RAM achievements of which Ortega is very proud, seeing the museum construction through to completion and making the official opening deadline top her list.
“Meeting the deadline to open the museum was one of the proudest accomplishments," said Ortega. "That was a very long, two-year process involving a group of very talented individuals who were all committed to getting the job done. During those two years we also planned the opening gala for the museum, and worked very hard planning for RAM’s future exhibitions, programs and events."
RAM secured its property in 2009, prior to Ortega's arrival, when Arvest donated the former Superior Bank building to the organization, then known as the Fort Smith Art Center. With a new building, came a new director, a new name and new goals. A capital campaign helped raised $3 million to fully renovate the property into a 16,000 square foot modern museum and exhibition space.
The museum hosted its grand opening event in January 2013, with more than 500 guests in attendance. Since opening, RAM has hosted a number of nationally-acclaimed exhibits, pulling in visitors from all over the state and country. Its debut exhibition, Secrets of Mona Lisa, as well as the recent Winslow Homer show have been among the most popular with local visitors and tourists.
ACHIEVEMENTS, ART EDUCATION
Ortega is thankful for the warm reception she and the museum have received from the community. RAM has been recognized, both artistically and architecturally, winning the prestigious 2013 "Excellence in Preservation through Rehabilitation Award" from the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas, as well as the "ASID Gold Award" from the American Society of Interior Designers.
The museum also has become a preferred area attraction, as evident by its placement on the AY Magazine list, “Top 10 Historic and Cultural Sites in the Region.” It was also selected by Entertainment Fort Smith readers for the "Favorite-Best Exhibition Award” for its inaugural exhibit, Secrets of the Mona Lisa.
The museum recently celebrated a major milestone, welcoming its 5,000th visitor this month.
"We are averaging more than 300 visitors per month," stated Ortega. "Our busiest days are on the weekends and we are able to welcome more school groups due to the fact that we are now open six days a week."
RAM expanded its hours of operation in September to also include Tuesdays and Wednesdays. It previously was only open Thursday through Sunday.
Though pleased with RAM's progress, Ortega is always looking ahead, searching for ways to bring in new exhibits and get more people in the door.
"We would very much like to bring in more highly popular traveling shows to Fort Smith, and are actively seeking out sponsors so we can keep them coming to Fort Smith," said Ortega.
Upcoming exhibits include works by the winner from last year’s invitational “Carol Dickie: An Artist’s Journey,” as well as a Permanent Collections show comprised of new acquisitions approved by RAM’s Permanent Collections Committee. In June, RAM will host the 66th annual River Valley Invitational, a national competitive exhibition that has been hosted by RAM since its inception in 1948. The exhibition serves to encourage and recognize professional artists and aligns with the museum’s mission to foster art appreciation in the community.
As stated in its mission, RAM also is committed to fostering art appreciation through educational programming. Ortega believes it is a vital function of the museum and its partnership with the community.
"We are looking to incorporate more educational programming into RAM's schedule," said Ortega. “Right now we offer lectures, and a free ‘Drop in and Draw’ program every Thursday from 12 to 4 p.m., when we offer studio space, easels, and a live model for artists of all levels. We also offer quarterly intensive workshops where we bring in artists from all over the country who are recognized in their field to teach the classes."
RAM will also host a summer art camp for children of all ages from July 22-26.
‘AN ART AFFAIR’
Ortega understands that one of the museum's key functions is to serve as a resource for the general public. In her Director's Message on the organization's website, she notes, that RAM is "dedicated to creating new and diverse experiences, promoting imagination, innovation, and discussion for people of all ages, all cultural backgrounds, and every walk of life." In an effort to do just that, admission to RAM is free and most of its classes and programs are offered at a low cost.
Operating expenses for RAM run approximately $300,000 annually, and include line items such as utilities, payroll, and exhibition fees, which can range from a few thousand dollars to $50,000 and more, depending on the artist and popularity of the exhibit. The museum's budget is funded primarily through private donations, sponsorships, and some grants. Miscellaneous income also includes fees from quarterly workshops, membership dues, facility rentals, and profits from the museum store.
Ortega and the museum board continually pursue development opportunities, including partnering with local businesses and corporations for sponsorships, and applying for grants. RAM was recently awarded $13,000 from the City of Fort Smith to assist with utilities and is awaiting review on a grant from the Arkansas Arts Council, which will support program expenses.
RAM also is gearing up for what it hopes will becomes a signature fundraiser for the organization. The first annual "An Art Affair" Gala, slated for May 1, will be a formal event featuring wine, food, and art. Guests will take part in a "selfie extravaganza," which will include photo booths, a self-portrait artist, and cameras all around for gala-goers to photograph one another. The candid pictures from the inaugural event will be used to create a display for the 2015 gala.
"This will be an amazing night of celebrating the history of RAM and looking forward to its bright future," said Ortega.
A special gallery will showcase photos from RAM's past for guests to browse and see how the museum has evolved over the last 66 years.
In addition to the photo fun, the event will include a range of valuable door prizes, and the opportunity to purchase chances for a $2,000 Newton's Jewelers gift certificate. The event will offer a private viewing of the current exhibit, the Dayton Castleman COIN Installation, as well as a final chance to view The Art of Romance collection, which features more than 100 examples of paper making, and humorous greeting cards from the 19th century through the 1930s.
"Attending the gala is great way for people to show support for their art museum that provides free year-round admission , diverse exhibits, and educational programming," added Ortega. "It will be a wonderful event and we are really looking forward to it."
Tickets for "An Art Affair" are $75 for RAM members, and $100 for non-members. All proceeds from the event will support RAM's exhibits and educational programming. Organizers hope to raise between $15,000-$20,000.
RAM is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m. For more information about RAM, call 479-784-2787, or visit the RAM website.