FORT SMITH — The metamorphosis from arts center to museum will be complete when the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum (RAM) opens its doors to the public Jan. 19.
Museum members were notified Thursday of the opening date in a letter from RAM executive director Lee Ortega. The letter was both a plea for continued giving and a message about the facility’s importance in terms of securing Fort Smith’s spot in the cultural landscape of Northwest and western Arkansas.
“Our hope is that in addition to fostering art appreciation in the community, we will also be able to contribute to the region’s growing prominence in the art world,” Ortega said.
It’s been three years since Arvest Bank deeded over a bank building at 1601 Rogers Ave. for the Fort Smith Arts Center to convert into a museum. The 16,000-square-foot building with a cement exterior that was common for its mid-century architecture is triple the size of the organization’s former location in the historic Vaughn-Schaap house. The bank’s donation is believed to be the largest to a charity in the city.
Ortega came on board to lead the staff in February 2011, after the center had changed its name to the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum and had moved into its temporary home at 701 Rogers Ave.
In her letter to the museum’s 300 or so members, Ortega thanked arts center donors who maintained their giving levels through the transition. She said memberships would be carried over to the museum at equal value and no additional cost. Lifetime members will also be honored.
Nearly $2.5 million was needed to renovate and somewhat reconfigure the interior and add all-new heating and air and electrical systems to the building. Ortega would not say how close the museum is to its fundraising goal, just that they had enough to open to the public on the designated date in January.
“We continue to get a steady stream of checks in the mail,” she said. “Whether it’s a check for $5 or $50,000, we are appreciative and grateful.”
The staff could move in as early as this fall.
“We want to be in the space a certain amount of time before taking art on loan or opening to the public,” Ortega said.
The museum’s architects, Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects of Little Rock, worked hand-in-hand with a museum professional who co-wrote the American Association of Museums' standard 25-page facility report that all museums are required to submit before they can take an exhibit. The individual who assisted architects was part of a team that revised the latest document in 2008.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better scenario,” Ortega said.
The report outlines issues such as security and plumbing — even the manner in which art is received.
The former bank is now organized into two large exhibit spaces, both of which can be reconfigured using temporary walls. In addition to exhibits, the museum will be used for art classes for children and adults, receptions, films, lectures, social events and artist-led workshops, among other uses. And just like its counterparts in the big cities, RAM will will feature a specialty gift shop where visitors can buy unique items created by local and regional artists.
Several events have been planned for the months leading up to the museum’s opening. RAM is again collaborating with the Center for Art and Education on the annual River Valley Student Art Competition April 14-15 at the center in Van Buren. A White Party fundraising event will be held at a private home in Fort Smith. The latter, scheduled for a Friday, will also be a celebration and observance of International Museum Day.