Fort Smith Regional Art Museum leader discusses plans for $12 million grant

by Tina Alvey Dale (tdale@talkbusiness.net) 324 views 

Audrey Willis, 4, of Fort Smith creates her shaving cream masterpiece during Toddler Tuedsay at the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum.

The Fort Smith Regional Art Museum has big plans for 2019. A $12 million endowment from the Windgate Foundation will make certain the center can focus on those plans.

The recently awarded endowment will be used for programs and events and for the museum’s general operations, said Louis “Lou” Meluso, FSRAM executive director.

“It will allow us to keep the doors open, the lights on and salaries paid. It will support the free programs we provide to children and adults and exhibitions. It will allow us to remain accessible and free to everyone and continue our outreach to diverse and underserved populations,” Meluso said.

The Windgate Foundation has been a long-time supporter of FSRAM and of the arts in Arkansas and Fort Smith, as is evidenced by the Windgate Art & Design building at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.

When Meluso took the job as executive director of FSRAM 15 months ago, he was told there was potential of a Windgate endowment, but he was surprised when he received the call from Pat Forgy, the new director of the Windgate Foundation, that the endowment had been granted.

“They have always supported the museum. But this is a long-term commitment to the mission of the museum for art and art education,” Meluso said. “It’s a commitment to the arts and to the arts in Arkansas, in a hopeful future, a glimmer of the future development of the art center.”

Included in the future of FSRAM is a new student gallery on the museum’s B level that will exhibit art from students of all ages — children to adult students.

“That’s the dream of art students — isn’t it — to have their art in an exhibit?” Meluso said.

The museum also will open the Dr. W.E. Knight Boehm Gallery in the first quarter of this year.

Knight, who was an orthopedic surgeon in Fort Smith in the 1970s, and his wife donated over 100 pieces of porcelain figurines by Edward Marshall Boehm to the museum years ago. Boehm was an American figurative expressionist sculptor, known for his porcelain figures of wildlife, mostly birds, which he created using the ancient Chinese process of porcelain work that was used in Ming vases and other artistic pieces, Meluso said.

The FSRAM exhibit will be the largest exhibit of Boehm figurines in the state of Arkansas, he added.

“I learned of these after I came here. The board was asking what we wanted to do with them. They were donated when the museum was still downtown and are in storage. I absolutely wanted to keep these examples of natural history. They are some of the best example of the 2,000 year-old Chinese porcelain process,” Meluso said. “It is unique. It becomes of intellectual and artistic interest to the community and visitors.”

The museum also opened its touch museum on the first floor that allows visitors to experience the touch of sculptures and paintings.

Another major goal of the museum in 2019 is to focus on getting AAM certification, bringing in more exhibits and collaborating with local and regional artists.

“My goal, our goal, is to make a difference in the cultural lives of individuals. My mission is the museum’s mission,” Meluso said. “We have to consider the type of programs that will make a difference to this community. We have big ideas, there is a crucible of ideas in this area, to create inquiring and enhancing cultural elements to enhance this area. There is already so much going on with the Unexpected, the US Marshals Museum and the Fort Smith Museum of History. Former Mayor Sandy Sanders set the tone for Fort Smith to be on the path as a leader in the arts. This area really impresses me.”

The museum had about 10,000 visitors in 2018, up 30% from the previous year, he said.

The museum will receive a quarterly stipend from the endowment, which is being professionally managed, but will need to continue its fundraising efforts in order to expand education programs and offer more and diverse exhibits, Meluso said.

“This endowment takes away some of the uncertainty, but it is a never-ending challenge to raise funds for programs, exhibits and educational programs,” Meluso said. “We have many supporters in this community, and they have been very generous with money and time and expertise.”

The museum will host its annual fundraiser — RAM’s Annual Art Affair: Love Art — from 6:30 to 10 p.m. Feb. 9. The event will include live jazz music from After 5 Jazz, entertainment from Duo Bravo, a fun cocktail hour, appetizers from 21 West End, raffle prizes, door prizes and more. Tickets for the black tie optional event are $75. To reserve a ticket, visit fsram.org/exhibitions/loveArt; call (479) 784-2787; or email info@fsram.org.

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