Stacy Hurst, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, announced Friday (July 31) that Swannee Bennett, director and chief curator of Historic Arkansas Museum (HAM), is stepping down from his positions with the museum, retiring after 38 years of service.
Hurst has appointed HAM Deputy Director Donna Uptigrove to serve as interim director.
“Swannee Bennett’s expertise and passion for preserving Arkansas’s creative legacy is unmatched,” said Hurst. “Swannee did not want a lot of fanfare regarding his retirement, but we want to recognize the instrumental role he has played in creating a world-class institution for Arkansas that is a shining example of what historic sites and history and decorative arts museums should be.”
Bennett began working at HAM in 1982 and has served as director, deputy director and chief curator. After graduating from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Swannee interned at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He began his career in historic site museums at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Williamsburg, Va. During his visits home to Arkansas, he and Bill Worthen, former HAM director, started the Arkansas Made project, scouring Arkansas for hidden treasures that showcased the history and creative legacy of Arkansas through the lens of family heirlooms.
Over the next several decades, Bennett was a leader in the identification, preservation and promotion of the rich material culture present in Arkansas. In 1990 and 1991, Bennett and Worthen published “Arkansas Made: A Survey of the Decorative, Mechanical and Fine Art Produced in Arkansas: 1819-1870,” a two volume work that was the first ever in-depth scholarly undertaking on Arkansas’s fine, decorative and mechanical art and artisans. HAM’s collection now boasts over 100,000 pieces of mechanical, decorative and fine art from the frontier period to modern day.
Since 1982, Bennett and the Arkansas Made team have identified over 5,000 Arkansas artists and artisans working in the state. His career culminates in the significant publication (fall 2020) of the second and expanded edition of “Arkansas Made Vol. I and II, A Survey of the Decorative, Mechanical and Fine Arts Produced in Arkansas through 1950.”
“There are many people that have made significant contributions to the field of Arkansas history, but very few have done as much in preserving and making Arkansas history available to the public, as Swannee Bennett,” said Jimmy Bryant, director of the Division or Arkansas Heritage. “Swannee is a true giant in his chosen profession and will long be remembered for his work at Historic Arkansas Museum.”