Arvest grant, other measures help Fort Smith Regional Art Museum remain open and active

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 733 views 

A sizable grant from Arvest Foundation will lead to a studio name change and an even stronger education program at The Fort Smith Regional Art Museum (RAM) – a facility that has struggled to remain open and active during the pandemic.

The foundation presented RAM with a $15,000 grant in October, and now the student gallery at RAM, which opened in 2018 to exhibit works of art by students, is the RAM Student Gallery Sponsored by Arvest Foundation.

“This gift from the Arvest Foundation puts a wonderful spotlight on the talent of our region’s young artists,” said Louis Meluso, RAM executive director. “RAM is so grateful for the support from Arvest that has resulted in the gift of our building in 2009, and now the strengthening of our efforts to enrich youth’s lives through the new Student Gallery sponsored by Arvest Foundation.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on almost everyone. Closings and restrictions have affected almost every area of life, especially the arts. Beginning in March, performances were canceled, theaters and art centers were closed and organizers scrambled to find alternative ways to bring the arts to the public.

The Fort Smith Regional Art Museum (RAM) was no exception. The art museum was closed for three months. While the center is once again open to the public, the education program has moved online. RAM’s education program includes free art classes for ages 18 months to 18, said Suzie Meluso, marketing coordinator for RAM. Classes include Toddler Tuesday, Home School Art Program, RAM Saturday and Drop In and Draw – a live-model sketching class for adults.

“We do them all by Zoom. They are still free. Anyone can participate. We just ask that they register online first, so we know how many we have,” Suzie Meluso said. “We are fortunate that our executive director (Louis Meluso) is an accomplished photographer and makes sure we have all the right equipment for the best Zoom classes.”

Though participation in many of the classes hasn’t been high, there has been an uptick lately in the homeschool program, she added.

“With a lot of students doing virtual schooling, they’re getting a lot of screen time. I think a lot of parents are saying, ‘OK, now step away from the computer,’” Suzie Meluso said. “But the homeschool program is growing more now.”

She noted that all past on-line education programs can still be accessed via the RAM YouTube channel, fsramREVAMP. Administrators expect RAM to return to on-site programming as soon as safely possible in 2021.

“We will have a wonderful space for the student classes once we are able to have them back here,” Suzie Meluso said.

Classes may all be online for now, but the art museum is open to visitors. Works have been spaced out for better viewing during a time of social distancing, the floor is marked and everything is cleaned regularly to ensure a safe environment for patrons, she said.

“It’s been slow, but people are starting to trickle back in,” she said.

The art museum has two exhibitions: Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill: Photographs by Jerry Dantzic and Suzannah Schreckhise: Attention to Tension. The former is organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service in collaboration with the Jerry Dantzic Archives. It shows a vivid, intimate look at the jazz and blues singer who died at the age of 44. The phonots by Jerry Dantzic were taken in 1957, two years before her death. It will be on display until Jan. 3.
A free Zoom lecture by Dantzic’s son, Grayson Dantzic, is scheduled for 7 p.m. Dec. 10. Those wanting to attend can register online. Schreckhise is a multidisciplinary visual artist from Fayetteville. Her exhibit will be up through Jan. 31.

The museum also has a number of items in its permanent collection on display, including the largest collection of fine Boehm porcelain in the state, which is permanently displayed in the Dr. W.E. Knight Porcelain Gallery.

“We have even reopened the Boehm gallery now. We just have to limit people going into it. We just ask that they check-in at reception, and we let them know when their group can go in,” Meluso said.

Entry to RAM is free. The museum was awarded a $12 million endowment from the Windgate Foundation in late 2018 to be used for programs and events. It receives a quarterly stipend from the endowment, which is being professionally managed, but still needs to continue its fundraising efforts in order to expand education programs and offer more and diverse exhibits, Lou Meluso said at the time the endowment was announced.

The museum’s big fundraiser for 2020, A Night under the Big Top, was canceled two days prior to the day it was to happen, March 14, when large events were restricted due to the pandemic, Suzie Meluso said.

“That was tough. Luckily, a lot of our vendors were very understanding, so we weren’t out (a lot of money,” she said.

“RAM, like all other charitable organizations, has funding challenges resulting from the pandemic,” said Julie Moncrief, RAM development director. “We were also going to hold our first annual Signature Event in May that was to raise important funds for our education and exhibition programs.”

The art museum lost expected income from those two events, and from closing its doors from March until mid-June, Moncrief said. Though admission to the art center is free, visitors to RAM often make membership donations when they come to view the exhibitions, she added.

“And we also gain income from the exhibition opening receptions, which had to be canceled due to the need for social distancing,” she said.

The museum also lost income normally gained through the museum store and had the added expense of masks they now provide to the public who view exhibits; items needed to make the museum safe, including floor decals, plexiglass for the front counter, hand-santizer stations throughout and extra cleaning supplies; and expenses needed to take the education programs virtual.

“We made the purchase of necessary camera and video equipment, and we will be able to use it from now on, in addition to going back to in-person classes,” Moncrief said.

So, fundraising efforts are even more necessary now than normal.

“(We are) working to create more community awareness about how valuable memberships and donations are to RAM. They are both tax deductible, and are our foundation,” Moncrief said.

As an incentive, RAM is holding monthly drawings for prizes to those who join or donate that month. There will be a drawing for all who join, renew their membership or donate from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31. For each $25 increment of a person’s donation or membership, they will be entered into the drawing for a $2,500 gift certificate from Newton’s Jewelers.

RAM also is working to raise $24,000 for the purchase of an upgrade to the building’s humidity control system.

“This is needed in order to protect the art. We have more than 330 artworks in our permanent collection and of course the rotating exhibitions of national and regional art,” Moncrief said.

RAM began an ongoing auction of items donated to the art museum, on its new Ebay account, which will kick off mid-November.

“We have a very special donation from nationally known Watercolor Master Timothy J. Clark to be auctioned on the sitem,” Moncrief said. “We would love to accept items of all kinds for our ebay auction. Because of the time it takes to correctly market them on ebay, we do ask for items to be worth $100 or more if possible. RAM can accept gifts of stock, automobiles, just about anything!”