Arkansas Arts Center Pivots To Digital During Coronavirus Pandemic

May 1, 2020

After initially cancelling its spring block of classes, the Arkansas Arts Center decided to hold a four-week session of courses, taught through Zoom,
Credit Arkansas Arts Center

The Arkansas Arts Center is making many adjustments due to the coronavirus pandemic. Though their Riverdale location remains closed because of social distancing guidelines, the center moved classes online for a four-week block. Additionally, the 62nd annual Delta Exhibition, which features 63 works of art from artists across Arkansas as well as from neighboring states, will open for online viewing beginning on June 19. 

KUAR spoke with Dr. Victoria Ramirez, executive director of the Arkansas Arts Center about those changes and the city of Little Rock’s decision to temporarily suspend its contract with the arts center and how the center has adjusted. Below is a transcription of the aired conversation.

Victoria Ramirez: "We missed everybody and we thought leveraging technology is a great way to keep our students engaged and keep them creative and also keep our faculty teaching, which is what makes them happy. So it was kind of a win-win for everybody. I’m really pleased to say that as of [April 22], we have over 150 registrants for our classes and we have people registering from outside of Arkansas. So it’s been very exciting to see the response and to see that given all the challenges that people are facing today, they’re turning to art as a means for their creative outlet."

KUAR: "Are there plans to do another round of these classes for four weeks, or since the governor had planned to slowly reopen businesses, is the Arts Center hoping to wait that out and do in-person courses? Or is there a plan to do another session?"

Ramirez: "We’re still discussing that internally. For us, it’s safety first and especially art making classes and given the configuration of our studio spaces, the quarters can be confining and so we want to be really careful there. If we need to continue online classes for another four-week stint or we need to continue them for longer than that, we will do that."

KUAR: "Shifting over to the Delta Exhibition, tell me a little bit about that and the decision to make that digital as well."

Ramirez: "Quite frankly it’s a beloved exhibition. It’s an exhibition we’re really proud of and we just could not cancel it. And so when we started to realize that a physical exhibition at our partner sites was not likely going to happen, going online just seemed to make the most sense. We really want to carry on this tradition as we always have been and fortunately with online we’re able to do that."

"The other really, I think neat thing about the Delta being online is it’s just like all of our programming. It’s in many ways easier for a broader range of people to participate and to visit the show. They can visit the show multiple times and we don’t need to necessarily take it down as we were scheduled to do."

KUAR: "So the city of Little Rock temporarily suspended its contract with the arts center in an effort to cut its budget to foresee the shortfall it’ll get from COVID-19. So how has that temporary suspension impacted the arts center?"

Ramirez: "So our budget ends at the end of June, so we are committed to ending our year with a balanced budget as we have for over the last decade. So what we’ve had to do without those funds is significantly cut back on programmatic expenses and also we’ve had to furlough staff. That’s been one of the most challenging decisions that we’ve had to make. It’s one thing to reassure staff that this is a temporary measure and it’s a measure that we need to do so we can pay our bills for this year, but we know that it’s hard for staff. It’s hard for staff who are currently working and it’s hard for staff who are furloughed."

"The cut in city support came as a surprise to us. We are still in the midst of a major construction project and the construction is continuing right now. We still have multiple meetings every week. Many staff members are involved in multiple meetings every week that are required to keep the project going and it was a surprise to us that the city would cut our funding and prompt some challenges for us in continued with some of those construction meetings."

"Our main focus is that as early as next spring or next summer, the arts center will need to move back to MacArthur Park. And what is critical is that we have our staff on board, fully employed, with a paycheck there to make that move happen. So we are recognizing that if we need to make some short term decisions and short term sacrifices to ensure that we’ve got everybody when we move to MacArthur Park, then we are poised to do that."

KUAR: "Is there anything else you would like to add on any topic that I haven’t asked you about?"

Ramirez: "In today’s current climate, when you’re watching the news and when you’re hearing stories coming from around the world, some of the most uplifting stories are coming from people who are solving problems or who are reaching out and supporting and being empathetic of others, or who are using their creativity to help others and to help the effort. And when you think about problem solving and creativity and understanding somebody’s perspective and being empathetic, those are all skills and characteristics that the arts teach."

"When we talk about arts education and the kind of people that we want in our society in the future, we want people who have those skills. Those are the people that are going to get us through the hard times because they are going to be able to dream up and realize things that don’t exist already. Put things together that people never though could be put together. I mean you think about the ingenious ways that people are using art supplies for PPEs or are using restaurants to help feed the hungry. The people behind those ideas are creative people and I would really wonder if those are people who excelled in art when they were younger because those are the skills that the arts teach and that’s why we need art education."