A new permanent exhibit tells the history of Little Rock’s Robinson Center. The auditorium opened in 1939 and has hosted important events and performances over the decades. Two years ago it reopened after a $70 million renovation and expansion.
On Friday a curtain was dropped along a wall on the second floor unveiling the 50-foot long display, with a crowd responding with applause. At the start of the timeline is a nearly 10-foot tall photo of former Arkansas Governor and U.S. Senator Joe T. Robinson.
"So as you can see, Mr. Robinson is a very large feature in this historic timeline," said Gretchen Hall, president and CEO of the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, that operates the venue.
Robinson died in 1937, six months before construction began on the auditorium. It was a Works Progress Administration project, enabled by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation, which Robinson had strongly supported.
"We really just wanted to make sure that the history of the facility was told, and so that’s what this timeline does. It starts with telling a little bit about who Joseph Taylor Robinson was and why the building was named after him, or in his honor," Hall said. "Then it chronicles various constructions throughout the years, the impact to the community, the events that it has held within the community, and then of course the most recent construction and renovation."
Most of the historic photos featured in the exhibit come from UA Little Rock’s Center for Arkansas History and Culture. Archivist Shannon Lausch was the lead researcher and wrote the text for the exhibit.
"It gives a sense of the long history of the Robinson. It was a major feat for the city to finally build a city auditorium, and just to see it persist throughout the decades and last as long as it has. And now there’s this renewed interest in its history and the fact that its been remodeled. It just speaks to the fact of how important it is to the city," Lausch said.
The venue has hosted major events over the years, including concerts, lectures, sports, theater and civic presentations. Four sitting U.S. presidents, Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, have spoken there.
Among stories shared in the exhibit is that in 1961, jazz musician Duke Ellington cancelled a concert because the venue would not allow integrated seated. Desegregation finally occurred in 1963.
Kevin Cates, an associate professor of graphic design at UA Little Rock’s Windgate Center for Art + Design, was responsible for the artwork. He said the exhibit was created over a period of more than a year, "back and forth meetings, and yes and no, and maybe try this, and we came down to a layout that we’re pretty happy with."
The permanent exhibit is located along what, until the recent renovation, had been an outside exterior wall near the original 2nd floor lobby.