By Scott Whiteley Carter
How do you host an annual art exhibit when you do not have galleries?
That was a question faced by the Arkansas Arts Center (AAC) in Little Rock, Arkansas, as it looked toward the 62nd edition of the Delta Exhibition scheduled for summer 2020. Founded in 1958 as a program of the Museum of Fine Arts (the forerunner to the Arkansas Arts Center), the Delta is a juried exhibit open to artists born in, or currently living in, Arkansas or the states that surround it. All pieces submitted for the exhibit must have been completed within the past two years and not previously been exhibited by the Arkansas Arts Center.
The Delta Exhibition celebrates and showcases artistic voices from the American South and beyond. Through a variety of media, the artwork addresses identity, place, history, heritage and power. The AAC notes, “As one of the longest-running and most prestigious juried art exhibitions in the region, the Delta Exhibition represents the Arts Center’s commitment to artists living and working in our community today – and to continuing to grow artistic talent in the region.”
In July 2019, in conjunction with the closing of the 61st Annual Delta Exhibition, the AAC facility in Little Rock’s MacArthur Park was shuttered so it could undergo an extensive renovation and reconstruction, which is being termed as a reimagining (the project is being designed by Studio Gang from Chicago with the landscape design led by New York City-based SCAPE Landscape Architecture). Without the museum’s galleries available, there would be no space for the annual exhibit in the AAC’s main building for 2020. During a previous construction process in 1999, the Delta had been relocated to the Pike-Fletcher-Terry House, a historic building owned by the City of Little Rock for use by the AAC, but using that facility was not feasible this time.
Outside of the AAC, there are limited opportunities in Little Rock to have a single space that could be home to the Delta Exhibition; other museums and galleries have their own exhibit schedules. So, AAC staff created a plan to host it in several different locations in Little Rock and Central Arkansas.
In the meantime, the AAC’s staff, museum school, and performing arts program had relocated to a repurposed former grocery store approximately three miles away. Much of the educational outreach programming had shifted to taking place at various branches of the Central Arkansas Library System. Some art from the AAC collection had also been put on display at library branches as well as the Clinton Presidential Center. Without a home for exhibits, the AAC was doing its best to show that it was not closed – in fact, it was in the community more than ever.
The call for artists for the exhibit went out in January 2020 with a deadline for entries of March 22. The juror for this edition, Stefanie Fedor, executive director of the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, Virginia, was announced. In addition to selecting the works to be included, the guest juror also chooses the Grand Award winner and two Delta Award winners (a fourth winner, the Contemporaries Award, is chosen by members of that AAC auxiliary that funds the prize money for the award).
As the call for entries was nearing deadline – the world stopped.
With federal Centers for Disease Control guidelines, mandates from Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson and the Arkansas Department of Health, and executive orders from Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott, Jr., it was apparent in mid-March that there was a chance the Delta Exhibition might not be able to happen as originally envisioned when it opened in June. As days turned to weeks, this reality took hold: it would not be possible to host the 62nd Delta Exhibition in person.
Thus, the initial question posed at the beginning of this article shifted to, How do you host an exhibition when you are not able to have people gather at ANY facility?
Perhaps because they had been so focused on doing things differently without a central museum space, the AAC staff shifted quickly to creating a digital exhibit experience with accompanying programming.
Flexibility in the job had certainly been the watchword for Executive Director Victoria Ramirez. Her first day in that position coincided with the October 1, 2019, groundbreaking for the expansion. Planning for ongoing programming while overseeing a $70 million construction project calls for ultimate adaptability at a moment’s notice.
Scheduled to open a few weeks prior to the Delta was the AAC’s other annual exhibition – the 59th Annual Young Arkansas Artists Exhibition (YAA). This, in a way, provided a trial run for a digital exhibit and programming. The annual YAA awards program was held virtually, and the success of this event reinforced that it would be possible for the Delta to work as a digital exhibit.
The Delta, YAA, and other digital experiences have been packaged as “Arkansas Arts Center Amplified” through which the AAC is bringing art experiences online. This has also included some Children’s Theatre performances, conversations and other programming, as well as membership outreach. While no longer staging the Delta in a variety of locations, the AAC has worked with those spaces to continue to promote the online experience and highlight their complementary programming.
“As a Delta arts institution, the Arts Center remains committed to Delta artists. We are proud to present an innovative solution to continue the exhibition during this time,” Executive Director Victoria Ramirez said. “Along with our creative arts partners, we look forward to showcasing art that will educate and inspire, especially amid challenging circumstances.”
Regardless of the format of the exhibit, some things did not change. A few weeks before the start, the Arkansas Arts Center media team sent out a release identifying all the artists who had been selected for the 62nd Delta. A lecture with the Delta juror was scheduled, and an official opening of the exhibit was set. The latter two aspects did take on a different tone, however.
On Thursday, June 18, Ms. Fedor discussed her thoughts on the selection process and highlighted some of the works she chose. Instead of being in an auditorium in Little Rock speaking only to people in that room, she was at home in Virginia while her audience was spread out geographically and largely at their own homes.
Each year the Delta features a wide variety of styles and media, and the 62nd edition is no exception. The four award winners offer a snapshot of this diversity. The winner of the Grand Award is Aaron Calvert’s Rocket Rabbit, a whimsical, multi-colored, clay leporine figure. While both Delta Award winners feature faces of human figures, they are very different in subject and presentation. Leah Grant’s Notice is a cyanotype and screenprint of a child, while Anton Hoeger’s Woman with Red Shoes is an oil on canvas of the eponymous woman with scarlet-colored footwear fading into or emerging from a background. While also a sculpture involving clay, Chris Hynes’ Spirit, winner of the Contemporaries Award, is a deer fashioned of clay and found objects.
The Delta Exhibition has many traditions. One is that the AAC usually serves fried catfish, hushpuppies, and fries at the opening reception. Since that was not taking place this year, the AAC partnered with a local catfish restaurant to offer discounts for AAC members ordering take out.
The opening lecture and online exhibit are not the only way the AAC has engaged patrons with the Delta. The center hosted a virtual viewing party of a documentary produced about the 60th edition of the Delta. A series of Delta artist lectures and tours have taken place online. These have allowed artists not located in Little Rock to engage with AAC supporters in new ways as well as opening up opportunities to view artist studios unhampered by space constraints.
By viewing the exhibit only online, patrons are—in a way—seeing what Delta jurors experience. After years of jurying based on the submitted slides, the Delta transitioned several years ago to the use of electronic images for selections. While the making of decisions based on submitted images is inherent to the process of juried art exhibitions, it may provide closer details of smaller artwork and potential loss of nuances for larger artwork. Occasionally there can be surprises when something is more or less impressive when viewed in person. The 62nd Delta has no such surprises because what the patrons are seeing is what Ms. Fedor saw when making her choices for the show.
Because the Delta is an exhibit of artwork created in the previous two years, it is a snapshot of what was on the mind of artists – and perhaps by extension the general public – at that time. For instance, in 2002 and 2003, there were many anti-war entries in response to events in the Middle East. Given the timeline for submissions this year, the 62nd Delta is a look back to the time immediately prior to COVID-19 dominating headlines and lives. It is artwork that was created to be viewed in person that is now being seen on computer monitors and smartphone screens.
One can only imagine how events in the spring and summer of 2020 will impact the themes, sizes, and media of entries for the 63rd Delta Exhibition. Time will tell whether it will be viewable in person or only virtually.
Whatever it is, Little Rock’s Arkansas Arts Center should be ready.
Scott Whiteley Carter is a municipal arts administrator.