Ask Garrett Copeland, marketing coordinator for the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum, what’s the best museum experience in Arkansas and he won’t even blink. Fort Smith’s Regional Art Museum, he’ll tell you, beats others around the state hands down.
“Museums just have to open up a facility and put art on the walls to meet the bare minimum and people can come if they want to come, or if they don’t, they don’t,” he said. “We’ve never done it that way. RAM has always done an excellent job of not just bringing in pretty pieces of art for people to look at, but to showcase pieces that are thought-provoking.
“We also provide interactive opportunities for the public in order to weave the artistic fabric that our region craves. We encourage everyone, regardless of their art history or background, to visit us. If you have questions, comments, or concerns, we have someone to walk through the exhibitions with you. We’re proud to focus on art education, and you won’t find that in all museums.”
Instinctively, it’s easy to chalk up such comments as the bravado of youth and the pride of place that comes from having grown up in the area, both of which apply to Garrett, a Greenwood native who’s only been in his role a little more than a month. But there’s also the little matter of him being right in his assessment, one shared by different organizations within the art world.
One of those groups, The American Art Awards, has for the second time since 2018 named Fort Smith Regional Art Museum the best museum in the state and one of the twenty best American galleries and museums for 2022.
“Besides being a visual masterpiece, their numerous free, ongoing programs for the youth are a gift to the open mind, and Arkansas as a whole,” the judges stated through a press release. “Well-intentioned, socially conscious programs, knowledgeable staff, prominent artists, halls of treasures, great organization and production is their earned impeccable reputation, and meets the high expectations of excited visitors and American Art Awards.”
If the idea of Fort Smith’s RAM topping the likes of the internationally-famous Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville for the honor – not once but twice – sounds like something worth celebrating, you’re right. However, RAM’s team of paid staffers and loyal volunteers simply see it as the natural outcome of years of hard work. Founded in 1948 under the Arkansas Association of University Women, the organization has seen a lot grace its walls and shift the tastes of the public. Over time, RAM solidified its wheelhouse in education, helping audiences not only access fine art, but understand and appreciate such works as well.
Maintaining this focus over the years has made RAM exceptionally adept in the execution of its philosophy. The vast majority of exhibits are free of charge, and all are designed to appeal to a wide range of ages. Visitors can take in the works on their own, or take advantage of RAM’s popular tours, led by trained docents, or guides, who help bring the collections vividly to life.
“What we do really well is guided tours and educational classes and activities,” Garrett says. “We try to connect our constituents, volunteers, and attendees, and show them how to interpret art and know how to use the principles of art. Even those without a background in art appreciation can utilize our staff and volunteers to really learn how to digest art. I think that’s a really big asset.
“Volunteer Marti Corff, for instance, provides guided tours and not only shares behind-the-scenes information about our exhibitions, but as a longtime Fort Smith elementary art teacher, she helps people learn how to look at art. She explains in a wonderful and easy-to-understand way why the elements and principles of art, such as color, form, line, shape, space and texture, can enrich the art viewing experience. She provides rich information that we are thrilled to provide the community.”
Special events to plan for in August include the Sundays at RAM, each spotlighting a different artist. On August 14, take in an exhibition of Doyle Young and on August 28, view the work of Shabana Kausner. Another popular feature is the Landmark Lessons lecture series, the latest of which focuses on Fort Smith native John Bell Jr., a well-known artist and tireless advocate for people with disabilities. Bell’s estate donated the entirety of his collection to RAM following his death in 2013. Any of these special events represent a fascinating and fun-filled day for the whole family.
“We promote Sundays as a family day at RAM,” Garrett says. “Sundays are typically a day off for the whole family, and we want everyone to know you don’t have to spend a bunch of money for entertainment. Visit us at the museum and do something interactive!”
In 1960, the Arkansas Association of University Women occupied its first space for an art center, and in 1968 the Fort Smith Art Center was incorporated. The small original home offered a valuable service for local and regional artists by offering space for its artists for five decades.
A major turning point occurred in 2009 when Arvest Bank donated the 16,000-square-foot building at 1601 Rogers Avenue to the Art Center, following Arvest’s $211 million buyout of Superior Federal Bank.
In 2011, the museum’s founding executive director was hired to oversee the museum’s renovation project and to facilitate its greatly expanded programming. The Art Center was fully re-branded and opened in January of 2013 as the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum in full compliance with the standards of the American Alliance of Museums.
Among its collection of other prestigious awards is the 2013 Preservation through Rehabilitation Award from the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas; the 2014 American Institute of Architects (AIA) Gulf State Region Merit Award; and a Gold Award from the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID).
Garrett says plans are being finalized for programming to mark RAM’s 75th birthday celebration, beginning next year. He said while details were as-yet unavailable, he promised patrons and guests alike a yearlong celebration of art that lives up to the museum’s sterling reputation.
“Beginning in January, it will be event after event for 75th year,” he says. “We invite everyone in to see how things are constantly changing and evolving here at the museum as we strive to provide a variety of perspectives. We’re going to make as big a deal of that as we possibly can.”
Fort Smith Regional Art Museum
1601 Rogers Avenue, Fort Smith