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97-year-old Royal Theatre remains a gem

If only the brick walls of the Royal Theatre in downtown Benton could talk, I imagine the conversation would be full of amusing, awe-inspiring tales of the different types of people who have graced the interior of the two-story historic structure. From early movie days in the 1920s to the ’50s when concessions were sold to passersby on the street, and later in the ’90s when actor Jerry Van Dyke owned the theater and adjacent Soda Shoppe, the Royal Theatre has touched many lives throughout the past century.

In 2004 when I joined the staff at the Benton Courier (now the Saline Courier), I quickly learned from seasoned reporter and editor Lynda Hollenbeck – a Royal Players board member and veteran cast and crew participant – the important role the theater plays in the community. During my newspaper tenure I would go on to know other key players of the Royal, such as theatre manager Shannon Moss and founding members the late Gayla McCoy, Louann Cameron and Selena Ellis.

The Royal Players (formerly the Central Arkansas Community Players) has called the Royal Theatre home since 2000 when Van Dyke deeded the building to the performance group. Established in 1994, for the first few years the theatre group put on plays at Benton High School’s Butler Auditorium. The Royal Players and the Young Players for youth have produced more than 100 plays.

The original section of the Royal Theatre was built in 1920 when it was known as the IMP, an acronym for Independent Motion Pictures, according to the history section of the theater’s website. The theater was remodeled and the name changed to the Royal in 1949. In 1974, Wallace Kauffman relinquished control of the Royal to his son Warren Lee and his wife, Mildred. In 1986, Warren Lee passed ownership to his son Randy Kauffman, who continued to manage it until 1996 when he sold it to Van Dyke.

Because the Royal Theatre is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Royal Players is able to apply for preservation grants and low-interest loans to help maintain the structure for all to enjoy for years to come.

Susan Dill, president of the Royal Players Board of Directors, gives Van Dyke credit for cleaning up downtown. The area has been on the upswing ever since.

“The area continues to improve, and we attract people from all of central Arkansas,” Dill says, adding that the theater “improves the quality of life for all who experience it, from the actors to the people who come to watch.”

The Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s very own Jeff LeMaster, director of communications and marketing, grew up in Benton, calling the Royal “our movie theater.” Until Tinseltown theater was built in 1997, LeMaster says the Royal was the only option for seeing movies locally.

“One of my most vivid memories of the Royal was when we went to see The Rescuers Down Under with my family. About halfway through the movie, they stopped the projector and the manager came in and told the audience that it was snowing pretty hard outside and that he would give us a rain check ticket if we wanted to leave. My parents opted to stay and finish the movie even though most people left, and by the time we got out of the theater, there was about six inches of snow on the ground. It took us a while to get home, but I remember thinking how cool it was to have the theater almost all to ourselves.”

LeMaster echoes Dill’s sentiments about downtown’s improvement during the Van Dyke days.

“Back in the ’90s, Benton’s downtown was struggling. Businesses were having a hard time staying open, and there were lots of vacant buildings. The one little glimmer of life was the Royal. That became especially true when Jerry Van Dyke installed the soda shop next door and the Royal installed a stage and began producing live local theater. The soda shop venture didn’t last, but I remember being amazed at how many more people I saw on Market Street during that time.”

With the increased foot traffic came a renewed interest from investors to revive vacant buildings near the Royal that remain occupied.  

Since the Royal Players took control of the building, the Royal Theatre is not only a stellar downtown asset, but also a safe haven for youth and adults to come together to be themselves, establish bonds and gain valuable life lessons.

Payton Christenberry, a program officer at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute in charge of arts and humanities programs, also grew up in Benton and recalls fondly his time as part of the Royal Players.

The Royal was a big part of my teenage and early adult years, performing on stage and working behind the scenes,” Christenberry says. “I didn’t appreciate its history at the time, but there was no way to miss the presence the building has. From the classic theater marquee to the towering ceiling inside to the creak of the chairs, everything pulls you into another world.

“What sticks out most, though, is how many people the Royal brings together. I got to meet and work with people from my community on something we all shared a passion for. On top of that, we got to perform for our friends and neighbors. I can’t think of a time I felt more connected to my hometown than standing on stage to take a final bow beside my fellow cast and crew in front of a packed house. I wouldn’t have those memories without the Royal.”

That intrinsic link to the artistic and commercial health of a community will be a key theme at the Rockefeller Institute’s upcoming Historic Theaters Conference, which will be held at the Institute on Petit Jean Mountain Thursday, Aug. 10, through Friday, Aug. 11.

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Morrilton’s Rialto Theatre undergoes epic transformation through the years

The Hollywood stars who once graced its screen may be gone with the wind (if you’ll forgive the play on words), but the Rialto Theatre still remains a gem in downtown Morrilton today. Actually, the story of the theater — with its myriad stops and starts, and especially its survival in the face of long odds — would arguably be worthy of the sweeping epics that used to screen there.

Not so long ago it appeared the more-than-100-year-old landmark had outlived its relevance: doomed to the same finale as countless aging buildings before it. In the 1990s, the Rialto was slated for demolition – to make room for a parking lot. Progress, it seemed, had caught up with the Rialto and left it behind. Movie-goers had long ago moved onto bigger multiplexes, larger screens and state-of-the-art surround sound.

Rialto-old

The first film showed at the Rialto in 1911. In the 1950s, the building was gutted and seating increased. It reopened to great acclaim with a showing of Lovely to Look At, starring Kathryn Grayson and Red Skelton. In the 1970s, it was again modified to keep up with the times and was converted to three screens. It didn’t last, however, and the following decade, the once-grand theater was shut down.

For years, the Rialto sat there boarded up and empty — a deteriorating relic whose golden age had played out its run. Enter our hero in this script.

Lindell Roberts wasn’t the only person who helped save the Rialto, but if this were one of those “based-on-a-true-story” movies, this gregarious Morriltonian would undoubtedly play a leading role.

“When I would drive through downtown, I would look at it (the Rialto) and think, ‘We need to turn that into a performance theater.’ This was around 1995,” Roberts recounted one morning from the sidewalk outside the Rialto. Occasionally people would honk and wave as they drove past.

“Then one day, our new mayor at the time, Stewart Nelson, called me up and asked, ‘What would you think about making the old Rialto into a performance theater?,’” Roberts recalled between waves. “I said, ‘When do you want to start?’”

And like those feel-good celluloid stories that never get old, hard-working members of the community came together to bring the regal lady back to life. Most of the early labor was made up entirely of volunteers, Roberts said. Improved lighting was installed, a new stage was built and a proscenium added. A capital improvement grant helped renovate the building next door, which became a connected art gallery. A donor, Afton King, paid for the installation of the necessary dressing rooms for performers. A local artist even came in to restore the murals along the walls of the main seating hall that were added in 1952 when the theater was beginning its second life.

“When The Rep (in Little Rock) did their renovation, they gave us the seats that came out of the theater,” Roberts said, recalling just how broad the backing for this success story has been. “We have great community support for this theater. A lot of towns our size don’t have something like this (a downtown theater).”

Current Morrilton Mayor Allen Lipsmeyer agrees. “I’ve been to cities all over Arkansas that deeply regret tearing down their downtown theater,” he said. “In fact, cities are now building replicas of historic theaters. We did a good thing preserving this piece of history. No one regrets saving history.”

Roberts helped create the Rialto Community Arts Center Board, under the auspices of the Arts Council of Conway County, to manage the renovation and operation of the theater, which is now called the Rialto Community Arts Center. He was the first president and currently serves as chairman. The reopened 400-seat venue hosted its first performance in 2000 and has been used frequently ever since for a variety of plays, concerts, murder-mystery dinners and, of course, films, such as the classic Gone with the Wind, which was screened a few years ago. Next door — formerly a hardware store — houses a meeting center (complete with a full kitchen) and an art gallery, which varies its exhibits every few months.

This type of success story is part of what will be highlighted at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Historic Theaters Conference on Aug. 10-11. The conference, which only costs $75 to attend (includes lodging and meals), will feature experts in historic preservation, fundraising and art as a method of community and economic development. It will also include time for networking among people who are all passionate about ensuring their community’s historic theater has its own success story.

Most seem to agree that Morrilton isn’t ready for the credits to roll on the Rialto, a true historic Arkansas landmark.

“Art is a part of what makes communities unique, and artists bring with them passion,” Lipsmeyer said. “I like knowing we have a space for our citizens to enjoy art, perform, celebrate, demonstrate and show their talent. I believe art will be a vital part of our downtown revitalization.

“We are a better city because of the Rialto.”

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Leading the way

The Winthrop Rockefeller Institute was proud to send Janet Harris, director of programs, to participate in the 2016-17 session of Leadership Arkansas. Leadership Arkansas, a program of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, provides an immersive experience for up-and-coming leaders in Arkansas to learn and grow in their leadership capacity.

Institute Executive Director Dr. Marta Loyd had this to say about Janet's experience:

"Upon nominating Janet for Leadership Arkansas, I knew the experience would be a win-win-win. I was not disappointed in that it was a win for Janet - she grew professionally and personally and built lasting relationships across the state. It was a win for Leadership Arkansas - Janet is intellectually curious and has a sharp mind. I am certain the class benefited greatly by her participation. And it was a win for the Institute - Janet was able to spread the word to class XI about our compelling mission and the good work we are doing here. I am proud of Janet for her commitment to the program and congratulate her on making the most of the opportunity."

Janet recently responded to some questions we had about her experience.

Q: What expectations did you have going into Leadership Arkansas? How did the experience compare to your initial expectations?

A: Having formerly traveled the state extensively as a leader in state government, I looked forward to engaging with private sector leaders from the perspective of the Institute, learning more about their successes and hearing their perspective on Arkansas’ workforce development challenges. The experience exceeded my expectations in that regard, particularly in the way that we were welcomed into each community and allowed access to “behind-the-scenes” operations at some of our state’s leading industries and the candid conversations we were able to have with them. Arkansas is such a diverse state, with each of our regions having unique strengths and opportunities for growth.  I found the experience of meeting those local leaders and spending time with them in their communities to be invaluable. 

Q: What is one or more things you learned about Arkansas, business or leadership that you did not know before LA?

A: We had some wonderful leadership and personal development sessions during the program. The ones that stand out the most are the visioning and leadership exercises we participated in at Crystal Bridges, where we were encouraged to think about leadership through our experience with art, and our last session with Dr. Jeff Standridge, who tailored a leadership exercise for us that really caused me to think deeply about my personal and professional goal-setting.

Q: Describe one of your favorite memories from your experience.

A: The state government and military session held at the State Capitol and at Little Rock Air Force Base, respectively, were my favorite sessions. We held a mock legislative session at the Capitol, which for me felt like coming home after my years in state government. Gen. Joe Wilson, a class member of ours, was such a gracious host at the LRAFB, and not only were we given a fantastic behind-the-scenes tour of the base, but we also had a chance to fly on a C-130, which was quite the thrill. I even managed to keep down my lunch! Overall, though, the connections and friendships I made with my classmates will be what I value most in the years to come. We had a great time getting to know one another and developed a deep respect for the work that we are each doing in our communities.

Q: How will your class of LA stay connected and engaged?

A: We have appointed two dynamic class representatives who are already finding opportunities for us to reconnect with each other. Thanks to the leadership of class member Mark Scott of Walmart, we are having a bonus session in Bentonville later in July. And, I am so pleased that Leadership Arkansas Class XII will host their opening session at the Institute, where I will be helping out as an alum. We have a Facebook group where we keep up with each other’s professional accomplishments and family news, and we have committed to participating as alums together for various other Class XII sessions. I am hoping that we can bring Leadership Arkansas alumni to the mountain for a summit-style working session like we do for our Under 40 Leaders, so that we can continually keep this group of professionals engaged in contributing to solutions for Arkansas.

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Addressing a looming crisis

Rural health care in Arkansas is an ever-evolving, complex system. There are many different branches of a multitude of organizations all working toward the same goal: a healthier rural population. From local faith-based organizations providing weekly check-ins on elderly residents all the way to statewide initiatives working at the policy level to help provide more resources and support to rural Arkansas, all the stakeholders are doing what they can to move the needle in their own ways.   

Dr. Mark Jansen

As with any complex system, however, there are many challenges and crises facing rural health that extend beyond what any one organization can do on their own. Mark T. Jansen, M.D., medical director of UAMS regional programs, made that clear to us when he approached us about a looming crisis in rural Arkansas: a rapidly aging population and decreasing number of practicing rural doctors. It was clear to Dr. Jansen and to us that there would be no silver bullet solution to the problem and that diverse solutions required a diverse set of minds to develop.

Following what we call the “Rockefeller ethic,” we sought to find those innovative and collaborative solutions to the impending crisis by calling together the experts and stakeholders in rural health from around Arkansas. Forty-six participants answered the call and attended the inaugural Rural Health Summit on March 23-24. The Summit members represented major health institutions, places of higher learning, state organizations, municipalities, health clinics, membership organizations and beyond. Each organization represented is working on improving rural health in their own way, but the Summit participants took it a step further by giving their time and applying their unique expertise to closely examine the existing and upcoming gaps in service delivery and plot a collaborative course to better health care in rural Arkansas.

Rural Health Summit

Those 46 Summit members put in an astounding effort during the noon-to-noon Summit, producing a list of resources, needs and critical questions about rural health care across the state in six different regions (northwest, north central, northeast, southeast, southwest and central Arkansas). The Summit members produced a list of over 120 services and resources currently available, compiled more than 140 needed services and resources, and identified 27 service and need areas that require closer scrutiny.

Beyond all of the impressive data they provided, the best part about the commitment of the Summit members is that they will be actively addressing those need areas beyond the Summit itself. During the Summit they selected a 12-member COMMITtee that will work with us at the Institute to see where the larger group can make the most impact. We’ll meet with the COMMITtee bi-monthly for the rest of the year to make sense of all the data, bring in new Summit members and start filling the gaps in rural Arkansas health care through a collaborative effort. 

It is a phenomenal privilege to work with people who not only dedicate their careers to improving Arkansas health care, but who also find time outside of their normal duties to see where they can help more. I also want to extend special thanks to Dr. Jansen and the Blue & You Foundation. The Summit was designed in partnership with Dr. Jansen, who also sponsored a portion of the Summit as the invested chair for the Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, George K. Mitchell, M.D., Endowed Chair in Primary Care. The initial Summit and follow-up activities are also made possible in part through a grant from the Blue & You Foundation for a Healthier Arkansas.   

I look forward to continuing our work with this great group of dedicated individuals to positively impact rural health in Arkansas.

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Our own version of March Madness

March came shooting out of a cannon at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute. We put on four programs in March, up from our typical 1-2 per month schedule that we typically adhere to.

We kicked off the month with the second annual Under 40 Forum, which brought some of the state’s brightest young leaders, as designated by the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal and Arkansas Business, together for a  two-day facilitated discussion on the fractures that divide our state and ways to heal them. The Forum is held in conjunction with the Clinton School of Public Service. One the participants – Eric Wilson, CEO of Noble Impact – offered this feedback on the Forum: “Every state has a 40 Under 40 list, and most of them are photo opportunities and a happy hour. But here in Arkansas, we’re trying to do something more. Instead of just taking a photo, we’re getting everybody together in a room and asking them to discuss some of the biggest challenges facing our state.”

A report detailing the group’s findings is forthcoming and will be distributed to leadership across the state in government, business and communities.

Then about a week later on a cool spring day, more than 65 participants gathered at the Institute for the Business Workshop for Landowners. Part of a partnership with Mississippi State University’s Natural Resource Enterprise Program and the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service, the workshop provided experts with in-the-field knowledge on how to manage the land and look at their land with a different focus.

The morning session included a field tour just a short drive from the Institute on the property of Mr. Henry Jones. The property included 288 acres of short-leaf pine and hardwoods. The property has been in Mr. Jones’ family since 1884 and started out as a cotton field and evolved through the years to some timber property and space for the family to hunt and experience nature. During the field tour, participants enjoyed talks from wildlife biologists, foresters and Mr. Jones discussing the history of the property and different forestry management techniques such as thinning to improve forest stands and disking for wildlife. Mr. Jones was able to show his success after implementing these techniques in one year’s time: a quail covey established on the west end of his property. 

After lunch, attendees heard talks on recreational enterprise opportunities, legal liability issues and estate planning. We sold out the event this time and already have folks asking about the next workshop. We hope to have another one in the fall, with an announcement coming late spring or early summer.

The following day, on March 10, we held our ninth Uncommon Communities training. Uncommon Communities is our community and economic development program done in partnership with Dr. Vaughn Grisham, the Cooperative Extension’s Breakthrough Solutions program and the University of Arkansas-Little Rock’s School of Public Affairs. In this session, our five participating counties – Conway, Perry, Pope, Van Buren and Yell – were coached in quality of place and placemaking.

Representatives from Yell County presented to the group their plans for downtown revitalization in Dardanelle. These plans include installation of a hammock park, a dog park, historical re-enactments, bike and walking trails, a Native American heritage museum and more.

Finally, on March 23-24, we held our Rural Health Summit (pictured above), which convened health care leaders from across the state to identify gaps and opportunities related to health care in rural areas. This is the first wide-scale effort to address this pressing need. The Institute will soon report out to the group with a summary of their recommendations, and a group of volunteers from among the participants will work to begin implementing some of those recommendations and identifying other partners to join for another summit in late 2017 or early 2018. This effort has the potential to provide higher quality and more access to care for our state’s rural populations, all through the power of collaboration and cooperation.

There’s lots more to come in 2017 for the Institute, including our Art in its Natural State competition, which kicked off in February, and our annual performance of the Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre. We’re relieved that the March Madness is behind us and are ready to take on the next challenges.

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A culture of support

Sasha Cerrato is the creative director for the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute. On March 28, she spoke alongside Arkansas First Lady Susan Hutchinson and others at the Arkansas State Capitol in support of Breastfeeding Awareness Day. The following is part of the story she shared that day.

I’m a full-time working mother of two beautiful girls, the youngest of which was born 18 months ago, about 2 ½ years after I started working at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute.

When my first daughter was born, I was working at a different company and had limited success in breastfeeding because it was difficult to balance my work schedule with my pump schedule.

During my second-born’s pregnancy, I was determined to do a better job at managing that balance and have more success with breastfeeding.

The thing I never expected was that this time my employer was eager to help me make it work, too.

I live in Little Rock, but the Institute is about an hour’s commute on Petit Jean Mountain. On my first day back our executive director pulled me aside and told me to do what I needed to do. She recognized how hard the transition would be and encouraged me to take the time I needed to make it work for both the Institute and my family.

Shortly after, our director of communications and marketing, my boss, switched our weekly marketing meeting to a time that better suited my pump schedule, and continued to refer to that schedule for future meetings and events.

Examples like these over the nine months that I pumped while working at the Rockefeller Institute are numerous and came from every level of our company.

The fact is, there is nothing about pumping that is easy. In addition to nursing in the morning and before bed, I had to pump four times a day for a minimum of 15 minutes at a time to inch out the milk it took to sustain my daughter while I was at work. And frankly, the only reason I was able to keep that baby on breastmilk through her first year was because the company I worked for supported me in doing it. The Winthrop Rockefeller Institute saw the value in a mother providing the best nutrition I could for my child. They saw the value in supporting a young family. And that meant doing much more than simply following the letter of the law. There’s a big difference between providing space and providing support. The Institute showed me that difference, and for that, I will be eternally grateful.

I’ve been blessed to gain a lot of good experience throughout my career, and I’m to a point now that I know I have options should I choose to look for another opportunity. But any time I’ve toyed with the idea of a new career — maybe something closer to home, slightly better pay, etc. — I think about the culture at the Institute, and the support I receive there, and I realize that they’ve made it so I don’t want to leave. They have earned a devoted employee.

And that is far from unique. Study after study shows that family-friendly work cultures increase employee retention, benefit organizational citizenship behavior, and improve work attitudes.

What I hope my story does is present a challenge: What can we be doing to support one another and encourage family-friendly cultures and policies in our respective work spaces? In my mind at least, the question is vital not only to individual families, but to society as a whole.

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Breastfeeding in Arkansas is gaining momentum

The winds of change are blowing in Arkansas when it comes to breastfeeding.

Our state is routinely near the bottom of the country when it comes to the percentage of mothers who breastfeed, but recent efforts promise a brighter future for Arkansas’ nursing moms.

Earlier this week, I was privileged to speak alongside First Lady Susan Hutchinson and state Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville) at the State Capitol to commemorate the state’s Breastfeeding Awareness Day as proclaimed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Rep. Bentley organized the event along with Healthy Active Arkansas to draw attention to Arkansas’ laws regarding breastfeeding in public and in the workplace.

In my 20-plus years working as a lactation consultant, I have seen great strides made in understanding, technology and policy regarding breastfeeding. There are many more resources for nursing mothers now than when I first started, and I’m excited to see more and more mothers take advantage of the support that is available.

As the team lead of the Healthy Active Arkansas Breastfeeding priority, I also had the privilege of attending a press conference announcing and celebrating the Baby Friendly designation of Northwest Medical Center-Willow Creek and Northwest Medical Center-Bentonville on Feb. 14. This press conference and celebration, which was also attended by Mrs. Hutchinson, were important because those two birthing hospitals are the first Baby Friendly designated hospitals in Arkansas.

Only 417 U.S. hospitals and birthing centers in 49 states and the District of Columbia hold the Baby Friendly designation. More than 20 percent of annual births (approximately 807,500 births) occur at these Baby Friendly-designated facilities. Every hospital that attains the Baby Friendly designation moves us closer to meeting important public health goals of increasing the proportion of live births that occur in facilities that provide recommended care for lactating mothers and their babies. In 2007, only 2.9 percent of U.S. births occurred in Baby Friendly-designated facilities. The Healthy People 2020 goal is 8.1%.

After the press conference last month, the leadership team and committee members of Northwest Medical Center-Willow Creek and Northwest Medical Center-Bentonville met with Baby Friendly team members from several of the other hospitals around our state that are currently working toward this prestigious and important designation. The information they shared with us was invaluable. They reviewed common roadblocks and solutions and provided needed encouragement for the challenges that will be faced in obtaining designation. With the leadership of our two designated hospitals, and the support of Healthy Active Arkansas, there will be six additional Baby Friendly hospitals in Arkansas within the next two years! 

The Baby Friendly journey creates an environment that is supportive of best practices in maternity care and of optimal infant feeding. The 4–D Pathway is a fit for all institutions; large and small hospitals, for profit and not-for-profit hospitals, teaching hospitals, and hospitals at various stages of development in their breastfeeding support programs. If you would like more information on how your birthing facility can make a commitment to improve infant feeding policies, training and practices by embarking on the 4-D pathway to Baby Friendly designation, visit the Baby Friendly USA website.

Jessica Donahue is a registered nurse and lactation consultant for Baptist Health in Little Rock, Ark. She serves as the breastfeeding priority area lead for Healthy Active Arkansas, a statewide health initiative that both Baptist Health and the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute helped launch.

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Blue supplies the green that will lead to better rural health care

We are thrilled that our Rural Health Summit is one of 31 projects selected for funding by the Blue & You Foundation for a Healthier Arkansas this year. Established by Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield in 2001, the Foundation is a separate nonprofit with the sole mission of funding projects in Arkansas that will improve health care in the state. The funding support from Blue & You allows us to keep participant costs low and bring in outside experts to make the most of our time with our participants. 

The initial planning for the Summit began with discussions about rural health care needs in Arkansas with Dr. Mark T. Jansen, director of regional programming at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and invested chair for Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, George K. Mitchell, M.D., Endowed Chair in Primary Care. That conversation expanded to include other health care leaders who have a stake in raising the quality and availability of health care in rural areas. These leaders all supported creating a network of cross-collaboration among the many efforts currently operating in rural Arkansas and looking at manageable, short-term goals to address during the next year to two years. It is our belief that establishing such a network will be an important step toward creating a rural health care environment that will be more attractive to new physicians and foster an increase in quality care.

Near the end of March we will host the first Summit meeting to begin building that collaborative network of healthcare professionals and organizations. We’ll be joined by representatives of some of the state’s leading health groups and professional organizations for a facilitated two-day session to start the process, followed by regional visits and a larger Summit meeting later in the year. Our hope is to foster increased collaboration and resource sharing so that innovative health care solutions can be shared more readily in the state and incoming physicians will have established allies at all points of rural healthcare. 

We are extremely grateful to the Blue & You Foundation for their support. Above and beyond the monetary contribution, their backing of our effort and the 30 other recipients this year represents a belief that we will all be able to make a tangible difference in the state. Carrying that charge and that belief into our working sessions will further underscore the importance of coming together and empower our group to start tackling the challenges facing rural health.

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Art in its Natural State

To know why Arkansas is the Natural State, all one needs to do is take a short trip to Petit Jean Mountain. From impressive views of the Arkansas River Valley, to lakes and rivers, and wide fields and towering pines, Petit Jean offers a wonderful snapshot of Arkansas’ natural beauty. It’s no wonder that Petit Jean has also called to artists throughout the years, from Native American cave art all the way to modern day painters, sculptors and writers.

To celebrate that rich history and add to the artistic legacy of Petit Jean, we here at the Institute are partnering with Petit Jean State Park to host the first Art in its Natural State competition. We have worked with the Park to identify serval sites on our respective campuses that not only exemplify Petit Jean’s varied landscapes, but would also be a great spot for public art. Our contest challenges artists to design temporary, site-specific outdoor works for those areas. The best fit for the competition will likely be structural, sculptural or landscape art, but all designed public art will be considered. You can see all of the sites up for design here.

The artwork will be displayed in its outdoor site for up to one year, then taken down by the artist. The focus for the competition is a balance between the visual appeal of the created artwork and the natural beauty of the space it is designed for. The works must also have neutral impact to the site in which they are installed, meaning that after the works are removed and the area is allowed time to recover, it will be as if there was never any art installed at all.

The temporary nature of the installations is both respectful to Petit Jean’s environment and allows for artists to use creative materials that they might not otherwise work with. A bronze statue will withstand many decades of display, but our more ephemeral artworks needn’t be quite that durable. Though the works that are designed need to stand up to a year of seasonal weather, we hope that artists will incorporate recycled or recyclable materials for their work.  

We will take applications until September of this year, after which point all of the submitted designs will be considered by our judging and advisory panel. Made up of representatives from the Arkansas Arts Council; Arkansas Arts Center; Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art; University of Arkansas, Fayetteville; University of Arkansas at Fort Smith; University of Arkansas at Little Rock; the Park; and the Institute, our panel will select 10 winning designs. Those designs will be funded by a $5,000-per-artist stipend to cover the creation of the artwork and its transportation and installation on Petit Jean in March of 2018.

Although focused on the natural beauty of Petit Jean Mountain, the Art in its Natural State competition is open to all Southern and Arkansas regional artists. That includes artists from Arkansas, Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia and Virginia. If you or someone you know is interested in entering the competition, the official rules and application guidelines for the competition can be found here

As we select winners and install the art, we’ll have plenty of updates here and on the Art in its Natural State page. Look for profiles of the winning artists, sneak peeks of the artwork and plenty of photos of the opening event on Saturday, March 10, 2018. Even better than seeing the art online, of course, will be to visit the art in person. We’ll have eight installed pieces at the Institute through March 2019, and the Park will host two installed works through July of 2018. We hope you’ll join us as we celebrate Arkansas’ beauty and the talents of Southern artists with the first Art in its Natural State competition.

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Surprise award

The Institute is extremely proud that Program Officer Samantha Evans was honored with the Arkansas Community Development Society’s New Professional Award. Samantha has been actively involved in community development, especially in Arkansas, for most of her professional years.

This past Friday, two representatives from the Society - including Whitney Horton, pictured above on the left with Sam on the right - came to the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute to surprise Sam with the award. Sam was very touched, as you can see on our Facebook page.

Sam comes from five years at Main Street Arkansas serving as its assistant director. In this position, she worked with numerous small- and medium-sized communities throughout the state of Arkansas where she worked to help interested citizens revitalize their downtown.

Sam served both on the board and as peer-elected chair of the Young Nonprofit Professionals of Little Rock. Under her leadership as the board chair, Little Rock was selected to host the annual Young Nonprofit Professional National Conference. It was a very successful event highlighting Change Through Head, Heart and Hands. The Change Through Head, Heart and Hands was a national nonprofit leadership conference that in August 2015 brought 150 young, emerging leaders from throughout the nation to Little Rock. Sam played a strong role in promoting central Arkansas tourism for attendees, further deepening the investment and experience attendees had while expanding the event’s economic impact.

She created the monthly speaker series “Coffee with an Expert,” which brings executive directors across various sectors together to speak with YNPN members.  She also developed a fundraising plan to increase membership and sponsorship for the local organization.

Before working for Main Street Arkansas, Sam was the planning technician for the city of North Little Rock for two years. Originally from Perry County, Sam, now of Conway, worked with her home community to help save the Rosenwald School in Bigelow, once listed as one of Arkansas’ Most Endangered Places. She’s written articles on a variety of issues concerning community development and planning including this one.

Sam holds a Professional Community and Economic Developer Certification from the Community Development Council. She has a master’s degree from the Humphry School of Public Affairs in City/Urban Planning with an emphasis in Community and Regional Planning.

She was selected as a Krusell Community Development Fellow and MacArthur Fellow in 2007 as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. During her fellowships she worked with Model Cities CDC, a community-based development organization, and CommonBond, a large affordable housing development and management organization. Her placement experiences included: assisting with funding applications for tax credits; marketing research; data management and analysis; predevelopment planning and funding applications; assistance with façade improvement program; help with real estate closings. 

Sam is a regular speaker at conferences and events, including for the Community Development Institute, the National Main Streets Conference and innumerable local community sessions.

She received her undergraduate degree from Spelman College with a Bachelors of Arts in Political Science. In a nice Rockefeller connection, Spelman College, which was founded as the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminar, later changed in honor of Laura Spelman, John D. Rockefeller’s wife, and her parents, who were longtime activists in the anti-slavery movement. 

I had the privilege of working with Sam at a previous job, and I was thrilled when we got to be colleagues again here at the Institute. We’re very proud of her and look forward to seeing how her talent moves our programs forward in the future.

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