Annual Show Lets Newport Show Off Artists, and Itself

by Kyle Massey  on Monday, Mar. 12, 2018 12:00 am   6 min read

Little Rock painter Holly Tilley attends the Delta Visual Arts Show every year, staying at a motel in Newport. Her prize-winning work from last year’s show sold for $2,500. (Kerry Prichard)

NEWPORT — After 10 years of building the Delta Visual Arts Show into one of the top small-town art events in Arkansas, officials here thought this year’s edition might be the masterpiece.

A blustery February had other ideas.

Organizers expected the biggest crowd ever at the show, which they view as a model for small Delta towns looking to stimulate tourism and recruit residents. The artists alone, 250 strong, outnumbered the total count of visitors a decade ago.

“That first year we had 17 artists and 183 people,” said Jon Chadwell, the Economic Development Commission director in this port city of 8,000 known for its “big blue bridge” over the White River.

But as planners prepared for 3,000 visitors at 12 downtown art venues on Feb. 24, gray clouds swirled above the Jackson County seat like a Van Gogh nightmare. The sodden afternoon ended with a downpour that chased away the last of the crowd.

Chadwell was pleased nonetheless. “This year we had about 2,000 people before the downpour; last year we had between 2,500 and 3,000,” he told Arkansas Business. “That’s not so bad. Some vendors said they had their best sales ever; others didn’t, but they could blame the weather.”

Next year the show will move to June, when even bad weather is at least warmer, and mark the midpoint in an annual blitz of weekend activities that Newport is initiating this year.

Starting next month, a resurgent downtown will host events on 22 of 26 weekends, culminating in late September with Depot Days, the city’s signature music festival. It celebrates Jackson County’s 1950s heyday as a rockabilly crossroads (see sidebar), when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Newport’s own Sonny Burgess played local honky-tonks and made history at Sun Studios in Memphis, 90 miles to the southeast (see From Sun Records to Sporting Goods, Sonny Burgess Remembered in Newport.)

Chadwell said the art show, conceived with the help of Newport native John Conner III and the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, has three main purposes. “One is tourism, which creates jobs and brings in money for our businesses,” Chadwell said. “Another is to make the town more livable. Third is improving Newport’s brand; artists attend, then they go away saying, ‘Let me tell you about Newport.’”

The event lifts business at the town’s three motels and restaurants like Frankie’s Place, a downtown eatery and bar where the art show presented musical acts for the first time this year.

Driving In for Jobs
But the goals of livability and branding could eventually mean more in an old farm market and button-manufacturing town where the median household income of $31,000 is dwarfed by the state average of more than $40,000 a year and is less than half the national average.

Reversing trends of 20 years ago, about 1,200 more people now drive into Newport for work than drive out. Most of the jobs are in public schools, at Arkansas State University-Newport, or at industrial employers like Medallion Foods Inc., Arkansas Steel Associates LLC and Southwest Steel Processing. Unity Health-Harris Medical Center and the Walmart are other top employers, according to the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services.

But jobs don’t necessarily translate into residents.

“Every town needs something for folks to do, whether they’re from town or visiting,” Chadwell said. “We’re looking to reverse the idea that if you want something to do or crave art and entertainment you have to go to a big city.”

One obstacle has been a lack of affordable housing, Chadwell said, but he’s encouraged by a new apartment complex going up on McLain Street, and by increasing nibbles from other developers. “We’ve attracted some younger folks who work here or whose spouses work here. Our population was slightly up in 2010 compared to 2000. We’re one of the few Delta towns that held their own.”

The art show — sponsored by businesses like C&C Distributors, Newport Construction Inc., George Kell Motors, Harris Ford, Merchants & Planters Bank, Scott Wood Ram Truck Center, Unity Health-Harris and WRMC Medical Complex Newport — is also a key component in a major downtown revitalization.

More than $2 million in donations and in-kind contributions have transformed two blocks of boarded-up buildings along Front Street into a new park flanked by a tasteful veterans memorial and a new amphitheater. Next month, Newport will officially name the stage for Terry Scoggins, a longtime downtown booster. Scoggins’ old company, Frank A. Rogers Co. contractors, built the stage.

Art show planners originally settled on February because they wanted “a sort of kickoff” to the spring art season, and because it was “extremely difficult” to find a weekend without an established festival, said Julie Allen, executive director of the Newport Area Chamber of Commerce. “A friend from Newport who now lives in Little Rock [Conner] was instrumental in getting it started,” she said. “He was visiting with Skip Rutherford [dean of the Clinton School], who’s from the Batesville area and was interested in getting a team of students to help Newport plan an arts center,” now the Blue Bridge Center for Delta Arts.

Help From a Native Son
Conner, a Stephens Inc. senior vice president whose family has been prominent in farming and agriculture-related business in Newport for most of a century, said Rutherford was looking for a practicum subject for students, a semester-long field project. Conner was looking to help his hometown.

“The Clinton School wanted to focus on the Delta, but they didn’t think Newport was in the Delta,” Conner said in a telephone interview. “I had to explain that it is. An art show seemed to make more sense than starting an art center from scratch. There were even some doubts that it might not happen. So I took some people up there and convinced them. They sent a team of students to explore the idea, and they helped plan the first show.” It was enough of a success that “for the first time in history the Clinton School sent a team up there for a second year to further the idea.”

The show has grown basically every year, Conner said. “Artists like it because unlike an art gallery, which takes a commission, this show doesn’t, allowing artists to make a little more money. This year the weather was a bit of a problem, but it looks like the show is something that’s here to stay.”

Holly Tilley, a painter who was setting up canvases of colorful cows, cotton bolls and other pastoral works, was ready for the bad weather, sporting striped galoshes. She always attends, rain or shine. “It’s one of the few shows where it’s always worthwhile to travel to,” she said, praising the enthusiastic crowds and a focus on visual arts, not crafts. “It has grown and grown. You can spend time with local artists and network with local movers and shakers.”

Tilley, who is affiliated with the Art Group Gallery at 11525 Cantrell Road in Little Rock, took a second place in the Newport art contest last year, and later sold that work for $2,500, partly on its prizewinning catchet. She always books a room at Fortune Inn & Suites, she said. Other artists choose the Days Inn a little farther down Arkansas 367.

Debra Bennett Jackson didn’t need a hotel room. A Newport High School graduate who returned to town after years of teaching art in Arizona, she was setting up her booth with help from her husband, Donny. “This show is great for local artists, and it’s good for Newport.”

Conner said small Delta towns must look beyond factories and agriculture for economic development in the 21st century. “In most of eastern Arkansas now, you can drive out of the small towns in any direction and see how sparse the population is. There just aren’t as many people needed to operate the farms.”

As mechanization shifted the Delta economy after World War II, “towns looked to industry for jobs, but then in the ’80s and early ’90s the factories closed, and most of northeast Arkansas had population declines,” Conner said. “But Newport has the right idea. The stronger you can make the cultural fabric of a town, the more you can attract people.”

Revving Up Downtown
Allen pointed to changes downtown. “This has been a 10-year project with our DRIVE Committee [Downtown Revitalization and Improvement Volunteer Effort], which is an eight-member non-profit organization that began as a downtown task force appointed by Mayor David Stewart in 2004,” she said.

“Part of that is the downtown entertainment series, which we are currently developing, and the art show.” ASU-Newport will present monthly movies in the park, and free concerts like Bluesday Tuesday and local band performances sponsored by Newport’s KOKR-FM, 96.7, are on tap.

“This whole block is revitalizing,” Allen said from the 201 Hazel St. building she shares with Chadwell and the Rock ’n’ Roll Highway Museum. “Frankie’s Place is on the next block, and over there, two gentlemen are opening up a distillery.”

As if on cue, Ross Jones and Phillip Finch appeared across Hazel Street, draping a banner across the door of Newport’s old post office. The early 20th-century structure will soon be delivering craft vodka and whiskey via a $1.2 million bottling line acquired from Hiram Walker.

Finch, a retired airline pilot, and Jones, a member of the family that publishes the Batesville Guard, weren’t quite ready to talk about their project, but their banner revealed the name, Postmaster Spirits. They hope to be in operation within months.

Newport will drink to that, and to artful days ahead.



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