Fort Smith Regional Art Museum Opens with Smiles
Choosing what is surely the most famous painting in the world as the subject of its first visiting exhibit, the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum can show the public what it has been working on for years. The RAM is now open with a traveling "Secrets of the Mona Lisa" interpretive exhibit on the first floor and "Faces of Arkansas," portraits by local and regional artists, upstairs.
The transition from art center to museum was a journey spurred by the gift of a modern building. An Arvest Bank donation in 2009 challenged the board of the former Fort Smith Art Center, housed since 1968 in the historic Victorian Vaughn-Schaap house, to transform its mission.
Last month, board members and almost 500 guests at a black-tie party in the newly renovated building celebrated in happiness and - most assuredly for a core group - relief at having met that challenge.
In four action-packed years, the volunteer board has raised funds to renovate the building, led a nationwide search for an executive director, sold and moved from its former building, maintained a temporary headquarters, found alternative exhibit venues and charted a new course for its future. Finishing touches such as an outdoor sculpture garden were rushed to completion days before the opening.
When, at last, people have experienced both the first exhibit and the newly repurposed building, the response has been enormously positive, according to Lee Ortega, executive director.
High school and University of Arkansas-Fort Smith art students enjoyed the first tours of the "Secrets of the Mona Lisa," conducted personally by the exhibit's creator, the French engineer Pascal Cotte. He is the inventor of a multispectral camera capable of extremely high resolution that digitally captured the painting in color channels from ultraviolet to infrared. Analyzing this data allowed calculations that reveal the original, true colors its creator, Leonardo da Vinci, brushed onto a poplar panel sometime between 1503 and 1506.
Cotte explained to the fascinated students and to an audience at a ticketed preview event both the scientific and artistic interpretations made possible by his digital analysis. The exhibit explains those exciting discoveries with huge enlargements of details of the painting and side-by-side illustrations of its differences in color and detail.
The comparison of the present-day, more than 500-year-old masterpiece to its true colors is startling and vivid. Da Vinci made his painting of a woman with glowing, lifelike, even warm skin before a background that included a brilliant blue sky. His blue pigment was tinted with the ground semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, which renders an intense blue color. Today, Mona Lisa's sky appears more green to the human eye, seen through its ancient, amber varnish. The original pigments may have become bonded with the varnish, which makes removal of the varnish unthinkable, lest it destroy the painting.
But Cotte's work allows a digital restoration and prints that reproduce da Vinci's original colors and even more detail of the artist's brushstrokes. Twenty-five "secrets" of the painting are revealed by Cotte's new digital images.
The Mona Lisa exhibit was chosen as RAM's first show as an example of the change from an art center to an art museum.
"People shouldn't feel they need to know anything about history or art to enjoy it," Ortega explained. This exhibit and more to come serve to engage any visitor - to both explain and illustrate the art's significance. In addition to the visual revelations of this masterpiece, the exhibit tells its compelling history. Painted by a Renaissance master, purchased by a French king, taken by the French emperor Napoleon to hang carelessly in a bathroom - the adventures of the painting through 500 years are as compelling as the Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile. The painting also has been stolen, damaged by vandals and famously loaned just once to the United States through the considerable effort and charm of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. The French consider it a national treasure and it may never leave its specially built room of the Louvre museum in Paris again.
Because the new RAM building meets museum standards of climate control, lighting and security, traveling exhibits and art on loan from major museums can be brought here, said Bill Kropp, vice president and chair of the exhibition committee. "Throughout a year, we can have different exhibitions, sometimes even two separate ones at the same time."
The exhibition committee has looked ahead with excitement to the many traveling exhibits available to bring here, with a view to some that will likely interest a wide range of visitors, he said. An interactive Van Gogh show, a presentation of World War II photography and a Salvador Dali exhibit were three examples of shows that might be possible.
A full roster of 2013 art workshops at the museum began in January. The next multi-day workshop is "Landscape Painting" March 28-30.
The Fort Smith Regional Art Museum is open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free to members; $8 adults; $6 students and seniors. Membership levels: $35 students; $50 individual; $75 family; $125 family plus; $250 contributor and up. Membership benefits and discounts vary per level. 1601 Rogers Avenue, Fort Smith. 479-784-9071 www.fsram.org
EXHIBITS AND UPCOMING EVENTS AT RAM
Feb. 1-March 17
Secrets of the Mona Lisa
Portraits from the Arkansas Arts Center
2:30 p.m. Reception for Children's Exhibition
"Mona Lisa Smiles"
"Landscape Painting" Artists Workshop
Led by Matt Smith. Registration and fee required
May 3-July 7
High Fiber - "Women to Watch 2012"
National Museum of Women in the Arts Exhibition