Date: February 27, 2023 | Story: Stephanie Maxwell Newton | Photography: Bailey Dougan |
Local museums prove essential in preserving and sharing the region’s rich history and culture
A Ferris wheel from the 1935 World’s Fair is on display at the Park at West End in downtown Fort Smith. The park is open seasonally from late April through October.
Fort Smith is a community equally concerned with the past, present, and future of its city. Take for example Fort Smith Museum of History, whose mission involves sharing two centuries worth of information about the region. Founded in 1910, the museum is now housed in the Atkinson-Williams Hardware Warehouse building, a structure only slightly older than the institution itself. “We joke and call the building our biggest artifact, but it really is,” says executive director Caroline Speir. A Fort Smith native, Caroline has memories of enjoying and learning from the very museum where she’s worked for the past 15 years. She also has family ties to the role, with an aunt who once served as the museum’s director and a mother who was a Fort Smith history aficionado in her own right.
Aside from the building itself, The Fort Smith Museum of History houses a permanent collection meant to engage and enrich the community. Rotating temporary exhibits change at least twice a year and are based on a “broad scope of themes and ideas,” Caroline says. “It’s people, places, events, businesses, culture—you name it—over this 200-year period.”
Just about a mile down the road is another local institution telling Fort Smith’s story. The Fort Smith Regional Art Museum, known to locals simply as RAM, is housed in a midcentury bank building the museum was gifted almost 15 years ago to serve as its new home. After a capital campaign and extensive renovations, the new and improved facility opened in 2013. “At that time, we were able to enlarge our mission from an art center and gallery to an art museum with a building that meets national standards,” says development director Julie Moncrief. Her own experience with the museum started decades ago when she enrolled her daughters in its summer camps and art lessons. “It’s been an exciting 10 years as we’ve continued the tradition of art classes for all ages, increased our offerings, begun holding rotating art exhibitions, and kept building our permanent collection,” she says.
“Museums educate people in a fun way and take them places.”
—Julie Moncrief, Fort Smith Regional Art Museum
One noteworthy acquisition came in 2021 when RAM was gifted local painter John Bell, Jr.’s remaining collection by his family. “In Fort Smith, there are not many people who don’t know about John Bell,” Julie says. The artist often painted historic scenes around the city, bringing to life well-known locales as they were at the turn of the 19th century. Caroline also has an interest in the painter, whose work is included in her mother’s personal collection of city history. “He shows Fort Smith from a really interesting perspective, especially in the history field,” she says. “Having grown up in the era when Garrison Avenue was where life was, my mom had very fond memories of that area and downtown. Looking at his paintings is like looking back at memories I’ve heard but don’t actually have myself.” With the foundation of the John Bell, Jr., Legacy Project, RAM has a mission to protect, preserve, and share about the life and work of this local treasure.
“The Hayride” by John Bell, Jr., depicts a turn-of-the-century scene from the bridge over the Arkansas River down Garrison Avenue.
This year, RAM celebrates its 75th anniversary with a gala, “Evening in Paris,” on April 29. About a year ago, the staff began sifting through the museum’s archives for interesting memorabilia to include in a retrospective exhibit called “Art Center to Museum: The Last 75 Years.” “We were going through file cabinets full of listings of board members, books of newspaper clippings, meeting minutes, and photos,” Julie says. “I developed a huge appreciation and reverence for all the community has done over the years to make RAM possible.”
Caroline agrees that community is the backbone that makes her work with Fort Smith Museum of History possible. “One comment I hear so much—and this is not just the museum, but Fort Smith as a whole—is how much history is here and how well it’s given back to the people,” she says. “That’s a great compliment. All cities have histories. It just depends on the people to work to preserve it, but also to learn it and share it. Fort Smith as a whole does a really great job of that.” Read on for more of our favorite ways to discover Fort Smith.
A vignette at Lux Haus in downtown Fort Smith.
Fort Smith is home to its fair share of antique malls, and one of our recent favorites is Grand Antiques & Collectibles (479.434.5045) for its wonderful array of antique furniture, dishes, art, and other vintage oddities. Lux Haus (luxhausinteriors.com) is a recent addition to historic Garrison Avenue and offers a current selection of home furnishings, accessories, and gifts.
The Standard Market Cafe offers a casual atmosphere as well as high-quality grocery goods.
Head to The Standard (thestandardfs.com) near Chaffee Crossing for breakfast and lunch options like pastries, flatbreads, smoothies, and grab-and-go sandwiches. Black Bison Coffee Company (blackbisoncoffee.com) is part coffee shop, part gift store housed in a 110-year-old barn. Grab a cup of joe while browsing the art, candles, dishes, and more.
Fort Smith Museum of History (fortsmithmuseum.org) is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. In May, an exhibit celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Old Fort Days Rodeo will open in the Boyd Gallery. A collection of ceramics designed by famous cubist Pablo Picasso is on display at Fort Smith Museum Regional Art Museum (fsram.org) through April 23. Museum hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sunday.
A colorful mural by Katelynn Noel Knick graces a wall at Fort Smith Regional Art Museum.