Smaller museum finds special niche. Arkansas Arts Center's unusual world-class drawings collection wins it much-deserved acclaim

It's a question that confronts every smaller regional museum: how best to utilize the limited funds set aside for the expansion of its collection? The answers vary. Some museums consolidate their resources in order to be able to afford one or two prestigious items a year. Others invest primarily in relatively inexpensive works by emerging artists. And others still prefer to remain open to whatever bargains come along.

The Arkansas Arts Center here has very wisely chosen another alternative, one that has not only significantly enriched its holdings, but has brought a special kind of prestige as well.

Quite simply, the center spends most of its fine arts purchase funds on drawings. It's a policy that was set in motion in 1962 when its board of trustees decided that the focus of future acquisitions would be works on paper. This decision was given a major boost in 1971 when important drawings by Willem de Kooning, Andrew Wyeth, and Morris Graves entered its collection.

But that was only the beginning. Since then, the center's holdings of sketches, studies, and finished drawings - executed in almost every style and medium, and ranging in time from the 16th century to the present - have grown dramatically. The artists represented run the gamut from such masters as Rembrandt, Tiepolo, Daumier, Degas, C'ezanne, Van Gogh, and Picasso to any number of promising beginners and several of the most interesting and controversial painters and sculptors of the late 1980s.

Most important, however - and this is largely because of the knowledge, eye, and collecting instincts of Townsend Wolfe, the center's executive director for the past 19 years - the collection's overall level of quality is impressively high. There have been hardly any mistakes and several significant coups over the years, with the result that the center, its director, and its collection are now regarded with considerable respect by the art world at large.

That respect was recently reaffirmed when the United States Information Agency asked Mr. Wolfe to assemble an exhibition of drawings by 20 contemporary Americans that will represent the US in the International Festival of Drawing to be held at the Grand Palais in Paris in December 1988, following a European tour also under the auspices of the USIA.

That, however, is only one of several traveling and institutional shows curated by the center's staff. Its most interesting - and potentially its most important - is the National Drawing Invitational that made its successful debut in 1986 and that will undoubtedly soon become a major biennial event for American artists everywhere.

For anyone interested in drawing, a visit to the center's galleries is a pleasurable and informative occasion, and an invitation to go ``behind-the-scenes'' to examine those works not currently on display, is a rare treat indeed. One's first impression is of the remarkable range, depth, and sophistication of the collection, and of the fact that it obviously was assembled by someone whose first allegiance is to good drawing, no matter when, where, why, how, or by whom it was produced. Quality comes first, regardless of style or period, with the result that good to superb sheets by Old Masters rub shoulders with works by early and recent modernists and artists of the 1980s whose styles range from the most experimental to the most traditional.

Tony Hepburn's huge ``Workbench,'' Robert Stackhouse's even larger ``Inside a Passage Structure,'' and Red Grooms's ``Night of the Generals,'' for instance, beautifully hold their own in the company of Picasso's superlative ``La Siesta,'' John Storr's exquisite silverpoint ``Woman With Hand on Chin,'' George Bellows's ``Tennis at Newport,'' Daumier's great ``La March'e,'' Van Gogh's ``Man With a Spade, Resting,'' and Sir Thomas Lawrence's quickly dashed-off pastel, ``Portrait of a Young Girl.''

The main emphasis, for economic as well as curatorial reasons, is on work by mid- to late- 20th-century Americans and Europeans. These include a number of excellent pieces by younger artists for whom inclusion in the center's collection constituted the first solid indication that their careers were on their way.

Wolfe's insistence, in fact, on ignoring art-world fashion in order to focus on quality, regardless of style, has played a significant role in the increased respect that drawing has acquired in America over the past dozen or so years. Thanks to his efforts, to those of Paul Cummings (until recently adjunct curator for drawings at the Whitney Museum), and, at most, two or three others, drawing has once again become an independent and respectable art form.

For proof, I recommend a visit to the Arkansas Arts Center's current exhibition of outstanding drawings from its collection on view through the end of next February.

It's a wonderful mixed bag of styles and techniques, of the old and the very new, of the world-famous and the still only promising.

The only consistent thing about it is its quality - and that is remarkably high.

Also on view is the 30th Annual Delta Exhibition, a several-state competitive show I had the honor of judging this year, and which includes a number of outstanding paintings, sculptures, and works on paper. It will run through Nov. 29.

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