The Queen of Arkansas Art

Art dealer Carolyn Taylor staged her “retirement celebration” on June 2nd with a champagne reception in the downtown building that bears her name, surrounded by her family, friends, and many of the artists she’s championed. When her Taylor’s Contemporanea Salon of Fine Arts closes, it will be the end of an era. But she has announced that her daughter, Terri Taylor, will take over the art business, and that the stock of paintings, drawings, sculptures, and photographs will be moved to Terri’s building at 301 Whittington Avenue (formerly the Art Church). Many of us will be watching to see how the next generation carries the torch. But, for now, let’s talk about Carolyn.

Carolyn Taylor has been called the Queen of Arkansas Art. Her gallery is possibly the oldest in the state, having opened five decades ago. She’s achieved so much since moving to Arkansas in the mid-70s: she’s been a curator, teacher, a restorer of old buildings, a promoter of artists, a champion of public sculpture, a festival coordinator, a giver of fabulous parties, a gallery owner, a board president – she was, in fact, the first female Chamber of Commerce president in Arkansas – a two-time winner of the “Outstanding Arkansas Working Woman” award, and she’s an artist herself – a singer, painter, filmmaker, and her intricate handmade dolls are in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian.

“Carolyn is a fantastic art dealer,” said artist and gallery owner Linda Palmer. “I’ve always admired her love of art, but especially of sculpture. She’s made a tremendous contribution to Hot Springs by working to place outdoor sculpture around the city.”

In 1975, Carolyn and her then-husband Delbert left the Washington, D.C. area and moved to Sheridan, Arkansas. The next year she bought a small arts and crafts shop outside of town. Next, she bought the Bradley-Rushing building on the town square – “the only two-story building in Sheridan,” according to her daughter, “which was on the verge of being condemned.” This was Carolyn’s first restoration project. Before long, instead of being razed, the building housed her art business and a restaurant.

But, wanting to have “a more serious gallery,” Carolyn called Dan Morris at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and asked for a list of the best artists in Arkansas. Morris was impressed by this ambitious request, and he did exactly what she asked, adding that she should tell each artist that “Dan Morris supports what you’re doing.” Carolyn’s first Invitational Exhibition of Arkansas Artists was a big success, drawing nearly thirty notable artists to her small town gallery (a major feat anywhere). “They brought their families, friends, and collectors, and after we closed that night I had a big artist’s dinner,” she remembers. “It was a glorious night! After that, I never had a problem getting good artists to show at my gallery.”

It was after this that Benini, the flamboyant Italian artist who founded the Hot Springs art community, passed through Sheridan and noticed the gallery on the square. “He was blown away,” Carolyn said, “and he wanted me to move it to Hot Springs. He was very persistent.”

That was in 1990, the time when artists were flocking to Hot Springs and galleries were popping open like spring buds. Carolyn leased a store front at 516 Central Avenue that had previously housed Deborah Phillips’ Contemporanea gallery. To save money on signage, Carolyn adopted the name. But she thought, “With a gallery called Contemporanea, I should be showing more contemporary art!”

Her first exhibit in Hot Springs featured a young artist named Kevin Kresse. When Kresse arrived at the gallery with his work, Carolyn was shocked to see that his show consisted of large paintings of penises. There wasn’t time to change things, so Carolyn hung the show (please pardon the pun). And then the fun began.

“I’d been the choir director at First Methodist Church in Sheridan,” Carolyn explained, “and my church friends had decided to show their support by coming to Hot Springs for my first exhibit. Well, here came all the little Methodist ladies from the church in Sheridan, walking through the gallery, looking at those paintings. But they were so sweet about it.”

Carolyn quickly moved to the forefront of the growing local art scene, joining the inner circle of leaders that created the monthly Gallery Walk, the Arkansas Celebration of the Arts Festival, the Documentary Film Festival, and the city’s permanent Sculpture Garden. When Bill Clinton was elected president, Carolyn curated an Exhibition of Arkansas Artists for his Inauguration in Washington.

Wanting to own a building in Hot Springs, Carolyn bought a run-down two-story apartment house directly behind her gallery. Located at 204 Exchange Street, the old place “was in deplorable condition,” she said. Carolyn undertook the ambitious restoration project, and the building was transformed into one of the grandest art spaces in the region, a venue for countless parties, receptions, and fundraisers, and home to thousands of pieces of fine art.

Over the next twenty years, Carolyn made a name for herself as one of the best art dealers in the region. Al Allen, Bill McNamara, Billy Dee Williams, Carroll Cloar, Clyde Connell, David Hostetler, Fernand Fonssagrives, Sammy Peters, Warren Criswell, and Winferd Rembert are just a few of the artists who have shown at her gallery.

But, by the end of the 90s, the Hot Springs art community had changed. Many of the people who had been leaders at the beginning of the decade had grown tired and stepped aside, or had left town altogether. Even the Benini’s, who started it all, had sold their property here and moved out of state. The Arkansas Celebration of the Arts festivals – both visual and performing – were no more, the famous poets had stopped coming, and the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival had entered a state of decline. The galleries in Hot Springs were finding it harder to make ends meet. Many of them turned away from the edgier works that had defined the town’s art scene a decade earlier to show more traditional, conservative pieces. At a time when most of the galleries here had closed their doors or were for sale, Taylor’s Contemporanea remained opened, and Carolyn Taylor kept finding ways to sell the art she really loved.

I was the first to tell her a few months ago that the Heights Gallery in Little Rock – said to be the state’s oldest art gallery – was closing. She sat for a moment and thought before saying, “Well, I opened not long after they did, so I guess that makes me the oldest gallery in the state now.”

Carolyn called about a year ago and said she wanted to talk. I drove downtown and we sat on the front porch of her building that overlooks not only the Bathhouse Row, Mountain Tower, and part of the Arlington Hotel, but, more immediately, the area where the Hot Springs art community was born: to the right, the Benini’s home and gallery; across the street, the Poet’s Loft; below that, the original Contemporanea and the remains of Carolyn’s old sculpture garden, where the naked ghost still rides atop her spirit horse; directly beneath us, the street where painter Randy Groden chased burglars while waving his handgun in the air, while Benini ran out to help with his wooden club; and a block to the right, the building where my Gallery 404-B continued the evolution of the art movement for a younger generation.

That day, Carolyn told me, “I’ve lost some of my energy for the gallery, and I think it would help if I could take some time off, maybe do some traveling.” A few years ago, Carolyn married New Orleans attorney Wayne Walker, who came to Hot Springs because of Hurricane Katrina. During the past year, I’ve noticed both Wayne and Carolyn easing toward retirement. Wayne’s been good for her, because his relaxed, easy-going nature is a good balance for her ambitious spirit. Once she’d finally made up her mind to let go of the business, she told me, “I think it’s time for the gallery to get some fresh direction, fresh blood. I want to see it go to the next level.”

I asked Terri how she felt about taking over her mother’s life’s work. She said, “I’m honored, and I’m excited. I’m excited to see the excitement in my moms face, and I’m excited about putting my spin on the business.” I hope Terri Taylor’s excitement is contagious, and that it infects a lot of people. She’s a lot like her mom, has the same ambitious spirit, the same pioneering work ethic. After all, she took on her own massive restoration project here when she created the Art Church. Now she has the chance to take her mother’s vision and make it her own.

Taylor’s Contemporanea, at 204 Exchange Street, will host its last Gallery Walk on Friday, June 7th, from 5:00 – 9:00 pm, featuring works by many of the artists who have shown there over the years. The new gallery, under the direction of Terri Taylor, will open at Whittington Place, 301 Whittington Avenue, in July.

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