Jeane Hamilton, moving force behind the Arkansas Arts Center, dies at 96

Jeane Hamilton is shown in this photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/CARY JENKINS)

Jeane Hamilton, who dedicated much of her time over the past 70 years to opening and then improving the Arkansas Arts Center, died at her home Wednesday morning, according to her family. She was 96.

Hamilton arrived in Little Rock in 1952, newly married to husband Jim. She sought out community involvement, joining the Junior League and volunteering to conduct hearing tests in public schools through the organization's ongoing service project. Within a few years, she was chosen to lead the way in creating a new art museum.

The Museum of Fine Arts had opened in MacArthur Park almost 20 years earlier but it had no symphony, no professional theater, both of which Hamilton had enjoyed while growing up in Indianapolis. As chairman of the arts committee, she recruited volunteers to keep that museum open after its director retired.

She spearheaded fundraising efforts for a new arts center, initially intended to be separate for the museum, through the benevolent corporation Community Center of Arts and Sciences. She helped persuade several businessmen to get involved with the committees that were working toward an arts center, though she was quick to point out the real work was done by the women involved. It was a meeting she finagled with Winthrop Rockefeller that really propelled their efforts forward. With his support, the project morphed from a Little Rock project to one with statewide mission.

In 1960, the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts had expanded its collection and its reach and adopted the name Arkansas Arts Center. The Arkansas Arts Center has been closed for renovation and expansion since 2018, and is scheduled to reopen in the fall as the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts.

"She always attended every event, every program, every lecture and every reception," said Terri Erwin, a member of the Museum of Fine Arts Foundation. "She's just always been there with a big smile on her face and just so proud of how far we have come."

Hamilton attended Raye Rogers' 100th birthday party Tuesday night at the home of Rogers' daughter Barbara Hoover.

"She and I were sitting in the living room and Jeane said 'I just love watching everybody laughing and talking and it's so great to see us all together again,'" Hoover said. "She's Miss Arts Center and I said 'Jeane, I know you are going to be so happy when the Museum of Fine Arts opens.' And she said, 'It is going to be so glorious but I do hope they remember those of us who worked at the Arts Center from the very beginning.'"

Hoover said it is shame that Hamilton will not be at the grand opening of the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts when it occurs later this year.

"She went the way we all want to go," Hoover said of Hamilton spending her last night at a party.

Hamilton was named to the museum board in 1960 and later became an emeritus member.

In 1972, Hamilton kick-started the Arkansas Arts Center traveling seminar, and in 1975 traveled to China with about 20 other Arts Center supporters. In 2002, they went to Cuba. In all, she led 99 such trips -- 76 international and 23 domestic.

Those trips were coordinated by Tina Poe and her husband, the late Fred Poe, and their agency, Poe Travel. The Poes' daughter, Ellison, said Hamilton became a part of their family while leading those educational domestic and international Arts Center trips.

"She made the Arts Center happen," said Ellison Poe. "She did so much for Arkansas. She did so much for our city."

Helen Scott, whose family owns Cantrell Gallery, said Hamilton made many trips to their store.

"She and her friend Olga Elwood were almost always here anytime we had anything artistic. It made us feel really connected because she just was an important person in art in Little Rock," Scott said. Elwood died in May 2021 at 97.

Hamilton's contributions to the state were recognized in various ways,

"Jeane was a fabulous and dedicated supporter of the Arts Center," said Ben Hussman, vice chairman of the museum's foundation. "She gave freely of her time for the institution, and was recognized for her dedication by receiving the Winthrop Rockefeller Award in recognition of her years volunteering and support."

In 2007, Hamilton was awarded the Arkansas Arts Council's Lifetime Achievement Governor's Arts Award.

Kelly Fleming was director of development at the Arts Center until she left in March 2020 to become the executive director for Habitat for Humanity of Central Arkansas.

"During my tenure there we would be standing at an event talking and she would say 'Kelly, I don't know anybody here.' Then she would touch my arm and say 'And that's a good thing.' She said that all of the time. She loved that the Arts Center was thriving and new people were coming in and it wasn't just the old guard."

Victoria Ramirez, executive director of the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, says supporters will continue Hamilton's efforts.

"Jeane Hamilton's progressive vision to expand the reach of the arts in Arkansas will continue in the institution she helped to create. She was a trailblazer who paved a path for continual evolution at the museum. She has been a cherished icon whose joyful presence and steadfast support will be greatly missed."

 Gallery: Jeane Hamilton, 1926-2022