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Fort Smith moves forward with art and initiatives echoing its history

Jack Travis
Carl Geffken, Fort Smith’s city administrator, explains the history of the John Bell Jr. painting hanging above his desk.

The window blinds are always closed in Carl Geffken’s office in Fort Smith City Hall.

Above a wooden desk stacked with city papers and thick binders, hangs a John Bell Jr. painting of Downtown Fort Smith. Geffken, Fort Smith’s city administrator, is determined to keep it in mint condition.

“There are local people who are concerned that as we move forward, that we're going to forget the past. That's impossible to forget, and it needs to be honored," Geffken said. "And this painting by John Bell Jr. is an example of one of the ways that we will honor our past while we trailblaze a path forward.” 

Geffken said the painting was suspended in a thin frame on a city conference room wall. It was not until the space was updated that the painting was authenticated as a Bell original.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the city grew from about 86,200 people in 2010 to almost 90,000 people in 2022. However, Fort Smithlost its place as Arkansas’ second-largest city to Fayetteville in 2021.

For the past few years, the city has welcomed new initiatives. Fort Smith is selected to be the site for the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) Pilot Training Center at Ebbing Air National Guard Base. The project is expected to bring up to 1,500 military staff and families to the city and to generate about $1 billion for Fort Smith’s economy. The U.S. Marshals Museum opened a couple of months ago and the city is home to the Arkansas College of Health Education Research Center.

Fort Smith is located in River Valley and the northwestern part of the state, but the city has a strong town identity. Geffken said the development and growth happening across Northwest Arkansas creates a competitive relationship north and south of the Bobby Hopper Tunnel.

“We're very much a military town," Geffken said. "So, when it came to the FMS project, there was nobody that was going to do it better than Fort Smith. So that is something that will then benefit probably Northwest Arkansas. When I say northwest, the five cities from Fayetteville up to Bella Vista.” 

Meanwhile the art and humanities sector of the city’s economy is growing. The Unexpected Project is splashing giant vibrant murals on some of the city’s buildings, contractors to expand UAFS’ Wingate Arts Building were approved this year, there is the Fort Smith International Film Festival and more art galleries are emerging on Garrison Avenue. For Geffken, the projects are part of economic development and another incentive for people to visit the city.

“So, it shows that there's culture here, which we've always had, but it helps not only put the city on the map for that reason, but it helps people understand what all that Fort Smith has to bring," Geffken said.

Outside city hall on Garrison Avenue, the cities’ buildings still tower along the side of the street like the John Bell painting. A few murals depicting images of Indigenous portraits, animals and a pistol-toting cowboy can be seen peeking between the red brick buildings.

Fort Smith Museum of History houses about 40,000 artifacts in the large Atkinson-Williams Warehouse located along the Arkansas River. Caroline Speir, the museum’s executive director, takes its brass-colored elevator to the collection storage floor.

Boxes, furniture, spinning wheels, dishes, toys, televisions and clocks are packed away on metal shelves or aligned on the floor.

“I mean, there's just anything up here," Speir said. "And one of the things that you come across in here is that as technology develops through time, if we have one typewriter, we probably have 50.”

Because there is no air conditioning on the floor, the room is quiet and still. Speir expertly weaves through a row of furniture toward a ceramic bowl with an oral history of being used in a reception for Zachary Taylor before he was president.

Fort Smith is known for its military roots, historic fort, famous U.S. Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves, manufacturing, industry and the western classic True Grit. But Speir reiterates art has been part of Forth Smith’s story.

“So, Reconstruction has happened. Towns are beginning to recover. There is an emphasis on arts and culture at that time," Speir said. "So, we see lots of architecture happening, grand architecture, the opera houses, Fort Smith has an opera house.”

Speir said as a resident, she has not only noticed increased industry but also, more tourism and a resurgence of arts and culture.

“I tend to think of Fort Smith, I think because I grew up here and I know so many people, it feels like a big town to me," Speir said. "But more and more and more we're gravitating towards that city because there's just a lot of people working to bring forth an arts culture destination, we already are a destination city.”

One of those people working to emphasize art in Fort Smith is Talicia Richardson, the executive director of 64.6 Downtown.

“So, 64.6 represents the square miles of Fort Smith, when the organization was founded in 2014," Richardson said. "What we wanted to do was bring arts and culture into Fort Smith, in a unique way.”

Richardson said helping bring different projects to the area is also about how they could impact tourism, provide job opportunities and add to the environment for artists.

Population growth and preparing for incoming military staff from around the world through the FMS initiative are involved in the arts conversation but she says they do not change the narrative.

“In the Fort Smith public schools, you have over 40 different languages being spoken," Richardson said. "So that right there is an indication that there are already people residing in our midst, that have these multicultural backgrounds that are coming from different spaces across the United States, across the world.”

In 64.6’s downtown office, posters of music series and film festivals are taped to the window. T-shirts are on sale and art pieces from elementary to college students are on display. Richardson saID in the future she would like to see Fort Smith foster its connection with the northwestern and central state regions, and stay true to itself.

“We want to really, really showcase our community and not stagnant the growth but have like-minded people in our community that foster that growth and expand it in such a way that the uniqueness of Fort Smith can still be that authentic city where you have a 15-minute commute," Richardson said.

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Anna Pope is KUAF's growth impact reporter and a Report for America corps member
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