After 15 years, the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center has debuted its new permanent exhibit that reflects on the Black experience both nationally and in Arkansas.
Behind the new exhibit is the center's curator, Courtney Bradford, a Little Rock native with a distinct love for both her home state and its Black community.
"I had to really think about how we wanted the exhibit to look since it's a permanent exhibition," she said. "Sometimes a museum will have an exhibit up for 10, 15 or even 20 years, so it's really important to make it something special."
"With [the Center] being 15 years old, it was the perfect time to bring a new exhibit to the museum," she said.
This is the first time the cultural center has introduced a new exhibit, and Bradford says the endeavor brought big changes.
"This exhibition is highly interactive. Most updated museums have more interactive elements to them," said Bradford. "It's also brighter and we had more resources to do what we really wanted to do. Now we have these beautiful murals and open space to bring in artifacts and other new things."
"The Black experience is woven throughout the history of Arkansas. In each section of the gallery you will see how Black history is in many ways Arkansas history," she said.
Key Fletcher, the center's director, discussed the changes the museum has undergone during her time there.
"Being here when the museum first opened, about 15 years, I've seen the community and world change around me," Fletcher said. "When we first opened, we were really trying to get the community to rally around the idea of a state Black history museum."
"In the African American community, we are really protective of our stories and history. While there was tons of support at the time, we've had to work to build that trust with the community," said the New Orleans native. "So this isn't just about the new exhibit, but about the folks who worked here and the work that we've put in."
According to Fletcher, the new exhibit adds a fresh element to the museum as well.
"When we first started, resources were limited, so a lot of our stories were more Little Rock-centric, but now we tell stories about Arkansans throughout the state. Before, we didn't really touch on the military, music, soul food, sports -- things that are now incorporated into the exhibit," she said.
To Fletcher, the new exhibit encapsulates the entirety of the Black experience, showing both the struggles and the triumphs.
"We made sure that we told the hard stories, too. People may want to shy away from those things because it's hard to talk about, but you have to take the top off the boiling pot to allow it to breathe," she said.
Fletcher also highlighted the bold colors and brighter exhibit. "We wanted to make it come off the walls and kind of come to life, literally," she said.
The Mosaic Templars' Artist of the Year, Rex DeLoney, saw his art on display at the museum during the celebration of the new exhibit. Some pieces were for sale, while others were owned by the Center.
The works on display, titled "Retrospective," garnered particular attention for the bold use of color and command of the space.
It has been on display since late November and will continue to be exhibited until December.
As part of the celebration, DeLoney met with patrons and signed autographs.
The artist shared his own special relationship with the museum. "My parents met on Ninth Street. I have vivid memories of that as a child. My dad used to work here as a barber," he said.
"I wanted to pay homage to that and pay homage to Black history," he said.
The adult interpreter of education specialist, Brian Rodgers, was also helping with the celebration. He has worked at the museum since he graduated from UA-Little Rock about eight years ago.
The new exhibit is a complete shift, he said.
"The original exhibit was informative and well done for an exhibit that was installed in the early 2000s. But the exhibit we are opening today is dynamic, colorful, it has motion, interactives -- things people can touch, see, feel, hear, experience. It draws you into the stories we're trying to tell," Rodgers said.
He was particularly excited about the Holiday Open House happening at the same time as the celebration of the new exhibit.
As part of the Holiday Open House, kids could take a photo with Black Santa Claus and try sweet potato pie samples, courtesy of their "Say it Ain't Say's" Sweet Potato Pie Contest Winner, Candice Bailey.
Wesley McKinney was a patron at the event. He made the trip from Conway with his cousin to see the new permanent exhibit. He was especially impressed by the revamped exhibit, underscoring its critical role in the preservation of Black history.
"It's important to educate more people of my color about this information and the stuff that's happened before us, because without that no one else will tell us," he said.