A new exhibition at River Valley Art Museum, "Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill: Photographs by Jerry Dantzic," will provide viewers a rich experience, tugging on the emotions and memories of some more than others, but providing all with artful photography that in itself is mesmerizing.


Viewers will glimpse up-close America in 1957 and experience a story that reverberates with the human issues of race relations, individual struggle and perseverance and individual talent that can catch the heart of an entire population.


Upon hearing that the exhibition of rarely seen photographs of 20th century jazz icon Billie Holiday were coming to RAM, members of three local organizations felt and expressed the impact of such a show.


"Billie Holiday was dearly loved," Fort Smith Mayor George McGill said. "But with all the happiness and joy that she gave to other people, she never experienced the freedom that should have come with that talent. When the stage lights went down, she could not leave through the front door or stay in the hotel of her choice."


McGill remembers 1957: "I was in sixth grade at Dunbar Elementary, an African American school on Fourth Street that is no longer there," he says. "Because my father was a minister, we could not play non-religious music in our home.


"But I could go to my sisters’ homes down the street," he continues with a laugh, "and that’s what they would be playing. I’d hear the names of Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington from them."


McGill and his colleagues of the Fort Smith Round Table, whose mentoring program in elementary schools with the Golden Knights and Jewels is catching attention nationwide, provided a sponsorship for the exhibition. "We want to expose all children to the arts," he says. "Through art, their creative edge will blossom."


Sherry Toliver, a longtime organizer of the Lincoln High School Alumni Association, told that group about the upcoming show and they too provided a sponsorship. Lincoln High School, which no longer stands, served African American students from across the region from 1886 to 1966.


"We just want people to be proud of this part of history, to know that it is still enduring after all these years," Toliver says. "Billie Holiday was such an important person in our history, and people are still interested in her life."


The third sponsoring organization is the Fort Smith Riverfront Blues Society. This organization began as an outgrowth of the first Fort Smith Riverfront Blues Festival, which in 1991 was the brainchild of Bill Neumeier. For the past two years, the blues festival has been canceled due to flooding and the coronavirus pandemic.


"Our goal is to promote Fort Smith, promote blues music, and encourage others to learn to enjoy the blues," says Bob Marsh, society member. "We love that RAM is providing this show and are excited to support it." Serving as a co-sponsor with the Blues Society is the Fort Smith Association of Professional Landmen.


"Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill: Photographs by Jerry Dantzic" will run until Dec. 27, 2020. Come soak up the artful experience made possible by these local organizations whose passion for art, community and history have given us all so much.


This column is produced by the River Valley Arts Coalition, whose mission is to inform citizens and visitors of the available fine art exhibition and education opportunities in Fort Smith and surrounding region. We also want to tell the stories of the people who make the local art scene such a vibrant and important part of our community. For comments or more information on the RVAC, contact us at lmeluso@fsram.org.