In its early days, Eureka Springs, Arkansas, was a popular Victorian-era spa resort, with visitors arriving by train to take the water cure in the 1890s.
Decades later, in the 1940s, a group of painters, traveling to this small Ozarks village by automobile during the summers, established a permanent art colony. Today, more than 10 percent of the town’s 2,000 residents work as artists, either in their own studios or in more than 30 galleries amid Eureka Springs’ steep curving boulevards and lush spring-fed gardens.
Over the last few years, tourists have been arriving by a louder mode of transportation. Motorcyclists are discovering Eureka Springs, opening leather, lingerie and tattoo parlors, Harley shops and biker bars.
A single biker rally over one weekend will pack the town, says Jeremiah Vasquez, kitchen manager at the Pied Piper Pub and Cathouse Lounge.
“Last year around 10,000, this year even busier,” Vasquez says of attendance at the annual Bikes, Blues and BBQ festival staged every September in nearby Fayetteville.
Those bikers mean business. Tourist tax revenue, collected from restaurants and lodgings, is up 7 percent over last year.
But Susan Morrison, a noted American wildlife artist who’s operated a successful gallery in downtown Eureka Springs for thirty years, says these new tourists are disrupting the city’s cultural life.
“I am very seriously contemplating leaving,” Morrison says.
Bikers ride into Eureka Springs not to buy art, she says, but to eat, drink and show off. “It’s sexy. It’s cool, they like to spend all their money on their leathers and what kind of bike they’ve got. The problem is, it’s a little tiny town. How many people can we jam in here?”
If the Susan Morrison Signature Gallery does close, it will be the sixth gallery to do so over the past year and a half, along with two local art supply stores.
Sculptor and designer John Rankine is also witnessing a decline in arts patronage.
“I just met this couple who came into the gallery during the middle of the week, who said they won’t come on weekends anymore. They said it’s too loud and too crazy,” he says.
To adapt to the changing economy, Rankine recently renovated an old, sprawling storefront downtown into affordable niche galleries. He’s leased three so far. One, the Eureka Fine Art Gallery, is a collective venture.
“It’s a cooperative,” Rankine says. “There are eight of us all together, and we share the space equally. We have to be here one day a week, to work it.”
Upstairs is a huge loft where Rankine stages community avant art events, at no cost to makers. He’s plastered dozens of portraits of artists he’s photographed all over the downtown district to raise awareness about Eureka Springs’ creative culture.
And, it turns out, some bikers already appreciate that culture.
Rhonda Bennett and Timothy John McQue routinely ride three hours from Hot Springs, Arkansas – especially for the art.
“It’s an artsy unique community. I love it,” Bennett says.
“All the people are happy and free spirited,” says McQue.
“You can get here and relax and enjoy all of it, you got a little bit of everything,” Bennett adds.
Jeff Gregory, the new owner of the Pied Piper Bar and Cathouse Lounge, says everything will work out.
“I think the artists and the bikers really go hand in hand,” Gregory says.
Artists “are a little flamboyant and speak for their generation,” he says – and the same goes for bikers.
Eureka Springs’ future as an arts destination might depend on bikers and this new flamboyant hybrid culture.
Jacqueline Froelich is a senior news producer with KUAF in Fayetteville, Arkansas. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This story is part of Artland, a regional public radio collaboration reporting on stories of creativity building community in unexpected places.