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A hands-on approach

Holliday approaches artistic and civic duties ‘in tandem’ by Felisha Butler | January 15, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.
Erin Holliday

Erin Holliday is a familiar name around Garland County. As executive director of Arkansans for the Arts, executive director of Emergent Arts and the District 1 city director, Holliday brings with her a unique perspective to the city board, as her life experiences prepared her for serving downtown Hot Springs.

After taking the initial appointment of District 1 in May 2019, Holliday won reelection in November to continue to make waves in the community.

A Lakeside alumnus, Holliday's parents owned rental properties in the Park Avenue and Whittington Avenue areas. While spending much of her youth in the area, Holliday knew that if she were to make Hot Springs her permanent residence, downtown would be the place she called home.

"I do remember when I was younger, when someone would move out, we would come on this side of town and I just loved the little old houses," she said. "I don't know if it was the architecture or the feel of the neighborhood. I remember really being drawn to this part of town and when I was in high school, my friend and I would spend a lot of time downtown either sitting at the Hill Wheatley fountain or we actually had a space downtown for about eight months called the Citizen Youth Action Coalition and we would have punk rock shows, vegan cooking nights, animé movie night and it was a bunch of teenagers who had our own little community center. ... It was just kind of my place to be social. I wasn't into sports. I wasn't a cheerleader so my weekends weren't spent at games or anything. We were either downtown or at Kimery skate park."

Kansas City, Mo., was the next stop for Holliday. With the idea of majoring in painting at Kansas City Art Institute, her plans were rerouted as she realized her interest was in sculpture.

"That's what I've always done -- is to build," she said. "Even though I loved painting and drawing, what I end up doing in my own time actually has to do with working with my hands three-dimensionally or building. That actually goes back to the rental properties. ... Someone moved out and as a kid, painting walls, filling holes and fixing decks, I was learning these power tools in high school so by the time I got to college, I was able to jump in and learn more. Have a little bit of a foundation in working with 3D materials and power tools."

A career in arts and education awaited Holliday after her time at the institute. She taught preschool for one year and at a commercial art gallery where she did art installation, art consulting and sales. Holliday's nonprofit career was set in motion when she joined a community art gallery that was a part of a Latino arts and culture center.

"They were part of a social service nonprofit that reached out to a Latino community in Kansas City so we had a gallery and an after-school art program," she said. "I got to contribute to their grant writing and their marketing ... I ended up moving to a historic neighborhood in Kansas City and ended up joining the board of that neighborhood association and doing all of their grant writing and starting community development."

After moving back to Hot Springs in 2010, Emergent Arts became a part of Holliday's life two years later, yet it wasn't the Emergent Arts of today. According to its website, its mission is to "foster creativity among emerging artists of all ages and abilities in Garland County and surrounding communities." With Holliday lining up at the position of volunteer executive director, the organization secured a grant that allowed them to start to build from the ground up.

By 2013, Emergent Arts found a home at Dryden Pottery, where it has remained, and Holliday covers a plethora of duties around the nonprofit including programming, fundraising, grant writing and working hand in hand with the board, opening the pathway to the city board.

"Most of my city work has come from that other path of joining the Community Development Advisory Committee," she said. "After that, I was on the planning commission. I actually stepped down from my planning position to take the appointment for District 1 a year and a half ago. That kind of was in tandem to the arts career part but so much of it overlaps in just community leaders and conversations about what growth that happen, needs in the community. Being a part of a nonprofit, we tend to see things a little bit differently than if I was coming from a corporate place ... (Emergent Arts) is a United Way partner agency. I hear about what's going on in the community from the food banks, Jackson House. ... Some of that information may have just not gotten to someone else in a similar position that's in the corporate world just because it's a different conversation.

"Having spent the time that I have in nonprofit, I think it's set me up for being successful as a city director because our city has a city manager form of government and we have a board. It's very similar to how a nonprofit runs. ... It's the same structure and so I think it's really helped me in the role as city director to kind of know where those lines are and when to communicate with our city manager to communicate with staff and be clear about our role, what our goal is as a city director."

Holliday believes the planning commission helped prepare her for the role as city director.

"We'll have decisions that come before us that have to do with appeals or zoning and having spent two years on the commission, we've gone through planning packets that are hundreds of pages long that are full of all of this language and all of this code," Holliday said. "Listening to an appeal or presiding over a zoning decision had a little benefit compared to fellow directors because I did it for two years. That I think was just invaluable. I don't think I realized how important that would have been so I feel very fortunate to have had that experience as well."

Before her time as city director arrived, Holliday was awarded the first artist residency through the Hot Springs Sister City program with Hanamaki, Japan. It wasn't an easy task as Holliday was appointed her position in the middle of term last year.

"It was like baptism by fire," she said. "In a couple weeks, I was at the Arkansas Municipal League conference getting trained and then we immediately we were having pretty big conversations about the Majestic site. My very first board meeting was when they announced they were going to close ACTI, the old Army-Navy Hospital. ... It was a little deer in headlights there for a minute because it was just so much information. Coming in the middle of a term, I definitely still had training but it happened really fast. It wasn't like it would have been if I had come in after an election."

In the past year and a half, Holliday realized three things the population in her district discern as important: visibility, access and information.

"Really I think what I've been able to provide more than anything to my community is kind of that access," she said. "If someone has a question about a project, if someone has a question about something we're going to vote on or have voted on, as long as it's something I can ethically share information, I'm a total open book. I participated in neighborhood organization meetings and presented what's going on in city government. I've communicated a bit on social media and so I think being that conduit between our community members and our city government, it's one of the biggest barriers I think I've crossed."

The LGBTQIA community is a significant source of support for Holliday.

"Being someone who is out and open, I didn't realize how important that was for people in my community until they were coming to me," she said. "Young people, older people, across ages and races -- being able to look at somebody who is able to make a difference and participate and for me to feel confident about who I am in the world (and) that I'm still able to be taken seriously in a professional setting is encouraging for a lot of people. It's not something that's still really seen a lot around here. Being able to be that person is incredibly humbling and incredibly important."

A project that the board is tackling is the foundation where the Majestic Hotel stood as the area is in works to have a future, but the process is still ongoing.

"From a nuts and bolts standpoint of getting things done, I'm really glad that I was here during the conversations about the Majestic site," Holliday said. "We're still in that process. It's happening, but to be able to speak on behalf of the people who are going to live next to whatever's gonna happen there and really stand up for my community and the people who live here -- not just the people who visit. I'm glad that I won the seat and am able to continue because I want to be here until that project is finished. I want to be in on the conversations, in on the meetings and still stand up on behalf of the people. ... It's going to be this really amazing site that's going to be a great tourist spot and also provides benefits, too, for the people that live here. That's what I want to make sure is a part of it. It's not just a tourist destination."

Earlier this year in the summer, Holliday hosted a town hall meeting for District 1 and co-hosted with District 2 City Director Elaine Jones in which the new police chief answered questions from residents and discussed his vision for the future. Holliday has ideas of her own stewing for Hot Springs and involves a comprehensive housing plan.

"Our 2040 comprehensive housing plan has been adopted by the city board and there's a lot of housing strategies and different areas in town that we can look at to improve housing for our people," she said. "Also looking at -- how do we help the public in regards to either tax credits or being in a historic district or opportunities? How can we work with people who have the skill set to invest in a property but they're low income? They can't necessarily buy a fixer-upper and secure funding. How can the city remove some of these barriers for homeownership among low-income residents?

"Also, how can we encourage people to move into the city? If you drive around parts of District 1, parts of District 2 and anywhere in the city that's specifically right adjacent to downtown, we have a lot of vacant structures. We have a massive backlog of houses that are scheduled for demolition because they've been left unattended for so long that they're no longer safe. That's heartbreaking to see. That's what I loved about this part of town were the cute little houses that were really old and full of character."

After a bump in the road last fall, Holliday picked herself up and began therapy, gaining a support system around herself. With her busy life of contributing to Hot Springs and Arkansas as a whole, how does Holliday keep herself from getting overwhelmed?

"Before last May, I had one job," she said. "I ran Emergent Arts and I was on the planning commission. Then really quickly, I got the appointment to be city director and then I got my job with Arkansans for the Arts. ... In the course of a few months, I went from ... having my one job to having three director shifts ... Almost every day, I go walk. Depending on when my first meeting is, I may be out super early. Other times, it may be midmorning. I walk almost exclusively on the promenade. When the weather's nice enough, I'll walk from home all the way down and do a couple of laps on the mountain and come back ... I love walking along Bathhouse Row and the promenade. Sometimes I'll go all the way up the mountain and back. It's literally how I start almost every day. I'll make coffee, I'll have my thermos. Even when it's 35 degrees, I'm in like two layers of pants and six layers of shirts and scarves. I get all bundled up and I have my headphones on. If you see someone with headphones, crazy hair, and a big cup of coffee, that's me. It gives me the time to sort of fall into place for the day. ... No matter how busy I am, I walk. It's just an hour. If my life is so hectic that I don't have an hour to go outside, then bigger things need to change."

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