EUREKA SPEAKS UP: Music promoter Larry Schaefer addresses the Eureka Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission meeting during the public comments portion of a June 26 meeting. John Rankine

Communities across Arkansas were joyfully celebrating the final vestiges of Pride this month, except in Eureka Springs where, according to a 2020 study by a group called Out in Eureka, more than a third of the population is queer — and many are really pissed. That’s because a new city advertising campaign reel celebrating Eureka’s culturally diverse culinary, entertainment and recreation landscape appeared to be censored.

The “Eureka Springs Culinary Experience” reel was produced last spring by local artist Jeremy Mason McGraw with White Phoenix Films, premiering June 2 to rave reviews. Drone cameras careen through the historic limestone village, in and out of restaurants and shops, slowing to show interactions between Eureka social media content creators and chefs. The camera briefly twirls through a jammed evening concert in Sweet Spring Park featuring local band Fossils of Ancient Robots. The reel also contained a half-second glimpse of drag queen Blaze Duvall, dressed to the nines, an homage to local drag culture. But when the promotional reel was pre-released several weeks ago in advance of a new ad campaign called “Free to Be,” Duvall was missing. 

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David Avanzino, city council member and advertising & promotion commissioner, said in an email that City Advertising and Promotion Commission Chair Chris Clifton unilaterally authorized the removal of Duvall from the promotional reel and halting the new campaign, by Madden Advertising, the city’s new ad agency.

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MIA: A half-second glimpse of drag queen Blaze Duvall disappeared from a promotional tourism reel lauding the city’s charms.

“My reaction to Chair Chris Clifton’s recent actions has been one of shock and disappointment,” he stated. “These actions were unexpected and conducted without transparency or consultation.”

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Avanzino stated that Clifton then used official City Advertising and Promotion email and letterhead to communicate his concerns with selected stakeholders, citing the new campaign as “activism messaging.”

“Many companies take or have taken a social stance in their advertising hoping to appeal to a specific demographic, for instance Disney, Target and Bud Light,” Clifton wrote, referring to LGBTQ+ consumers. As a consequence, he stated, “all three [companies] lost very large amounts of revenue. I encourage you to research the topic.”

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John Rankine
RESIGNED: Twenty-four hours after the fraught commission meeting ended, Clifton, along with his only allied commissioner, Chris Jones, both resigned.

It was widely reported last year that Disney, Target and Bud Light were targeted by Christian Conservatives for catering to queer consumers. As a consequence, the companies pulled certain LGBTQ+ merchandise and promotions from public view. 

Eureka Springs has long been a darling of national news media, with The Guardian, The New York Times, CNN, PBS and major television networks profiling the village as a safe LGBTQ+ haven and tourist destination. Eureka is brimming with gay-owned lodgings, night clubs, restaurants, coffee houses, gift shops and art galleries. 

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The town is equally popular among Christian tourists who flock to the Great Passion Play and browse downtown religious retailers, and a 2018 documentary titled “The Gospel of Eureka” spotlighted the town’s religious and drag subcultures, to acclaim. 

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In a letter of complaint to city officials, Jay Wilks, director of the nonprofit “Diversity in the Ozarks” which sponsors seasonal diversity weekends, wrote, “the LGBTQIA community is a very strong community as it has been since the early 1970s,” when an enterprising lesbian named Barbara Scott bought and restored the neglected New Orleans Hotel in Eureka, widely advertising it as a “feminist hotel,” garnering visits from gay tourists well beyond the state. 

“Mr. Clifton’s disregard for his fellow commissioners [three of whom are gay and married] and residents is unacceptable,” Wilks wrote. “I respectfully request that the City Council, Mayor and City Advertising and Promotion commissioners take immediate and appropriate action to address these issues. And I am requesting the removal of Mr. Chris Clifton as chair of the City Advertising and Promotion Commission.”

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John Rankine
TAKE A SEAT: The basement of the Eureka Springs auditorium was standing room only for the June 26 City Advertising and Promotion Commission meeting, requiring some, including Mayor Butch Berry (wearing a blue polo shirt) and administrative assistant Kim Stryker, to sit on a stairway.

Wilks also wants commission Director Mike Maloney reinstated. Maloney, whom Wilks describes as an enduring LGBTQ+ champion, was suspended in executive session in mid-June for sanctioning the promotional reel. Clifton also alleges, with no proof, that certain commission funds were misspent. 

After another closed session a week later in the city auditorium, an eyewitness said that Clifton tried to forcibly oust Maloney, who had been seated with others waiting on the outcome.

“Mr. Clifton got up into Maloney’s face,” Carroll County resident Heather Wilson said. “He pointed his finger at Maloney and ordered the police to have him removed. That’s when Mayor’s administrative assistant Kim Stryker intervened, telling Clifton he was out of order.”

Few residents attend City Advertising and Promotion Commission regular meetings, but the June 26 meeting was packed with concerned citizens, including town Mayor Butch Berry and city council members. Clifton had packed the agenda aiming to kill the “Free to Be” campaign, said Wendy Reese Hartmann, a board member of Diversity in the Ozarks.

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“Instead, a majority of the commission voted to keep it,” Reese Hartmann said “Commissioners also voted to restore Blaze to the promotional video.”

John Rankine
IN SESSION: City Advertising and Promotion Commissioners left to right: David Avanzino, Kollin Paulk, Chris Jones, chair Chris Clifton, and Steve Holifield.

During the three-and-half-hour-long meeting, Clifton’s demeanor was dismissive, she said, particularly during extended public comment, rolling his eyes and grinning with derision. 

“City Advertising and Promotion policy and procedures lack provisions to remove officers and commissioners,” she said. 

By the end of the meeting the commission took corrective action with four of the six commissioners expressing no confidence in Clifton, Avanzino said. 

“While there are further steps required to address this situation fully, the commission is dedicated to restoring public trust and ensuring that our actions align with the best interests of Eureka Springs.”

Unless the commission votes to change policies and procedures to elect a new chairperson, it will be up to Eureka Springs City Council to decide Clifton’s fate. We queried Clifton for response. In an email he wrote that he did not censor anything, nor order the reel to be edited.

There is no proof of any claims that I did,” he stated. “This is hearsay.” 

Clifton also claimed he was accosted by Mike Maloney after he was suspended.

“As for the majority vote,” he stated, “I respect the commission’s opinion and I believe it’s time for a new chair.”

And indeed, 24 hours after the fraught commission meeting ended, Clifton, along with his only allied commissioner, Chris Jones, both resigned. 

“I believe this occurred, in part, due to a major public outcry of support for diversity in our very diverse town,” Avanzino said in reaction to Clifton’s sudden departure.

“The commissioners who remain have the best interest of Eureka Springs at heart and are willing to do what it takes to pivot back onto a positive path,” Reese Hartmann said. “I’m proud of our community for showing up and supporting each other.”