Arkansas Arts Center 'A Gem Within Our City'

Museums need to supply “social space,” says famed architect Jeanne Gang. If they are to survive, they need to be places where people want to be.

And that is what her design seeks to do for the expanded, renovated Arkansas Arts Center, a $98.8 million project: provide a “cultural living room.”

“Museums have not traditionally been the place to supply that kind of space,” Gang said. “But now I think what’s different is many institutions are trying to find ways that they can broaden their audience but also to be a place where people can do multiple things.

“Maybe you’re not going there specifically to see works on paper. Maybe you’re going there to meet a friend for a cup of coffee, but then you go into a gallery or you happen to see that there are classes being offered in sculpture and you sign up. It’s really about being a place where people want to be that is surrounded by culture and art.”

Harriet Stephens, chair of the Arts Center’s building committee, called the Arts Center “a gem within our city.” Stephens spoke to Arkansas Business a few days before she and her husband, Warren Stephens, CEO of Stephens Inc., announced that they had raised more than $86 million for the Arts Center project. The couple led the two-and-a-half-year fundraising campaign targeting big-dollar donors.

Harriet Stephens has great confidence in Gang and her firm, Studio Gang, based in Chicago but with offices in New York, San Francisco and Paris. She praised in particular the firm’s ability to incorporate buildings into their environment.

The Arts Center, whose street address is 501 E. Ninth St., resides in Little Rock’s MacArthur Park. One of the highlights of Gang’s design is the way it connects what will be the building’s north entrance, the “city” entrance on Ninth Street, with its south entrance, the park side.

“That’s been part of our goal throughout all this,” Stephens said, “to engage MacArthur Park in a way it never had been before.”

Assisting in that endeavor will be Kate Orff, founder of SCAPE Landscape Architecture of New York. Both Gang and Orff have received MacArthur Foundation “genius grants,” Gang in 2011 and Orff in 2017.

Orff was the first landscape architect to receive a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. Gang received hers one year after the completion of her best-known project, Aqua Tower in Chicago. In March, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that Gang will head the team designing the $8.5 billion expansion of O’Hare International Airport.

And last month, when Time magazine released its 2019 list of 100 most influential people, Gang was on it, under the “Titans” heading.

A Challenging Project

Gang is bringing her talent to a challenging project. “Because the Arkansas Arts Center is made up of eight additions to the 1937 Museum of Fine Arts, it’s a very complicated puzzle,” Todd Herman, then the center’s executive director, said in February 2018, when the first project designs were unveiled. (Herman has since gone on to a job as executive director of The Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina.)

“Puzzle” was an apt word choice. “Maze” would work as well to describe the current building, with its confusing layout that makes it easy to overlook galleries — and great art.

Stephens pulled no punches in describing the difficulties. “The floor plan has never made much sense,” she said. “So we’re trying to bring some structure to this so when a patron comes in they have a clear understanding of where things are. We’ve done that by putting in a two-story atrium that extends through the complex and connects the galleries, the Museum School and the Children’s Theater.”

One of the most appealing aspects of Gang’s design is its incorporation of the 1937 art deco facade of the original Museum of Fine Arts, currently hidden by years of structural accretions, into the Ninth Street entrance. “We wanted to uncover that history and reconnect to the roots of the museum,” Gang said. “It’s like this little gem buried inside all of these additions.”

The current facility is about 108,000 SF. At least 20,000 SF will be added.

Above the Ninth Street entrance will be “a beautiful cultural living room,” Stephens said. “And that will be a community event space for casual gatherings and other events.”

Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects of Little Rock will assist Studio Gang in the design. And what the Arts Center dubbed the “tri-venture” of Nabholz Construction Corp. of Conway, Pepper Construction of Chicago and Doyne Construction Co. of North Little Rock will work as the construction management team.

Construction is expected to begin in the fall, with completion projected for the fall of 2022.

Despite the challenges, Gang said, her team has a lot to work with. “All of the museums around the country are trying to get what the Arkansas Arts Center has, which is education, cross-disciplinary collaboration in one place,” she said. “And so for me it was exciting because all the ingredients were there, only needing some additional social space.

“But the big challenge was the building was just getting in the way, not allowing the mission and the programs that they have to really shine.” Gang sought not only to bring order and cohesion to the building but to celebrate the Arts Center and all it brings to the community.

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The community has seemed to understand the importance of the Arkansas Arts Center project to the quality of life in central Arkansas and beyond. In February 2016, Little Rock voters approved by a wide margin a bond issue to help pay for the Arts Center makeover. The Little Rock Board of Directors earlier had raised the city’s hotel tax by 2 percentage points to pay off the bonds, the sale of which netted $31.2 million.

And on Wednesday, Harriet and Warren Stephens announced the success of efforts to secure support from wealthy donors for the public-private project. The two biggest gifts came from Little Rock’s Windgate Foundation, $35 million, and the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust, $5 million.

With the bond sale and the pledges from wealthy donors, $118 million of a $128 million fundraising goal has now been raised.

Harriet Stephens hopes the community continues to back the project. “It’s going to take full community support to make this happen,” Harriet Stephens told Arkansas Business. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The reborn Arkansas Arts Center, she said, is “going to be a real architectural treasure.”