Arkansas Arts Center: A Building Transformed

When the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock reopens in 2022, it will be unrecognizable. And, based on a tour of the site last week, it should be spectacular.

The $100 million project has been described both as a renovation and an expansion. The Arts Center itself, on its website, describes the project as a “reimagining,” and that’s an elegant and appropriate term.

But perhaps the most accurate descriptor is “transformation.” The Arkansas Arts Center building is leaving behind an undistinguished and confusing, though beloved, accretion of additions made over the years to what started, in 1937, as the 10,140-SF Museum of Fine Arts in MacArthur Park.

That old 108,000-SF building is being transformed into a light-filled, dynamic space of about 137,000 SF that will make navigating the building and discovering its collection “intuitive,” as Executive Director Victoria Ramirez put it.

To do that about 75% of the building has been demolished, she said.

On the west side of the site, the Commerce Street side, has arisen a dramatic two-story white brick gallery — office space and storage below — with 20,000 SF in which to display the center’s collection. It’s a stair-stepped design that provides plenty of walls on which to hang artwork.

To the south and southeast, the MacArthur Park aspect of the site, will be classrooms, the theater, a lecture hall, the museum store and restaurant. And on the east side are administrative offices.

Connecting it all is “the blossom,” a two-story space — the upper story enclosed in glass — that provides an axis through which museum visitors can reach all parts of the building. It will be topped by a swooping, curvilinear concrete roof that is the most distinctive visual element of the project.

“It’s really just a brand-new building,” Ramirez said.

The handsome art deco facade of the original building has been retained, however, and will serve as the entrance on the north side of the building on Ninth Street. “The inside of the ’37 facade will be clad in walnut paneling,” she said. “It’s really going to be a beautiful jewel box and a really special entrance.”

The overall impression, based on the tour and renderings of the design, is one of spaciousness and movement.

The transformed Arts Center also seeks to provide a “cultural living room” for Arkansans, a welcoming, inclusive environment in which to gather. “It’s so focused on the visitor,” said Ramirez, who came to the Arts Center just a year ago.

In showing visitors the location of the theater, Ramirez said she envisions the Arts Center offering a range of programing there — films, live music, dance performances, literary readings, in addition to the Children’s Theatre and children’s programing. “We definitely want to have a very active evening schedule,” she said.

The architect of this transformation is Jeanne Gang, founder of Studio Gang, based in Chicago but with offices in New York, San Francisco and Paris. Gang is a 2011 winner of the $500,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects of Little Rock is assisting Studio Gang in the design.

Also a genius grant winner, in 2017, is Kate Orff, founder of SCAPE Landscape Architecture of New York. Orff is landscaping the Arts Center project, a goal of which is to fully incorporate the center’s park setting into the design.

The groundbreaking was held Oct. 1, 2019, and despite the uncertainty ushered in by the coronavirus pandemic, the project is on schedule, Ramirez said, with about 150 workers on site on any given day. Construction is costing about $4.5 million per month, most of which, she said, remains in Arkansas.

Overseeing the project are Nabholz Construction of Conway, Doyne Construction of North Little Rock and Pepper Construction of Chicago, which has expertise in museum construction.

Little Rock voters in February 2016 approved 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. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson contributed $5 million in state money for the project.

Warren Stephens, CEO of Stephens Inc. of Little Rock, and his wife, Harriet, led the two-and-a-half-year fundraising campaign to raise money for the project.

During the tour, Ramirez noted that many local companies are involved in the Arts Center’s transformation. The museum says that more than 50 Arkansas companies are providing services, among them Hugg & Hall Mobile Storage of Little Rock, Rogers & Dillon Demolition & Excavating of Mayflower, WW/AFCO of Little Rock, Otis Elevator Co. of Little Rock and Middleton Heat & Air of Bryant.