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AMFA Provides A Peek Inside Ahead of Opening Day

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After a nearly decade-long redesign, renovation and capital campaign that raised more than $160 million to finance the construction of a new gallery space, AMFA is gearing up for opening day Saturday.

AMFA organized a preview of the new 133,000-SF museum Tuesday for journalists.

Plans for the new museum, formerly the Arkansas Arts Center, began in 2016.

Construction crews broke ground in 2019, and officials pushed back plans to reopen the museum twice, most recently in May 2022 as gallery, programming and event space were added. Supply chain delays also slowed the project, which managed to continue during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With all of its moving parts and requirements, we remained on schedule during the height of the pandemic and the uncertainty it brought,” Harriet Stephens, a museum foundation member and building committee chair, said during Tuesday’s media preview.

Her husband, Warren Stephens, CEO of Stephens Inc. of Little Rock and chair of the nonprofit foundation that oversees the AMFA, also attended.

Philanthropic gifts to the museum included 34 donations of $1 million and 113 gifts between $100,000 and $1 million, Warren Stephens said. A total of 461 individuals and organizations donated to the fundraising drive, he said.

“Few cultural organizations anywhere in the world can lay claim to such breadth of support,” Warren Stephens said. “Our initial goal for the capital campaign now seems modest in retrospect.”

Stephens told Arkansas Business that donors were from Arkansas, across the U.S. and overseas, “which came out of left field,” he said.

“The remarkable outpouring of trust and generosity from Arkansans and so many others allowed us to expand our vision and its future. To call what you are seeing today a reimagination is almost an understatement,” Warren Stephens said.

Stephens said as fundraising goals were met and then surpassed, plans for the structure continued to evolve to include spaces and features that had been scrapped due to potential cost constraints.

“This was our moment in time,” Harriet Stephens told Arkansas Business. “If we could do it, we needed to do it now. It is like remodeling a house. You don’t want to go back year after year. It was important to get it right to the best of our ability.”

The former Arkansas Arts Center had been remodeled year after year.

It consisted of a mashup of buildings that were added over decades, creating a disjointed space that felt closed off from the surrounding McArthur Park and hard to navigate for patrons.

Jeanne Gang, the founding principal and partner of Studio Gang, an architecture firm with offices in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Paris, was tasked with incorporating existing structures from the old Arts Center into a new design for the AMFA.

“The challenge here was that the building itself was actually getting in the way, kind of a victim of its own success,” Gang, who is a MacArthur Fellow and member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, said.

“Over time, they had built eight different additions, eight different structural systems, eight different mechanical systems,” Gang said. “It had become very confusing to visitors.”

The new space preserves structural components from the original museum in MacArthur Park, linking them with an atrium that architects describe as a “central spine” to the building. Light floods in from all directions in a space intent on having a seamless presence with the park’s ancient oak trees and bucolic landscape.

Oriented with entries on the north and south sides, the museum is intimate and unpretentious. Open floor plans are intended to encourage community gatherings. A mezzanine includes a bar and lounge meant for casual meetings over coffee or cocktails.

A restaurant opens up to gardens and oak trees on the south end.

Diverse geographies and ecosystems in Arkansas inspired landscaping, Kate Orff, founder of SCAPE, a landscape architecture firm in New York City, said.

“Our goal with the landscape architecture was not to only echo the beauty and wildness of these places but also to give them shape and very deliberate form,” Orff, a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Fellowship, said.

More than 200 native tree species were planted. Runoff from rainwater flows to a water garden featuring native trees, shrubs and flowering perennials.

Harriet and Warren Stephens endowed eight gallery spaces named in honor of individuals or groups who have contributed to the museum since the women-run Fine Arts Club founded it in 1914.

The AMFA also is home to a theater, event spaces and the Windgate Art School. The Windgate Foundation donated $35 million to the project.

Warren and Harriet Stephens said fundraising efforts will now shift to sustaining the AMFA’s endowment. There are no plans to acquire additional real estate in the area around the museum and McArthur Park yet, they said.

They also said they see the AMFA as complementary to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, founded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton in northwest Arkansas and internationally renowned for its collections.

“We are very unique, which is so great,” Harriet Stephens said. “We have works from all over the world and that date back to the 14th century. It is exciting because people can come to Arkansas and go to both museums and see such a breadth of art.”

AMFA’s inaugural installation showcases 150 works from the AMFA Foundation Collection.

Its first curated exhibition, “Together,” features contemporary art, including a portrait by Osage Nation painter Ryan RedCorn of Chantelle Keshaye Pahtayken and Shay Pahtayken, Plains Cree mother and daughter.

Several works were purchased for the exhibition, including Elias Sime’s Tightrope. Made from reclaimed electrical wires and computer keys, it reflects how technology connects people but also the environmental impact of e-waste shipped to Africa from around the world.

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