The countdown is on for the much-anticipated April 22, 2023, reopening of the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts (née the Arkansas Arts Center) in Little Rock as it emerges from an ambitious redesign led by Studio Gang that fuses together a hodgepodge of several, decade-spanning expansions with a new, natural light–flooded central addition that’s organic form “blossoms” along the full north-south axis of the museum complex.
Topped with a flowing, pleated concrete roof, the 133,000-square-foot new building will house the AMFA’s sizable collection of permanent works dating back to the 14th century. The project’s transformative blend of new construction and renovation work (including the restoration of the original museum building’s 1937 art deco facade) had yielded several reimagined key spaces at the venerable institution (the largest and oldest of its kind in Arkansas) including the Harriet and Warren Stephens Galleries, Windgate Art School with the Robyn and John Horn Gallery, the Governor Winthrop Rockefeller Lecture Hall, Terri and Chuck Erwin Collections Research Center, a performing arts theater, and restaurant.
Funded through a blockbuster $155 million capital campaign that blew past its original $128 million goal to rank as the largest effort of its kind for a cultural project in Arkansas history, the reimagined AMFA was initially slated to debut in May 2022.
Joining Studio Gang on the core design team is local firm Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects in the role of associate architect and landscape architecture and urban design practice SCAPE, which is overseeing a comprehensive, sustainable revamp of the museum’s 11-acre campus at historic MacArthur Park in downtown Little Rock. (Studio Gang and SCAPE have also partnered for a $60 million redesign of Tom Lee Park in Memphis that, as of last month, is half-way complete.)
“Our design strengthens the museum’s role as a cultural anchor for Little Rock by uniting once-disparate structures into a cohesive whole and opening the building to the surrounding city and landscape,” said Jeanne Gang, founding principal and partner of Chicago-based Studio Gang, in a statement. “By optimizing its functional spaces and expanding its galleries, classrooms, and social spaces, the building transforms the visitor experience into one that is intuitive, inspiring, and continuous with its setting in MacArthur Park.”
Earlier this week, AMFA leadership including executive director Victoria Ramirez and Capital Campaign co-chair Harriet Stephens along with Gang, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott, Jr. (via video), and a certain native Arkansan of note were among those on hand at a celebratory luncheon held at The Pool, an event space (previously the iconic Four Seasons restaurant) at the Seagram Building in Midtown Manhattan. The event, which was also attended by AN and other New York–based arts and architecture media, served as the official unveiling of the exhibitions and site-specific commissions that will be on view when the museum, which will continue its free admission policy, reopens next spring. More broadly, the luncheon served as the project’s New York coming out soirée of sorts.
The aforementioned native Arkansan of note, former POTUS and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, kicked off the proceedings with a speech that introduced the project and the team leading the transformation. “Studio Gang … that’s a cool name isn’t it?” Clinton said, chuckling.
“For those of us who lived in and around Little Rock, it was always a very special place even when it wasn’t in such a beautiful house,” Clinton said of the AMFA, noting his fondness for the museum restaurant and gift shop, “which was the best place to shop for miles.” (Clinton now has a multitude of art museum gift shops at his disposal as an adopted New Yorker, although he noted he “gets the jitters” if he doesn’t return to the Natural State on a regular basis.)
“I’m here today not only as a booster of my native state but also because I think this project comes with promise not only for Arkansas but for embodying the kinds of things that all of us who care about building and maintaining community should be thinking about doing everywhere in the country where it’s feasible.”
Later during the luncheon, Ramirez took the stage to detail the opening permanent collection installation, which will include just some of the AMFA’s key works including drawings by Paul Signac, John Marin, and Georgia O’Keeffe and rare paintings by Diego Rivera and Elaine de Kooning. At its reopening, the museum will also debut two new site-specific installations by Anne Lindberg and Natasha Bowdoin and stage a special exhibition of the work of Chakaia Booker entitled Intentional Risks. Meanwhile the museum’s New Media Gallery will feature an animated work, Tears of Chiwen, by Beijing-based Sun Xun. The museum’s banner inaugural exhibition, Together, is described as a “celebration of art that explores our connectedness to each other and the natural world,” and feature a mix of new acquisitions and works on loan by artists including Elias Sime, Ryan RedCorn, LaToya Hobbs, and Oliver Lee Jackson.
AN will circle back next spring with a detailed commentary on the reimagined AMFA when work is complete.