Studio Gang and SCAPE expand the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts

A Blossom Blooms in Little Rock

Studio Gang and SCAPE expand the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts

The museum integrates its programs and additions with the insertion of a sinuous, double-height volume nicknamed the Blossom. (Iwan Baan)

When the newly reinvigorated Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts (AMFA) in Little Rock opened to the public in April, its overhauled galleries greeted visitors with a special exhibition titled Together, which features inclusive, often exuberant work by, among others, Oliver Lee Jackson, Deanna Dikeman, Jim Hodges, and LaToya M. Hobbs. The meditation on family, community, and humanity’s connection to nature is a fitting thematic companion to the museum’s architecture, which creates new, publicly accessible gathering spaces and forges an improved connection to MacArthur Park, the city’s oldest public park.

Led by Studio Gang and SCAPE in collaboration with Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects, the design restores the museum’s original 1937 facade—enclosed by an ill-conceived addition in 1982—while giving the building a central stem that blooms into entrances to the north and south. Its kinetic, folded roofline and floor-to-ceiling windows beckon the city inside like the architectural equivalent of a waved arm.

aerial view of arkansas museum of fine arts
The renovated Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts in Little Rock by Studio Gang with landscape architecture by SCAPE has a new central spine with a kinetic, folded roofline. (Iwan Baan)

The free museum offers a rare mix of visual and performing arts, art education, and community programming in addition to maintaining 14,000 works in its permanent collections. In Little Rock today, if a person wants to take a ceramics class, audition for a children’s stage production of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, or see rare drawings by artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, they go to AMFA.

Studio Gang founder Jeanne Gang cited the breadth of the institution’s programs and support within the local community as an important inspiration. “So many other institutions are striving to adapt, to make their programs serve their communities better,” she said at a press preview. “The first time I came [to Little Rock], it struck me that this museum already had that. It was a place that was ahead of its time with its art school, the theater, the galleries. It was really a community center already.”

exterior view of museum at dusk
(Iwan Baan)

Funded by a Little Rock hotel-tax bond passed by voters in 2016 and a $35 million gift from the Windgate Foundation, along with additional private donations, the extensive renovation responds to decades of accretion. First opened in 1937 in an H. Ray Burks–designed, WPA- built, art deco box, the museum was expanded five times between 1963 and 2000 as it grew into the largest cultural institution of its kind in Arkansas. With so many ad-hoc additions and renovations, the building suffered from both functional and operational problems—for example, it had eight different mechanical systems, none of them coordinated with the others. The primary parking lot’s location separated the museum from MacArthur Park, forcing visitors, in the words of SCAPE founder Kate Orff, to “literally put [their] back to the park” as they entered.

The renovated museum integrates its programs and additions with the insertion of a sinuous, double-height volume nicknamed the Blossom, which unfurls at either end to create a central light-filled corridor and lobby space. It eases wayfinding challenges and gives the museum a new architectural identity. “We had this idea of cracking the building open and making what, at the time, we were calling Main Street—which isn’t very cool; ‘the Blossom’ sounds much better. It was this idea of a main street that connected north and south,” Orff said. (Studio Gang used a conceptually similar—but aesthetically very different—approach with the American Museum of Natural History’s Gilder Center in New York, which opened just weeks after AMFA.)

interior courtyard view
The interior’s pleated wood ceilings, expressed by thousands of suspended plywood baffles, is continued outside as an exterior wood soffit. (Iwan Baan)

With pleated wood ceilings expressed by thousands of suspended plywood baffles, the new space establishes a visual connection from one end of the museum to the other and navigates a 6-foot grade change. The reconfiguration establishes clear connections between the main galleries, the performing arts theater, the lecture hall, and the newly named Windgate Art School, which occupies the ground floor beneath the galleries, all of which were given facelifts and technological upgrades as part of the renovation.

On the south side, the new folded-plate roof structure widens to shelter a new restaurant and entry vestibule oriented to the southwest. This shift in orientation was critical to the relocation of the main parking lot and the realization of a new landscape connection to MacArthur Park, first established in 1892. “That was my first site-planning gesture, literally taking the parking lot and cranking it [90 degrees] and putting it along the west side,” Orff said. “That allowed this whole gesture to happen.”

interior view with wood ceiling
A central, light- filled corridor on the upper level of the Blossom eases wayfinding challenges and gives the museum a new architectural identity. (Iwan Baan)

The reinvigorated landscape draws from Arkansas’s native ecology, with “petal gardens” that radiate outward from the cantilevered roofs. Capped with curving, precast concrete benches, the apex of each garden features a mound of river rock that receives roof runoff from custom-designed scuppers. The drains form ephemeral water features when it rains before channeling the water into wildflower-filled bioswales.

SCAPE’s improvements called for planting of 250 new trees on the 11-acre site and avoided turfgrass, apart from an existing crescent lawn and a new flexible event lawn. Instead, the landscape design prioritizes a ground cover of low-growing, native sedges that will thrive under the museum’s canopy of mature oaks and create wildlife habitat. “Oaks are really a keystone species of the American landscape, hosting innumerable caterpillars and birds,” Orff noted. “Having an unmowed ground plane is a key part of that whole life cycle.”

exhibition view
The reconfiguration establishes clear connections between the galleries, theater, lecture hall, and Windgate Art School. (Iwan Baan)

On the opposite side of the museum, a sweeping, glass-enclosed volume extends from the main galleries toward the historic circle drive, hovering above the original entry court and overlooking the new museum landscape and art deco facade. Furnished with clusters of low tables and casual seating, the interior serves as an informal gathering space dubbed the Cultural Living Room, similar to the Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects–designed Great Hall at Tulsa’s Gathering Place. At one end, an art deco–inspired bar serves coffee and cocktails and can be rented out for private events.

exhibition view
(Iwan Baan)

It is from this perch—an elevated public space—that the museum architecture’s values are most clearly demonstrated. Undeniably ushering in a new era for the AMFA, the building reaches out to the Little Rock community in new and more transparent ways while not losing sight of the past. Even as it wraps the historic facade, this new gathering place pays homage to the institution’s long history, engaging the original building as one might frame a beloved work of art.

Timothy A. Schuler is an award-winning journalist and magazine writer whose work focuses on the built and natural environments.