With an opening day of April 22, a new era is fast approaching for the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts. The renovation project, which began as a handful of much-needed upgrades to the HVAC and other systems, grew quickly into a total overhaul of the former Arkansas Arts Center. Making this transformation possible has been a massively successful capital campaign, co-chaired by philanthropists Harriet and Warren Stephens and aptly titled “Reimagining the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts.” More than just a major facelift, the vision for the new AMFA celebrates the Art Center’s legacy while preparing the space to be a modern and dynamic cultural centerpiece.

 

From its earliest days, the museum has been an ambitious institution with a focus on serving the community. Though the actual building in downtown Little Rock’s MacArthur Park didn’t open until the 1930s, the museum’s origins reach back even further, to 1914 and the Fine Arts Club of Arkansas. This women-led group was created to bring the arts to Arkansans, and a key part of that goal was the establishment of a permanent gallery. The Fine Arts Club’s support was integral to the 1937 opening of what was then called the Museum of Fine Arts, the first dedicated fine arts museum in the state.

 

Predating the 21st-century “Reimagining” campaign was another fundraising push in 1959. In partnership with the Fine Arts Club, this campaign garnered the support of the city of Little Rock, the Little Rock Junior League and future governor and first lady Winthrop and Jeannette Rockefeller. The success of these efforts led to the official establishment of the Arkansas Arts Center by city ordinance and, a few years later, an addition to the 1937 structure.

 

The next several decades saw seven more expansions to the Arts Center. Along with more galleries and programs, the theater space became the Children’s Theater, and the Windgate Art School was established. The museum also made the strategic decision to focus its collection efforts on drawings and paper works, which now make up more than 5,000 pieces of the museum’s 14,000-work permanent collection.

 

Aerial View from the North.

 

In 2016, Little Rock residents approved a hotel-tax bond worth $31 million to renovate the Arts Center. Shortly thereafter, world-renowned architecture firm Studio Gang and New York-based landscape architecture practice SCAPE were selected to design the new space, along with Little Rock’s Polk Stanley Wilcox. The project broke ground in 2019; that same year, the Arts Center announced the “Reimagining” campaign with an original fundraising goal of $128 million. In 2021, in a nod to its original title, the Arts Center was renamed the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts.

 

Thanks to a strong showing of public and private support, the Stephens’ campaign easily surpassed its original goal, and a new bar was set at $142 million. Towards the end of 2022, the Stephens announced that $150.4 million had been raised, and the campaign goal was set higher once again, this time at $155 million. According to a statement from the museum, private support has nearly quintupled the impact of public contributions to the project.

 

Warren Stephens revealed the increased fundraising goal at the announcement of the museum’s opening date, adding, “This is an extraordinary project. My family’s roots, like so many others in Arkansas, run deep. So, the excitement is thoroughly shared across the state and beyond, as evidenced by the success of the capital campaign.”

 

Pointing to the legacy of that other key campaign in the museum’s history, Harriet Stephens said, “One of our most influential predecessors, Winthrop Rockefeller, always felt this institution was far more than a museum, and it’s been incredibly exciting to see the shared vision for its next chapter come to life.”

 

Catherine Bays.

 

For AMFA Development Director Catherine Bays, it’s those kinds of relationships — between the museum’s past and future, between the institution and the community — that inform and enrich her work. Her career in development and philanthropy is an extension of her own background in classical ballet, where she had the opportunity to to dance professionally with several different ballet companies. Bays joined the AMFA team in 2022, but her connection to the former Arkansas Arts Center is much older.

 

“As a young girl, I studied ballet here with a phenomenal teacher who had come at the request of [then director] Townsend Wolfe,” she said. “I had parents who were very supportive of art education, so not only did I study dance, I took ceramics and photography. My dad took photography with me, and my mom and sister took ceramics with me. We have a family connection.”

 

Bays has two decades of experience in development, and she explained that fundraising is only one part of the role. Rather than “selling” the museum to potential donors, her work focuses on finding other people who’ve been impacted by their time at the Arts Center and asking them to help support those connections for others.

 

“There are hundreds, thousands — I can’t even imagine the number of people who have come through the doors the same way that I did,” Bays said. “They took a class as a young child, or they brought their children for an experience. There are so many people who have these positive experiences, and our job in development is to find ways to connect people to that experience and to the mission of the museum.”

 

Once guests do arrive, Bays continued, the museum speaks for itself. Experiencing art, from the galleries and the stage to the spaces for quiet contemplation, draws guests in and keeps them coming back. Once that connection has been made, the question for Bays becomes, “How can we make this viable and available to all children, to all families in our community?”

 

fine arts

Atrium Ceiling Detail

 

“It’s about allowing people to feel what this place has to offer,” Bays said. “Most importantly, their support allows this museum to be free of charge for any person who wants to visit. All are welcome. Those who are able to make a financial commitment begin to feel that, ‘This is important to my community and to my state. I want to be a part of financially supporting that mission.’”

 

Bays’ development work functions in tandem with the efforts of the Stephens and the “Reimagining” campaign. That transition, from initial fundraising to long-term financial sustainability, relies on taking advantage of the campaign’s momentum and combining it with the existing group of supporters.

 

“We are fortunate that we have such a broad base of patrons. Those are people that were loyal to us well before a capital campaign,” she said. “One of the unique things about the capital campaign is that new supporters come onto your radar. You have a group of people who believe in your institution, and they may not be contributing annually because they’ve never been asked. We have a great opportunity to build on that connection.”

 

Whether support comes from the ranks of capital campaign donors or walks through the doors for the first time on opening day, Bays’ main concern is helping people see the tangible impact that their giving has. Especially in the arts, and especially for children, exposure and opportunity can be life-changing.

 

View onto Courtyard Entrance and 1937 facade.

 

“People don’t always have the opportunity to be exposed to the things that would help them develop in many ways. That is one of the reasons I feel it is important to be here and to be part of what’s happening,” Bays said. “My job is to find those who can support opportunities – education, school tours, theater experiences – because that was given to me as a child. Had I not had that, I would not have had the life that I’ve had and the opportunities for joy that I’ve experienced. My purpose is to help others have those experiences.”

 

While anticipation builds for opening day, the revitalized AMFA has already gained notoriety on a national level thanks to Studio Gang and SCAPE, whose design for the museum blends history with possibility.

 

Led by award-winning architect Jeanne Gang, Studio Gang’s overview of the project explains the museum’s new look in terms of clarification, connection and expansion. Through a combination of renovations and new construction, the firm has made a coherent whole out of the collection of buildings that have been added to the Art Center through the decades. The 133,000-square-foot structure includes the Harriet and Warren Stephens Galleries, Windgate Art School, Performing Arts Theater, Governor Winthrop Rockefeller Lecture Hall, museum store and restaurant, in addition to a number of other indoor and outdoor spaces.

 

Visually representing that connection is a folded plate concrete roof that “blossoms” to the north and south sides of the building, serving as a through-line to both give the museum a uniquely recognizable look and facilitate the links between different galleries and program spaces.

 

Park Entrance.

 

The north side of the building, facing downtown Little Rock, features the renewed art-deco facade of the original Museum of Fine Arts. Overlooking that entrance and a newly landscaped Crescent Lawn will be a community and event space dubbed the Cultural Living Room. The museum’s south side will flow into MacArthur Park, where the parking lot has been replaced by an outdoor dining pavilion. SCAPE’s design, under the guidance of founder and award-winning landscape architect Kate Orff, makes for a seamless transition between interior and exterior.

 

To realize the goal of being a “museum in a park,” according to an AMFA statement, the 11 acres of landscaping features “more than 2,200 linear feet of new paths and trails and 250 new trees, which will merge over time with the existing canopy to form a parkland forest.” SCAPE’s own description of the project noted that the design includes “over 50 species of perennials, shrubs, native trees and ornamental grasses.”

 

Harriet and Warren Stephens Co-Chairs, Capital Campaign.

 

The AMFA’s pleated roof will also work in concert with the park’s natural elements, collecting rainwater for the newly added gardens and native perennial meadows. Coupled with other sustainability-minded design features, the museum’s architectural notes add that the project is on track to achieve LEED Silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

 

The firms’ ambitious undertakings have drawn much positive attention from the architecture and design worlds, winning the 2019 Architect’s Newspaper’s Best of Design award in the unbuilt – cultural category. In 2021, the innovative use of folded concrete on the roof took home first place for low-rise buildings at the American Concrete Institute’s Excellence in Concrete Construction Awards.

 

“I’m excited for the public to see how wonderful the building is, how beautiful the art is and how incredibly the art is going to be able to be displayed,” said George O’Connor, treasurer of the AMFA Foundation. “It’s architecturally an incredible building, from the outside to the inside.”

 

O’Connor has been involved with the museum for many years, serving on the board multiple times before his current position with the Foundation. Having seen the AMFA’s transformation from start to finish, he’s looking forward to the museum welcoming back the community.

 

“It’s not going to be some black-tie event for the opening,” he said. “It’s going to be the public. Everybody is going to be able to come in and see this incredible facility. It’s a game changer.”

 

Bays echoed that sentiment. “I receive tremendous inspiration by walking through galleries, or going outside and looking at sculptures, or looking at works of art,” she said. “I am eager to go outside and see people experiencing art in the park, enjoying themselves in the galleries or the Cultural Living Room, dining in our restaurant or taking a class. I know I’m not the only person who is recharged by that; I know that if I’m needing it, others in our community need it too.”

 

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