The Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts (AMFA) reopened to the public on 22 April, welcoming the Little Rock community for the first time since breaking ground on a four-year renovation and expansion project in 2019.
Set in Little Rock’s historic MacArthur Park, the beloved institution (renamed the Arkansas Arts Center in 1960) has been a mainstay in the community for nearly nine decades, offering a range of visual and performing arts programming and public classes in woodworking, glassblowing, ceramics, drawing and more. But as the institution’s offerings have grown, so has its building, resulting in a patchwork of eight disparate architectural additions—each with its own style and infrastructure—that left visitors navigating a labyrinthine structure with little direction.
In 2016, the museum’s leaders made a plan to revitalise the space to better support its intended role as a welcoming place for the community to learn, appreciate and create art. Prominent local philanthropists and ardent supporters of AMFA Harriet and Warren Stephens spearheaded a capital campaign that raised more than $160m from public and private contributors, exceeding their initial goal by nearly threefold. The campaign enabled the sprawling redesign vision—proposed by Chicago-based architecture firm Studio Gang and New York-based landscape architecture studio Scape—to be realised, while also bolstering the museum’s funding allocated to programming, temporary exhibitions and new acquisitions.
The new 133,000 sq. ft building and surrounding landscape “provide the ideal setting for new and reimagined visual and performing arts programming that will serve the people of this community and beyond for generations to come”, said Victoria Ramirez, the museum’s executive director. She adds that the project encapsulates “all that a 21st century museum can be—a place for art and a place for people”.
The re-imagination of the space, envisioned by longtime collaborators Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang (who also designed the recently unveiled Richard Gilder Center at New York’s American Museum of Natural History) and Kate Orff of Scape, establishes a distinct new architectural identity for the museum while restoring and connecting its pre-existing facilities. Gang and Orff’s combined approach—which earned the institution LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver certification from the US Building Council—repurposes the existing structure, foundation and materials, with additional initiatives to reduce its carbon footprint including the installation of a radiant heating and cooling system in the building’s concrete floors, ample shade structures to reduce solar heat and an innovative rainwater management system.
In addition to retaining the core structures of the campus, the redesign took into account the museum’s community-centric ethos. “We saw the design as an opportunity to really reconnect the building with the surroundings, and to organise the museum’s many functions so visitors would feel welcome and they could feel all this vibrant creativity going on inside,” says Gang.
The redesign significantly reorients the building to open toward the surrounding city, with a towering new courtyard entrance facing Crescent Drive. The north-facing entry point also reveals the museum’s original 1937 art deco limestone facade, formerly shrouded by a brick exterior wall from a previous expansion.
Ahead of the entrance is a new glass-panelled pavilion, topped with an undulating pleated roof. Suspended over the courtyard with expansive, downward-sloping windows, the structure hovers like a control panel, offering views of the museum’s interior from below and panoramic views of the original façade. The light-filled space, dubbed the Cultural Living Room, is furnished with ample seating and a custom bar, fulfilling a long-felt gap in the museum’s offerings by providing a communal area for patrons to gather and socialise.
To the south, the museum’s park-side entrance, formerly utilised as a parking lot, has been transformed to blend seamlessly into the lush landscape of MacArthur Park. The redesign has created 11 acres of new walking paths, outdoor art and sculptural benches that tie the architecture to the surrounding landscape.
“Our goal in the landscape architecture was to not only echo the beauty and the wildness of these places, but to also give them shape and very deliberate form, creating a defined and dramatic setting to host the museum’s outdoor sculptures,” Orff says.
The result of the project is a redefined sense of unity, creating environments that are both cohesive and expansive. In tandem with Orff’s approach to the landscape, Studio Gang suffuses structural, angular architectural forms with curved organic geometries to impart a harmonious sense of connection and movement throughout the various spaces.
To create a whole from a varied collection of parts, Studio Gang worked from the inside out, cracking open the core of the existing building to create a “blossoming” new central addition that curves and flows from the building’s grand front entrance to the park-facing entrance. The 5,270 sq. ft central atrium ties the building together, serving as a connective tissue that encourages movement through the museum’s various spaces, including AMFA’s Harriet and Warren Stephens Galleries, Windgate Art School, performing arts theatre, museum store, cultural living room and restaurant.
“No matter what side you come into, everything is visually revealing itself to you,” says Juliane Wolf, a design principal and partner at Studio Gang, explaining how the curving geometry helps to guide visitors into the different programme areas.
Negotiating with the downward slope of the landscape, the central addition descends in height with three levels of folded-plate roofs, bringing ample daylight through clerestory windows while cantilevered overhangs protect the interior from direct light and heat. The atrium’s curved ceiling is lined with more than 6,000 individually suspended plywood boards hung in a fanning pattern designed to absorb sound. The curvature of the ceiling is also echoed in the building’s concrete floors, which are inlaid with mirrored patterns of stone aggregate.
On the second floor, the newly redesigned Harriet and Warren Stephens Galleries span 20,000 sq. ft, with galleries dedicated to the AMFA Foundation’s permanent collection, as well as new media, temporary exhibitions and commissioned works. Selected pieces from the permanent collection—which includes more than 14,000 works spanning the 14th to the 21st centuries, with a focus on works on paper and contemporary craft—are on view in five adjacent galleries linked by a diagonal path that leads toward a stunning 32ft-tall window. Like the design of the new central addition, the galleries were conceived to invite natural light, while angles protect the works from direct exposure to sunlight.
In addition to the permanent collection, the museum reopened with a multifaceted group exhibition, Together (until 10 September), celebrating contemporary art’s ability to foster community. Featuring a diverse range of artists and media, the show explores themes of communication, family and home, with standout works by LaToya M. Hobbs, Derrick Adams, Ryan RedCorn, Howardena Pindell, Kerry James Marshall and Jess T. Dugen, among others. Described by curator Catherine Walworth as “smart, sweet and rollicking”, the exhibition is a fitting tribute to the community that helped make the museum a reality.
The exhibition highlights the trajectory of the museum’s programming as it looks to showcase and acquire new works. One third of the pieces in the show were acquired by the museum, suggesting a commitment to building a dynamic and diverse collection. In addition to the works in Together, the museum’s reopening presentation features two site-specific commissions: a cutout illustration of blooming flora that stretches across an entire wall by Houston-based artist Natasha Bowdoin, and a hallway-spanning array of green and blue cotton threads by Anne Lindberg that connects the museum to the landscape outside.
Meanwhile, the John and Robyn Horne galleries in the Windgate Art School (established in 1963) are hosting a solo exhibition by Chakaia Booker (until 3 December), who will host a workshop there in September.