The ongoing transformation of the reimagined Arkansas Arts Center in downtown Little Rock, for which $128 million is being raised, will make it bigger and better, and according to Executive Director Victoria Ramirez, establish the museum as a true regional destination once it reopens.
Construction remains on schedule for a spring 2022 completion, and Ramirez says as many as 200 workers have filled the MacArthur Park job site on a given day. Despite expected hiccups related to the pandemic, progress has been steady on a project expected to redefine the city’s status within the arts community — and for which $4.5 million is invested monthly.
Ramirez expects to finalize an opening date within a couple of months. It’ll be worth the wait, she says.
“This project will get national and international attention,” Ramirez told Arkansas Money & Politics. “People will want to come and see it.”
That’s the vision, one years in the making. What we now know as the Arkansas Arts Center was born in 1937 as the Museum of Fine Arts; the city took over primary management in 1961 and renamed it. The last addition/renovation was completed in 2000 and represented the seventh such project of its kind. While previous growth has been piecemeal by necessity, the eighth “addition” is intended to accommodate a long view, both for the museum and the city.
Harriet and Warren Stephens co-chair the museum’s current capital campaign, and he believes the Arts Center’s transformation from a “hodgepodge of eight different buildings from ’37 to 2000” will be transformative.
“We were shooting for game-changing. Until you see it, you don’t really get it. Both us were really awed.”
Though likely still 18 months out from completion, visitors to the site can appreciate the scope of the project. Harriet Stephens, who also serves as building committee chair for the fundraising campaign, expects the new AAC to become a feather in the state’s cap.
“I think the building will become iconic and become a destination that’s talked about all over the country,” she said. “It really will help put us on the map.”
City officials anticipate big things. Jay Chesshir, president and CEO of the Little Rock Regional Chamber, forecasts “a transformative cultural asset which will attract visitors from far and wide while providing a wonderful amenity for those who call Little Rock home.”
When ground was broken last year, officials anticipated a $70 million project. The final cost likely will exceed that figure, but the capital campaign officially has raised $122.7 million toward the $128 million goal. What’s not needed to fund construction will support museum programs and provide endowment funds.
The project’s specs are well documented:
• 137,000 square feet to house the museum’s highly regarded collection of more than 14,000 works, including 127,000 square feet of new construction and renovation;
• The exposure of the original 1937 façade as the new north entrance;
• A new two-story gallery and collections space;
• A “living” roof feature called the Blossom;
• A glass-enclosed, public space for events and meetings called the Cultural Living Room with views of downtown and the park;
• Expanded gallery, Museum School and Children’s Theatre space;
• A gallery devoted to the art school;
• A two-story atrium;
• A new museum store and an as-yet-unnamed, “world class” restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows just off the north entrance;
• More than 2,200 linear feet of landscaped paths and trails with open green space and the addition of more than 250 new trees to the museum footprint,
• Significant technology upgrades.
Renowned international firms Studio Gang of Chicago and New York’s SCAPE, consulting with Polk Stanley Wilcox and McClelland Consulting Engineers, were brought in to design the new museum and the seamless connection to the surrounding 36-acre park envisioned by the project. And Chicago’s Pepper Construction is working with locals Nabholz and Doyne.
Despite the presence of three out-of-state lead firms, the project has a distinct local feel. Roughly 90 percent of all manpower and materials are sourced from Arkansas, and the project is expected to use more than 50 Arkansas subcontractors before it’s completed.
Significant architectural and construction feats are being realized through the Blossom, a roof feature engineered as a living “spine” connecting the north and south entrances and already, mid-construction, emoting the pulse of a living organism. Pepper project executive Anthony Alleman called the Blossom a one-of-a-kind addition representing one of the largest and most complex projects of his career.
Each piece of its “unique geometry” was poured and cured in a custom mold over four stages, and each pour took a minimum of 10 hours. Engineer Tim Hester of Pepper said the Blossom portion of the roof presented some real engineering challenges. Pepper’s team rationalized the design and pre-fabbed all the trusses and form work in Chicago, he noted. Ultimately, the Blossom needed 1,000 cubic yards of concrete, most of it provided by Little Rock’s Bass Commercial Concrete, and 260 tons of rebar. The completed project is expected to entail almost 6,000 cubic yards of concrete and 345 tons of structural steel.
“Quite a feat engineering-wise,” Ramirez says the architecture and engineering behind the Blossom convey a sense of thoughtfulness, a sense of energy and movement throughout the entire space.
Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. is ready for locals and tourists alike to begin feeding off that energy. He expects the museum to help establish Little Rock as an art destination but also help cultivate a deeper sense of community among residents.
An example: roughly one-fifth of the old museum’s 200,000 annual visitors entailed kids and their families from across the state using AAC’s highly regarded Children’s Theatre. And after ground was broken on the new museum in October 2019 and the AAC moved to temporary digs in Riverdale, more than 1,500 students took part in Museum School classes devoted to painting, drawing, ceramics, printmaking, metals, glass, jewelry and woodworking. And that’s just in the five months before COVID-19 hit.
Warren Stephens has called the Arts Center an investment in the quality of life of Little Rock. Scott believes the return on that investment will be significant.
“Art is a unifier, bringing diverse groups of people together and helping break down barriers to bring forth a better understanding of the rich cultures among us,” Scott said. “As a former performing artist myself, it’s exciting to see the depth of support for the art community. It certainly increases our quality of life, and the new Arts Center will dramatically improve our quality of place.”
The new AAC should attract visitors to a revitalized downtown now teeming with activity where not too terribly long ago symbolic tumbleweeds reigned supreme after 5 p.m. and on weekends. Gabe Holmstrom, executive director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, believes the Arts Center’s reimagining in MacArthur Park will help keep downtown thriving.
“The Arts Center’s investment in downtown Little Rock is a prime example of what we call ‘placemaking’ in our industry, which is essentially the art of creating quality public spaces where people want to stay and spend meaningful time,” he said. “The heart of a city is its downtown, and a healthy downtown requires investments such as the Arts Center in order to keep that heartbeat strong.”
The museum relies on private support (admission is free) but also receives city and state funding as well as support from the National Endowment for the Arts. The city of Little Rock pledged more than $31 million from a hotel tax-revenue bond to the new museum, and the state is kicking in more than $1 million, but private support has been the catalyst.
The Stephenses made an early, “transformational lead gift” of an undisclosed amount, the Windgate Foundation gifted $35 million and the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust $5 million toward construction of the new museum. Twenty-one individuals and families have donated $1 million or more, and 20 more families or foundations have contributed at least $100,000.
Fundraising in a pandemic isn’t ideal, but Warren Stephens said he’s been surprised by the generosity of Arkansans during such times.
“We were selling a dream three years ago,” he said. “Now, you’ve got the Blossom and Cultural Living Room taking shape, the ’37 façade… Now, we’ve really got something to sell.”
The impact of museums on a community stretches far beyond the financial, but they do deliver actual economic punch as well. Just look at the opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville and how it continues to help transform what once was a sleepy hamlet into a center of mid-America chic.
A 2016 economic impact study commissioned by the American Alliance of Museums found that museums deliver more than $50 billion to the U.S. economy, including another $12 billion in taxes. And as part of the leisure and hospitality sector, Arkansas museums contribute an annual economic impact of $385 million, the report found.
Plus, the museum industry boasts a job multiplier factor of 2.0, meaning that for every direct museum job, an additional job is supported elsewhere in a local economy, according to the study’s findings.
Crystal Bridges, which employs 343, welcomed 700,000 visitors in 2019 — 40 percent of them from outside the state and country. Since opening in November 2011, more than 5 million people have visited the museum. The brainchild of Walmart heiress Alice Walton, Crystal Bridges was conceived on a bigger stage as an international attraction — it was the talk of the global arts community in the days following its opening.
Local officials look forward to something of a Crystal Bridges effect on a smaller scale with the new AAC, which will employ 90 once it reopens. Warren Stephens expects art patrons across the country to make AAC 2.0 “a bucket-list item” like they did for the Bentonville attraction.
“Crystal Bridges was the focus of the art world when it opened,” he said. “This kind of thing doesn’t happen much in the art world. The Arts Center will be the focus of the art world for a little while.”
Rod Bigelow, executive director and chief diversity and inclusion officer at Crystal Bridges, is looking forward to the new museum’s contributions to the state’s arts scene.
“Northwest Arkansas has seen such a positive impact from increased arts — the re-opening of the Arkansas Arts Center will add to our collective creative economy, creating more excitement about the arts, new partnership opportunities and increased tourism for the state of Arkansas,” he said.
Cleveland-native Ramirez came to Little Rock in 2018 from El Paso, Texas, where she directed the El Paso Museum of Art. Most of her tenure thus far has been filled in the Arts Center’s temporary HQ. The new Arkansas Arts Center that she’s ushering into reality will represent the only one she’s really known. And that’s part of what attracted Ramirez to the job.
She believes Central Arkansas has more to offer than most realize, and that the reimagined AAC will represent a milestone moment for the region by exposing it to a whole new audience.
“People who seek out art want to experience what’s special about a community, the historical significance of being there,” Ramirez said. “The Arts Center will bring people here to enjoy the whole community.”