Studio Gang's "Writers Theatre" in Glencoe, Ill., a 2016 project.

An Arkansas Arts Center committee named to select the architect for the arts center’s multimillion dollar renovation has chosen the Chicago-based firm Studio Gang, a choice widely expected after the firm’s presentation to the public at the Arts Center on Nov. 1.

Studio Gang was one of five finalists; 24 firms responded to a request for qualifications issued by the Arts Center for the project, to which $35 million from a bond issue paid with hotel tax receipts has been dedicated. Private philanthropy is yet to be announced, though when the Arkansas Arts Center Foundation went to the city asking for a vote to dedicate 2 cents of the hotel tax to the project it promised significant private contributions. The RFQ put the hard construction budget at $46 million; Mayor Mark Stodola has said he expects the private dollars to bring the total dollars to $60 million, though the foundation has never promised an exact amount. Money raised will include dollars for endowment; the Foundation received a $5 million challenge grant earlier in the year from the Windgate Foundation of Siloam Springs to go toward operations and endowment of the Arts Center.


Studio Gang was founded by MacArthur genius grant award winner Jeanne Gang. Its portfolio includes the Writers Theater in Glencoe, Ill., the Gaudi-like Aqua Tower in Chicago, the University of Chicago North Campus Residential Commons, the WMS Boathouse at Clark Park, the new Gilder Center at the American Museum of Natural History (a 2020 project), the Ford Calumet Environmental Center, the Kaosiung Maritime Cultural and Pope Music Center and many other buildings.

Arts Center Director Todd Herman, who with members of the selection committee traveled to Chicago to see some of Studio Gang’s projects, said he was “incredibly excited” after spending a day with the group. He was impressed with the firm’s ego-less ability to design to the nature of setting and culture, rather than put an identifiable imprint on all its works; its aesthetic; and its ability to incorporate surroundings into a building, which meets the Arts Center’s need for embracing MacArthur Park. He called Gang’s Writers Theatre’s design — which features a glass-walled performance space and cladding of wooden ribbing on the second floor — a “very smart” deconstruction of the Tudor-style stucco and wood characteristics found in the Glencoe neighborhood. He also noted the firm’s use of historical research in its designs — in the case of the Writers Theater, the Globe Theater’s use of balconies. The result, he said, is that the theater does not look like a spaceship plopped into a neighborhood of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed homes.


Committee member Isabel Anthony also praised the “subtlety of texture” Studio Gang employed in the theater’s glass windows; Herman explained that the texturing — also called fritting — was used not just as a design echo but as a way to keep birds from crashing into windows, another just part of Studio Gang’s sensitivity to environment and sustainability.

Herman praised the firm’s WMS boathouse design for its roof that repeats the form of angled oars, and noted that Studio Gang worked closely with the Chicago parks department on that project and others. He said the University of Chicago residential rebuild was “relevant to our project” in that the previous dorms, located on a corner in what had once been considered an iffy neighborhood, were initially designed to disguise their surroundings. Studio Gang created a “porosity” in the new design, with portals into the neighborhood and courtyards that promote “cross-pollination.”


Committee member Bobby Roberts said he initially had concerns about why a firm like Studio Gang would want to take on a smaller project like the Arts Center’s, but noted the firm had done even smaller jobs and said he thought the members of the firm who visited were “good listeners.” Chauncey Holloman, another member of the committee, said the Studio Gang architects were personable and would work well with the community.

During the presentation on Nov. 1, principal Gang said the challenges of renovation the Arts Center presents are exciting. She noted that the research-oriented firm was hired by the European Union to assess visitor experience and the economic contribution of six cultural institutions. “We learned so much doing this and I want to bring that experience to bear on your project,” she said.

Challenges here: “Everything we see is very closed,” Gang said, with a perimeter that is 95 percent wall. “The design starts inside out.” She pointed to the open design of the Writers Theater.

Gang’s PowerPoint presentation included preliminary sketches that gave the Arts Center an entrance off the semi-circular drive that runs in the front of the Arts Center and the MacArthur Museum of Military History, a main inner passage on a north-south axis, a place for “outdoor art-making” and a sculpture garden south of the building leading to a re-landscaped pond. She showed images of her firm’s renovation of the South Pond at the Lincoln Park Zoo and its surroundings, which she said created a natural space “where animals come voluntarily.” The firm used recycled plastic milk bottles for the walkway and prefabricated woven wood for an open-air pavilion.


It wouldn’t make sense, given the budget, to reclad the entire building, Gang said, but that does not matter because of the Arts Center’s location in MacArthur Park. “You have all the landscaping you could ever want … that’s a good way to stretch the budget,” Gang said. The park also offers a way for Arts Center programming to “spill outward” and make the mission more visible.

“Museums are also community centers” rather than places for the elite, Gang said. “The only thing wrong [here] is the facility is getting in the way.”

The Arts Center leadership needs to shed a bit of its elitism. The selection committee contained four members of the Arts Center’s board of directors, a board appointed by the City Board of Directors; the state Freedom of Information Act requires that whenever board members meet, the public should be given advance notice. Herman said in his opening remarks today that the selection of Studio Gang was by “consensus,” which means there was business discussed without the public knowing it. Two board members were among the group that traveled, with no advance notice, to Chicago to visit Studio Gang; knowing it was a violation of the state FOIA, the Arts Center leadership opted not to announce the travel, apparently deciding it was more important not to tip off the other architecture finalists than to follow state law on advance notice of board meetings. The FOIA covers “informal group meetings for the discussion of government business,” according to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Handbook.

Herman defended the move as important to keep the other finalists in the dark in case Studio Gang did not meet expectations and other firm would be considered. Board member Chucki Bradbury declined to comment.

Committee members included City Director Dean Kumpuris, who did not attend today’s announcement but sent in his proxy; city Parks and Recreation director Truman Tolefree; Arts Center Board of Directors chairwoman Mary Ellen Irons; directors Anthony, Van Tilbury and Bradbury; Arkansas Arts Center Foundation chair Bobby Tucker; small business development coordinator for the city Holloman; and former Central Arkansas Library System director Roberts. The other four finalists were Snohetta, Allied Works, Shigeru Ban and Thomas Phifer and Partners.

A news release is on the jump.

December 6, 2016

Arkansas Arts Center Selects Design Architect

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The Arkansas Arts Center (AAC), the state’s leader in international, visual and performing arts, announced on Tuesday the selection of Studio Gang as design architect for its upcoming building project.


“We had a number of highly qualified firms respond to our RFQ, and narrowing this impressive group down to the five finalists was extremely difficult,” said Todd Herman, executive director for the Arkansas Arts Center. “All five finalists were incredibly talented with international reputations and credentials. The Arts Center would have been well served by any one of them. We were in a great position to choose from such an impressive pool of talent.”

The five firms selected as finalists were Allied Works (Portland, Ore./New York), Shigeru Ban (New York/Paris/Tokyo, Japan), Studio Gang (Chicago/New York), Thomas Phifer (New York) and Snohetta (Oslo, Norway/New York/San Francisco).

Herman said the selection committee felt Studio Gang was the best fit for the project, due to the firm’s elegant and smart approach to architecture, their understanding of the issues posed by the AAC’s current facility, their vision for the center as a cultural beacon for Central Arkansas and their commitment to sustainability and strength as urban planners.

Founded by MacArthur Fellow Jeanne Gang, Studio Gang is an award-winning architecture and urbanism practice based out of Chicago and New York. A recipient of the 2013 National Design Award, Jeanne Gang was also named the 2016 Architect of the Year by the Architectural Review and the firm was awarded the 2016 Architizer A+ award for Firm of the Year.

Studio Gang is recognized internationally for a design process that foregrounds the relationships between individuals, communities and environments. The firm has extensive knowledge in museum, theatre and artist studio spaces, with projects ranging from the Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Ill. to the Aqua Tower in Chicago to the expansion of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

An RFQ for a local architect to collaborate on the project will be issued later this month.

“When the Arkansas Arts Center project is completed, it will not just be a renovated facility, it will be a re-envisioned experience,” said Mark Stodola, mayor for the city of Little Rock. “The enhanced building will offer opportunities for an even higher level of exhibits, classes, children’s theatre productions and special events, making the Arkansas Arts Center not only a signature tourist attraction, but an even more important cultural anchor for the arts community in Little Rock.”

“It is well known that businesses looking to locate or expand, look at a city’s quality of life offerings,” Stodola said. “An enhanced Arkansas Arts Center will be a showcase which will enable us to attract and retain quality job creators in a variety of sectors.”

Herman said he is looking at the project holistically, including Historic MacArthur Park, and reevaluating how the Arts Center meets the needs of its community.

“This project is about more than just addressing the physical issues of the current building. It requires rethinking how the AAC fits into the downtown fabric,” said Herman. “How can we best serve the community, and how do the AAC and MacArthur Park connect to other social and cultural nodes in downtown Little Rock? We want to do more than build, we want to transform the cultural experience.”

The five finalists presented their firm’s general project approach and design philosophies to the selection committee on November 1, 2016. The presentations took place in the AAC lower lobby lecture hall and were open for public viewing. More than 100 people were in attendance at the presentations, including students, community members and media.

The committee determined their selection at a public meeting on December 6, 2016.

The selection committee included: AAC Executive Director Todd Herman, City Director Dean Kumpuris, Director of Little Rock Parks and Recreation Truman Tolefree, AAC Board Chair Mary Ellen Irons, AAC Board members Isabel Anthony, Van Tilbury and Chucki Bradbury, AAC Foundation Chair Bobby Tucker, Little Rock Small Business Development official Chauncey Holloman, and past Director of the Central Arkansas Library System Bobby Roberts.

A technical review panel was responsible for reviewing all proposals and recommending a slate of finalists to the selection committee, based on specialized criteria outlined in an RFQ that reflected the specific needs and goals of the AAC.

The technical review panel included: AAC Executive Director Todd Herman, AAC Chief Curator Brian Lang, Architect Ken Sims, Dean of the Fay Jones School of Architecture Peter MacKeith, Chair of the AAC Buildings and Grounds Committee Kaki Hockersmith and international museum consultant Deborah Frieden.

The leadership phase of a capital campaign to maximize the impact of public dollars dedicated to the project is currently underway.

“Anyone and everyone can participate in the creation of a new Arkansas Arts Center,” Herman said. “The Arts Center is a symbol of the importance that this community ¬– and state – places on culture, arts education and quality of life, and all Arkansans will have the opportunity to share in that civic pride.”

The Arkansas Arts Center (AAC) is the state’s premiere center for visual and performing arts, with a renowned collection of international art, serving more than half a million people each year. The collection includes paintings, sculpture and the largest U.S. repository of watercolors and drawings by 19th century artist Paul Signac. The AAC also features the award-winning Children’s Theatre, art classes and public programs. In addition, the AAC offers touring programs for communities, such as Children’s Theatre on Tour, the Artmobile and traveling exhibitions.

Arkansas Arts Center programs are supported in part by: the City of Little Rock; the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau; the City of North Little Rock; and the Arkansas Arts Council, an agency of the Department of Arkansas Heritage and the National Endowment for the Arts.