ARKANSAS ARTS CENTER, TRANSFORMED: Like its new name, the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts’ new building nods to its 1930s origins.  Studio Gang/courtesy of the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts

The Arkansas Arts Center has a new name to go with its $142 million new building in MacArthur Park. Now known as the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, the newly glowed-up art museum is slated to open in 2022, housing under one roof a restaurant, an art school, gallery space, a museum store and performing arts spaces for its acclaimed children’s theater and other groups. Architecture firm Studio Gang, founded by MacArthur genius grant award winner Jeanne Gang, designed the new building. The concept adds a sweeping glass-paneled “cultural living room” and simultaneously nods to the building’s history by uncovering and spotlighting an Art Deco facade from 1937, part of the original museum entrance. We talked with Executive Director Victoria Ramirez about the renovation and what it means for art in Arkansas. 

So, Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts is the museum’s new name, but it’s also a bit of a return, right? When it was established in the ’30s, it was called the Museum of Fine Arts before it was the Arkansas Arts Center. 

Advertisement

Yes! So in 1937, one of the buildings at MacArthur Park opened, and in fact, that facade is part of the plan for the new building. It’s our north entrance, and it prominently says “Museum of Fine Arts.” It wasn’t until 1960 that the name was changed to Arkansas Arts Center. You know, we hadn’t really started this project thinking, “Let’s change the name.” It was more like, “Well, we’re looking at everything, Does the name still suit us?” 

And as I understand it, it was Governor Rockefeller who said that the name should always have “Arkansas” in it. 

Advertisement

When is the opening?

I would guess late spring, early summer of 2022. … There’s still much work to be done. We have to acclimate all of the art to the new space. We have to run systems for three months to make sure everything is running properly, and we will be moving into a building that is still very much being worked on by our contractors and subcontractors. That’s why we’re taking a little bit of time to open — to get the restaurant running, to get the store and the art school running. Oh, I just realized we have to install all those kilns! Yeah. We have a lot of work to do. 

Advertisement

You’ve increased the fundraising goal from $128 million to $142 million. What changes from your initial planning can we expect to see with that additional funding? 

The main thing that any museum or cultural organization wants to do is make sure that they have as much square footage as possible available to the public. So, as we’ve scrutinized the plans for the building, we’ve added a little over 1,000 extra feet of gallery space. That means more art and more space for the public to enjoy. There was a corridor in the main section of the art school, and we looked at it and said, “Well, that’s kind of wasted space.” So we turned that into a gallery. We had what was originally a behind-the-scenes black box rehearsal space that needed some love and attention, and we started to realize that with this increased goal, we could not only activate this space, but could provide significant programming there. And we’re calling it the Glass Box, because rather than being a dark space, it’s really gonna be a light-filled space. It was well worth it. It’s one of those things where, if you don’t do it now, you’ll never do it.

Studio Gang/courtesy of the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts
GLASS BOX: The museum’s design trades a black box theater for a “light-filled space.”

The third big thing we did is we increased the landscaping. The landscaping hovered under 10 acres, then around 10 acres, now it’s closer to 13 acres that we are tending to. Some of it is plants and an intentional plan, and other sections of the landscaping we’re just leaving open for programming and event space. You know, if you’re gonna have a big outdoor festival, you want a big open space to do that. We realized that with a little more investment we could get a lot more bang for our buck. 

The cool thing is, all of our investments are things people will see. It’s not like when you own your house and you have to replace the gutters. These are really cool projects that will improve the building for museum guests. 

Advertisement

What sort of personality does the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts have in a state that also happens to be home to a museum like Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art? 

Here’s the thing. Even before I had arrived in Arkansas, I had visited Crystal Bridges. Everybody in the museum world — and I have been in the museum world for decades — knew and knows about Crystal Bridges, because what they’re doing is just extraordinary. The collection that they have created, the programming, the commitment to Northwest Arkansas — and just their convictions — are to be applauded. They are, in many ways, leading the museum field in some of those efforts. I think that what we will be doing in Central Arkansas will reflect that and complement it. First, Crystal Bridges collects American art, and we collect more than that. Our collection is global, and we look to tell multicultural and global stories with our collections. I also think we have areas of strength in craft and in works on paper, and that includes not only national and international artists, but it includes regional artists, too. To be able to show art to people that was made in your region, in your country and in the world, side by side, creates an interesting and unique experience.

One other aspect that distinguishes us is our art school. We have an art school with 10 or so studios equipped for a variety of media far beyond what most museums offer. I don’t know many museums that have such a robust ceramics program, along with a woodworking program, and glass and metal. Drawing, painting, printmaking. I think that approach of showing people art, and then showing people how to make art, makes us really unique. And then, of course, the performing side of it is also just really special. We’ll have a variety of spaces where we can show performance arts programs, including children’s theater. We’re looking to expand those programs, and we’re talking with potential partners in dance and film and live music. We really want the new museum to sort of take everything that we’ve done before and amplify it. 

You’ve committed to keeping admission free. Is that for the whole facility? For the exhibitions as well? 

Yes. At least for the first few years, we’ll have free, nonticketed exhibitions. That’s part of our commitment to the community. Certainly there will be performances and classes and those kinds of experiences where we will charge, but we really do our best to keep those costs minimal.