More than a hundred supporters of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra gathered on Thursday morning to break ground on the Stella Boyle Smith Music Center. Located on the Heifer International campus, the facility — an $11.75 million, 20,000-square-foot building — will be the entity’s first permanent headquarters since it was incorporated in 1966.
After too-brief performances from kilt-clad Lyon College Pipe Band members Kenton Adler and James Bell and a group of various symphony musicians (which attendees goofily played along to, courtesy of complimentary egg shakers emblazoned with the new ASO logo), several speakers gave remarks about the special occasion.
Brigita Gardner, chair of the ASO’s Crescendo Committee, began the program with a nod to Stella Boyle Smith, the integral philanthropist and arts patron who founded The Musical Group, a collection of only “eight instruments” and “eight musicians” that started in her Little Rock living room in 1923 and eventually became the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. Despite 2023 marking 100 years since Smith kicked things off, Gardner reminded us that “the path to the music center does not stop there.”
Major Frank Scott Jr. spoke about the importance of cultural institutions like the ASO, something he believes “every growing and thriving city must have.” He also acknowledged the fact that the Stella Boyle Smith Music Center is just one of many promising developments coming to downtown Little Rock, including the recently announced expansion of the Clinton Presidential Center and Lyon College’s plans to build a dental and veterinary school in the same area.
Geoff Robson, the orchestra’s newly appointed music director, offered context about what the Stella Boyle Smith Music Center — which he envisions as “a radically welcoming hub for musical activities for all Arkansans” — will be used for. Though many performances will still take place at Robinson Center, the new structure will house the E. Lee Ronnel Music Academy (including music classrooms and practice spaces), Morgan Hall (for rehearsals and concerts), administrative offices and a recording studio. He imagines the center will help the organization “attract the next generation of musicians to Little Rock” and continue their “commitment to equity in the arts.”
The official groundbreaking, replete with shovels and hardhats, was preceded by several minutes of snappy rudiments by the Southwest and Parkview High School drum lines. After the requisite photo op, those in attendance wandered to the Clinton Library for a reception with accompaniment by 5 South, an old-time string band.
Designed by Little Rock firm WER Architects, the Stella Boyle Smith Center is expected to open in Sept. 2024.