New Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts a modern masterpiece
A dazzling creation of 21st-century architecture opens to visitors this month in Little Rock. The Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts’ (AMFA) sleek and angular design figures to be as much of an attraction as the cornucopia of international art displayed in its galleries.
April 22 marks opening day for the 133,000-square-foot complex in MacArthur Park. It is a reincarnation of the Arkansas Arts Center, which opened in 1937 and closed in 2019 to make way for its stylish successor at the same location.
“The excitement and enthusiasm for the new building are palpable,” says Victoria Ramirez, the museum’s executive director. “We expect to be at full visitor capacity well into the summer months.” The museum’s design by Chicago-based Studio Gang founder and principal Jeanne Gang, with Little Rock firm Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects as associates, combines “the experience of being inspired by art and the beauty of nature,” Ramirez says. “The world-class art collection, dynamic exhibitions, artist installations and outdoor sculpture will create a holistic experience that brings together art and architecture in exciting ways.”
Construction and other costs have been funded by more than $150 million raised in a capital campaign spearheaded by Harriet and Warren Stephens. The city of Little Rock provided $31.2 million through a hotel-tax revenue bond.
The art galleries are the heart of the museum. But other venues will bring visitors to the site. These include a 350-seat theater focused on plays for youngsters, the 150-seat Rockefeller Lecture Hall, the Windgate Art School and a full-service restaurant.
The 11-acre grounds, landscaped to connect with the rest of MacArthur Park, have been designed by Kate Orff of SCAPE Landscape Architecture. The aim is to make the museum and the park a complementary experience.
Approaching AMFA’s main north-side entrance, visitors can observe the efforts to link the new design to the past. In the outdoor rotunda, they will pass Henry Moore’s “Large Standing Figure: Knife Edge,” which stood for years on Main Street’s former pedestrian mall before moving to Capitol Avenue and Broadway.
The entry passes through the preserved Art Deco facade of the 1937 building, which had been concealed inside the former facility. On its limestone face, two carved figures personify Painting and Sculpture.
The permanent collection’s inaugural presentation will fill five galleries. In the first, visitors will be greeted by Elaine de Kooning’s painting of as nearly life-sized bull. Also displayed will be works by Arkansas and regional artists.
In the second gallery, the museum’s oldest art will hang. Ranging from the 14th to 19th centuries, the works will include two Italian pre-Renaissance paintings, a George Romney portrait, and drawings by Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt van Rijn.
American and European impressionist and post-impressionist art will occupy one of the galleries. Among highlights will be paintings and drawings by Claude Monet, Pierre-August Renoir, Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro.
Diego Rivera’s 1914 cubist painting “Dos Mujeres,” is one of the museum’s prominent works on display. An adjacent wall will hold a floor-to-ceiling installation of 20th-century sculptures and drawings on paper.
The spacious and well-lighted fifth gallery will be devoted to contemporary art.
Headliner among the inaugural special exhibitions will be “Together,” which aims to explore human connections with each other and the natural world. It will include art by Elias Sime, Ryan RedCorn, LaToya Hobbs and Oliver Lee Jackson.
Ramirez describes these artists and others featured in the first year as “dynamic and representative of diverse artistic voices and practices.”
The executive director has this suggestion for visitors: “Our docent-led tours and the bilingual mobile audio guides provide an engaging introduction to the architecture, art and grounds. At the same time, we aim to be an open and welcoming space that visitors will be eager to explore at their own pace in their own unique ways.” Along with the art, she adds, “There are also beautiful spaces to socialize and unwind, such as our new restaurant and the second-floor Cultural Living Room, both with floor-to-ceiling windows. Visitors can discover a new aspect of the museum with each visit.
The first production by the Children’s Theatre on its new Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts stage will be “The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show,” (photo above). Opening on May 6th, it will feature a menagerie of more than 75 puppets plus professional actors. The show, recommended for pre-kindergarteners through third graders, has played internationally since 2018. It is based on Eric Carle’s widely popular “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” books. Twelve performances are scheduled through May 28th in the 350-seat Performing Arts Theater. For schedule and tickets, visit the Children’s Theatre website.
Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts
- Location: 501 Ninth Street, Little Rock
- When: Opens April 22nd
Hours of Operation:
- Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
- Sunday: 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.