Framing the Future for AMFA

When the Arkansas Arts Center reopened its doors as the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts in April of last year, residents of Little Rock and its surrounding communities flocked to the new, vibrant center for visual and performing arts. Executive director Victoria Ramirez says the opening exhibit, “Together,” set the tone for the first year.

The exhibition was composed of 35 pieces purchased or borrowed from private collections or museums, and each piece had something to say about Arkansas, Little Rock or nearby regions.

“We wanted to celebrate this idea of being together,” Ramirez says. “At this point, we had been closed for four years. We missed the community, and we know museums are a place where people can come together.”

For Mary Olive Stephens, co-chair of the AMFA Fine Arts Club Committee and a member of the board of trustees, the “Together” exhibition was a personal favorite.

“I thought the ethos behind the exhibition was perfectly fitting considering the reopening. AMFA is a community hub, and we felt its loss immensely throughout the pandemic and multi-year renovation. There was no better way to commemorate being together again than such a special space with a show that celebrated exactly that through various interpretations,” Stephens says.

According to Ramirez, the past year has been a learning experience and will help guide their decisions on exhibitions and programming going forward.

“Now that we have one year under our belt, we have learned a lot about what this building and the grounds can allow us to do,” Ramirez says. “We’ve learned a lot about the community and the kinds of programming that interest them. We are in a good position to plan long term and continue to be an exciting and relevant place.”

The next large exhibition will be a familiar one to long-time visitors. The “Delta Triennial” is the next step in the evolution of the “Delta” exhibition that, for more than 60 years, has promoted artists born in or working in Arkansas and its surrounding states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.

The “Delta,” named after the Mississippi River floodplains, was founded as a juried exhibition in 1958 by AMFA. It aims to recognize Mid-South artists and explore their interpretations of the area’s complicated histories and changing landscapes. The exhibition has now shifted into more of a collaborative effort between AMFA and other museums in the region to be held every third year. Debuting at AMFA this summer, the “Delta Triennial” will bring new regional artists and their voices to the mainstage once again.

“We’ve received submissions from every eligible state, so I think it’s going to be a very exciting snapshot of what artists are making regionally and the ideas they are exploring,” Ramirez says.

For Betsy Rhodes, co-chair of the Fine Arts Club Committee and board of trustees member, one bright spot has been the revitalization of AMFA’s children’s programming.

“It’s so wonderful to have so many children coming in, learning things and having new opportunities,” Rhodes says. “Victoria always says museums are for children, and I think AMFA has done an amazing job creating engaging programs and exciting exhibitions to engage a whole community across generations and to open imaginations.”

Part of that community engagement includes partnerships with the North Little Rock, Little Rock and Conway school districts to allow fourth grade students to visit AMFA and take a curated tour coinciding with their current studies.

Credit: Jason Masters
(From left) Mary Olive Stephens, Le’Kita Brown and Betsy Rhodes

“I can’t say enough about AMFA’s docent tours,” Rhodes says. “They have a terrific group of trained docents who volunteer their time and do a magnificent job bringing the art to life.”

AMFA programs like Art Start, Creative Saturdays and Windgate Art School classes allow people of all ages to try their hand at different art forms. The children’s theater, which has been a Little Rock arts fixture for many years, is still going strong and has a full lineup of performances for early elementary-age students.

“I’ve been blown away by the museum’s programming for children,” Stephens says. “Our daughter has enjoyed Creative Saturdays, which are completely free, and a few of the plays like ‘Corduroy’ and ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar.’ The [Arkansas Arts Center] played a formative role in my life as a child and I look forward to watching my own children grow up and get inspired by AMFA.”

AMFA not only inspires young people, but showcases their work as well. Through July 7, the 63rd annual Young Arkansas Artists Exhibition will display artwork from students in kindergarten through high school.

“I love what this has the potential to do,” Rhodes says. “It inspires young Arkansans to believe in themselves, take pride in their talents and imagine a future in the arts. How wonderful for Arkansas students to see their own works in the exhibition and then wander the halls of AMFA with such greats on the wall.”

“We host a program for all the teachers, parents and students whose work is featured in the exhibition,” Ramirez says. “At the program we hosted last year, we saw people come from every corner of the state, and it was really important to see that these parents were nurturing the artistic talent of their children and wanted to bring their children here.”

The program featured an award ceremony where the young artists had their work projected on a big screen to much applause.

“Getting that kind of recognition for your hard work is such an important part of a child’s development,” Ramirez says. “For us, the future is going to be about strategizing how we can do more of that kind of work.”

Incoming board president Le’Kita Brown knows from experience how important exposure to art at a young age can be. When she was a child and her mother was battling cancer, art museums became her refuge and a way for her mother to communicate with her and gauge her feelings.

“She would ask me to pick out a picture and tell her about it,” Brown says. “Every time I went to the museum, she would ask me if I saw my favorite picture, and she would ask me how it made me feel. Reflecting as an adult, I know she was using the changes I saw in the picture to describe the changes I was having within myself.”

Brown, who also serves as the system vice president of the revenue cycle at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, enjoys being able to combine her two passions and hopes to bring new insights and collaborations to the museum during her tenure as president.

“I’m hoping to be able to add to the wonderful things they’re doing there,” says Brown, who also hopes her ACH connection brings opportunities to partner with hospitals for art therapy and other outreach efforts.

“If you walk around the hospital, we have a joint project with the museum where its young artists are designing the artwork in our building,” Brown says. “It is truly therapeutic for both kids and adults. Speaking as a cancer survivor, it changes your mood to walk through buildings and see individuals that look like you or relaxing blue skies on the wall.”

Brown says there’s a healing and freedom that comes when children learn art doesn’t have to be “perfect.”

“It really hit home to me that beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” she says. “If you’re growing up and you’re not exposed to different kinds of art, you think beauty is staying in the lines. Going to art museums allows you to realize that beauty is what you see and how you perceive it.”

Brown also notes that teaming up with the other leading ladies of AMFA has been an honor. She’s excited to see the legacy created by all this “girl power.”

“This is bigger than me. This is for my bonus daughter, Ivy, and other little girls who will one day take the road less traveled by other women and minorities,” Brown says. “Art is the start of expression and creativity; it is the development of self and belonging. The art museum is a place of togetherness and community. It is a true display of Arkansas’ strength, and to be a part of this forward movement is to be a part of history.”

“We are a place that at a high level contributes to the quality of life in central Arkansas and the state,” Ramirez says. “For some people, we are their refuge, and for some people, we are a driver that contributes to them wanting to move here. We are a place that offers community and very special opportunities that you really can’t find anywhere else.”

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Year one by the Numbers

  • 10 Exhibitions
  • 2 Site-Specific Installations
  • 18 Artist Talks
  • 24 Accessibility Events
  • 236 Museum Tours
  • 54 Community Events
  • 45 ArtStart Sessions
  • 6 Children’s Theatre Productions
  • 13 Concerts
  • 24 Film Screenings
  • 712 Art Classes
  • Guests from 18 countries, 48 states and every zip code in Little Rock


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