Little Rock hasn't been alone in its eager anticipation of the return of the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts (AMFA). The approximately 127,000 square feet of expansion, reconstruction and reimagining have turned the heads of art lovers statewide, regionally and nationally.
Ahead of its reopening in MacArthur Park next spring, Soirée sat down with Dr. Catherine Walworth, the museum's Jackye and Curtis Finch Jr. Curator of Drawings, to talk AMFA plans, a life in the arts and falling in love with Little Rock.
What does your job as the curator of drawings entail?
CW: The Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts made drawings core to its collecting focus in the early 1970s and acquired amazing individual examples — things that often show a surprising side of a familiar artist — while also attracting incredible donations from artists’ estates and private collections. Interestingly, the term "drawing" at AMFA means any unique work of art on paper, so it’s broader than one might imagine. Right now, I’m having fun discovering everything and getting to know these drawings. It’s a bit like speed dating.
In general, though, curating is about stewarding, growing and tending a collection with an eye to telling stories. Together with my curator colleagues Brian Lang and Theresa Bembnister, I’m researching objects and selecting works that will rotate into the galleries. We are also choosing artworks to send for conservation treatment so that they can be shown, sometimes for the first time in ages. In the short time I’ve been here, we’ve also proposed new acquisitions, and I enjoy these discussions about connecting the dots and filling gaps within a collection, particularly in terms of representation.
Looking back, was there an "aha moment" when you knew your future was in the arts?
CW: I loved making art from the time I was little, but it was a trip to Washington, D.C. in high school that solidified museums for me as a future career path. My dad took my brother and me to the National Gallery of Art, and I became strangely aware of my footsteps echoing on the floor of this amazing building. I was very present, if that makes sense. I stood in front of a white marble statue of a woman and stared at it so hard that the marble seemed to move and the figure come alive. The whole experience was magical and I wanted more. Museums are still my favorite places.
Along with your previous roles at various museums, you've also researched and written about your own artistic interests, including film, industrial design and Russian and Soviet art. How has that informed your current work with AMFA?
CW: I’ve worked with museum collections of theater arts and industrial design in the past, and in both cases preparatory drawings are where an artist first sets down a three-dimensional concept, almost exhaling the idea onto paper. More generally, though, I’m interested in where form meets history. Personally, one of the exciting things about the AMFA Foundation Collection is the number of early avant-garde works of Russian and Ukrainian art — things that are rare for most museums to have at all — as well as hundreds of Soviet nonconformist photographs waiting to be brought out on view. In light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, these works can be used to shed light on imperialism, authoritarianism and freedom in the former Soviet Union. Those lessons can then be used to think about our own history.
You came to AMFA in early 2022 after working in cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland and San Antonio. What drew you to Little Rock, and what has surprised you about your time here so far?
CW: It was this great career opportunity that drew me to Little Rock, but my tour of the city sealed the deal. I have this way of moving to cities that have distinctive histories and are on a creative upswing with a unique blend of local wit and grit. I feel strong pride here in things like small businesses, local theaters and farmers markets. Plus, the museum and the Little Rock community are the right size to have a real dialogue with each other, and that’s important to me.
I chose to live by the museum, so you can see me riding my bike to take my compost to Dunbar Garden or walking my dog Mable all over downtown and SoMa. The free-range child of the '70s in me is happy. I’ve also hiked Pinnacle Mountain a couple of times and ridden the Arkansas River Trail loop and can’t believe how cool it is to have these things right here.
In a field dominated by names and trends on the coasts, what does it mean to you to interact with and help bring to light talent from the region?
CW: When I lived in San Antonio in the mid-2000s, I learned the power of a strong local art community. I became an arts writer and I went to everyone’s art studios and homes and heard their life stories, and I reviewed shows at grassroots art spaces and big museums. The art community there is a family, and the way they take care of each other is like having a portable generator; they were their own power base. I loved being part of that fun, creative scene, but indirectly it was an important life lesson in how to make local arts a real economic, social and cultural force in a city.
I also learned from the [San Antonio] residency program at Artpace that it’s critical, and frankly exhilarating, to bring national and international artists in from the outside to constantly refresh the conversation. It’s a gift to artists to be able to see great historical art, or art that is making history, and offer a place for their voice in the conversation.
With all this in mind, I see AMFA as part of the fabric of the community. Between the Delta Exhibition attracting stellar regional artists that we can help uplift and AMFA as [one of, if not the only] international art museum in the state, there are huge opportunities. I look forward to connecting with more local artists, writers, gallerists and other people making the art scene thrive.
AMFA is keeping most details under wraps before its reopening, but did announce it has acquired more than 800 new works since breaking ground. What can you tell us about what to expect from the new pieces?
CW: It was officially announced this year that AMFA was one of only four museums, along with Yale University Art Gallery, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Crocker Art Museum, chosen to receive donations from the Enamel Arts Foundation in Los Angeles. A little over half of the 800 is composed of modern and contemporary enamels, which I know Chief Curator Brian Lang is going to make sing.
The other half are works in all genres, from Baroque-era prints to contemporary craft, and of course, lots of drawings. Needless to say, when the museum reopens we are going to look different and we’ll continue to bring out new and newly-conserved art. Works on paper are organic, so they need to rest after being exposed to gallery lights. That means there will be a constant stream of new things on view, and I hope AMFA will be a place for visitors to regularly drop in.
Is there a particular artwork, exhibit, building detail or program that you're most excited for the public to experience in 2023?
CW: I work with an incredible staff who care so much about the visitor and what kind of experience they will have. In the galleries, we have an exciting lineup of special exhibitions that will immerse viewers in diverse cultural histories while looking at the world through the unique lens of art. Enveloping everything, there is something about the woman-designed building by Studio Gang, meant to respond to its natural environment, and particularly SCAPE’s acres of native plants, that make the new AMFA feel like the perfect happy place — a blend of art and nature.
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