It has taken a fortune to build and will house a treasure trove of art, but the reimagined Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts wouldn't be happening without a wealth of ideas.
“We got to the point where we say, ‘No more ideas, let’s pick one,’” says AMFA Executive Director Victoria Ramirez. “Then we start building on it and you realize you’ve got this great idea, and yet it can accomplish all these other things you’ve talked about you want to achieve.”
With an opening date of April 22, the one-time Arkansas Arts Center represents a revised fundraising commitment of $155 million (after donations exceeded the original goal) and will feature a 14,000-object international collection in a new, 20,000-square-foot gallery wing. Permanent and temporary collections will be housed in dedicated galleries and new features will include the New Media Gallery and the Art Perch, which will literally provide visitors a framed window into the artworks inside and view of the landscape design outside.
Additional AMFA features will include, but are not limited to, the Terri and Chuck Erwin Collections Research Center, the 11,000-square-foot Windgate Art School, the 350-seat Performing Arts Theater, the 153-seat Governor Winthrop Rockefeller Lecture Hall, the second-floor Cultural Living Room gathering and events space and a new, 2,800-square-foot full-service restaurant.
In September the museum began its countdown clock, heightening the anticipation and underscoring for Ramirez the notion that all of her previous positions in museum work have pointed her here.
“I have been really fortunate and have assumed projects throughout my career that prompted me to reimagine galleries and exhibitions or rethink education programs and outreach or think about the visitor experience and restaurants and stores,” says Ramirez, named executive director in 2019. “But to be able to do it all at once, and I’ve said this before, but it really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
With 20-plus years in the industry, Ramirez came to the AMFA from the municipal El Paso Museum of Art, where she served as director. She has also been director of the Bullock Texas State History Museum and was the W.T. and Louise J. Moran education director at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, where she was responsible for long-range planning and taught art history and appreciation.
“My first day on the job, I knew that this was going to be a massive project, and I knew this was going to be, once we opened, a really big accomplishment,” Ramiez says of the AMFA. “Not only for me, but for everybody.”
While she doesn’t put a fine point on it, Ramirez is part of a group of women lending their particular skills and talents to a project more than six years in the making. The group includes award-winning architect Jeanne Gang of Chicago-based Studio Gang, design architect and architect of record; landscape designer Kate Orff of New York-based SCAPE Landscape Architecture; and building committee chair and capital campaign co-chair Harriet Stephens.
It’s an impressive group of women, Ramirez admits, but she is more impressed by the talent and ability represented.
“It is unique. Certainly,” Ramirez says. “But at the same time it’s not a surprise. I think if you built the team from scratch and said, ‘Let’s find the most capable people,’ you would still come up with this group. I look forward to the day when it’s not a surprise.”
Works on paper have always been a mainstay of the Arkansas Arts Center exhibits, and, noting the 2022 Small Works on Paper touring exhibit featuring 28 artists, Ramirez says that has not changed. That sits well with Ramirez, who has always enjoyed drawing since she took classes at the Cleveland Institute of Art as a girl growing up in the Midwest.
“That was my special thing I got to do on the weekends,” she says. “I always gravitated to art and to museums. I thought at first I wanted to be an artist, but I think art history and museum work are probably more my calling than making art.”
While drawn to the museum environment, Ramirez followed a teaching path more than she did a curatorial route. Working in or with educational departments, she says, helped her to better see the way art connects to people, an experience she sees the new AMFA replicating.
“It’s such an interesting way to understand the world,” she says.
Studio Gang had already been named as architect when Ramirez came on board, and she fully embraced the AMFA’s planned, multifaceted design, its connection between art and nature and, more importantly, its connection of art to people.
“As a museum director you need a lot of people to believe in your organization and really understand all that it can do for a community,” Ramirez says. “Nobody on the hiring committee saw the museum as just being one thing. It wasn’t just a place for school field trips or a place that collected. It was really multifaceted. And I think philosophically we aligned and wanted the same things.”
Accordingly, and in tune with Ramirez’s own feelings toward art’s role in the local environment, the AMFA’s banner inaugural exhibition “Together” is described as a “celebration of art that explores our connectedness to each other and the natural world.” It will feature a mix of new acquisitions and works on loan by artists including Elias Sime, Ryan RedCorn, LaToya Hobbs and Oliver Lee Jackson.
Ramirez is particularly excited about the first children’s theater production of “The Hungry Caterpillar,” which will include 75 working puppets. Of the AMFA’s physical features, Ramirez can’t help noting the Art Perch, from which visitors can view the reimagined grounds but, more importantly, will give passersby a tantalizing glimpse of what’s inside.
“It’s intentional, to say ‘Welcome, come on in.’”
Married, with a stepson and two grandchildren, Ramirez enjoys spending time with her group of friends in her Riverdale community. She says the local neighborhoods were as welcoming to her as the AMFA hiring committee, which boomerangs back to her overall sense of community, the arts and what they mean to each other.
“We’re a free museum,” she says. “And a lot of what we offer is free to the public because we don’t want to have any barriers for people to participate. I think when people come to the new museum, the new building, they’ll see these really unique social and gathering spaces where those kinds of exchanges with people you know or people you’re meeting for the first time can happen. And that, to me, is one of the really important roles that museums can play in a community.”
GANG'S ALL HERE
The Arkansas Arts Center has been a mainstay of Little Rock’s MacArthur Park since it was created as the Museum of Fine Arts in 1937, but its lineage can be traced to 1914 when a group of prominent women founded the Fine Arts Club.
“AMFA owes its roots to the women who founded the Fine Arts Club in 1914, and I feel like we’ve gone full circle,” Stephens says. “We are honoring the legacy and vision of the founding women. It’s been a joy to be part of this team.”
Various capital campaigns and the formation of the nonprofit Arkansas Arts Foundation contributed to expansions and remodels through the years, while the Arkansas Arts Center itself was created by city ordinance in 1961. Through the decades its exhibits, educational programs and children’s theater have enriched the city, state and region, and its value to the community was apparent when, in 2016, the people of Little Rock voted for a hotel tax bond to help renovate the building.
“Great support from central Arkansas has made much of this possible, and the giving is unprecedented,” Stephens says. “There is a real love and devotion for
what was the Arkansas Arts Center. In AMFA, they see a bright future. The goodwill and generosity for this project spans central Arkansas, the state and beyond. The arts educate, transform and inspire; AMFA gives people the opportunity to be part of that experience.”
Also in 2016, Studio Gang Architects was selected to create the design, and in 2017 SCAPE was named landscape architects, with Little Rock firm Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects named associate architects. The project broke ground in October 2019, and in 2021 the name was changed to the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts.
The AMFA was originally scheduled to open in 2022, but pandemic-related delays led to the date being pushed to spring 2023. The project, however, is already generating buzz without opening its doors.
British-based industry magazine ICON recognized the AMFA as the only American building among its most anticipated architectural sites to be opened. The AMFA won first place in the 2021 American Concrete Institute Excellence in Concrete Construction Awards (Low-Rise Buildings Category), and in 2019 it won The Architect’s Newspaper Best of Design Awards, Unbuilt - Cultural Category.
Gang is a MacArthur Fellow and a professor in practice at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Studio Gang’s recent projects include an extension to the American Natural History Museum in New York and a reconceptualization of Tom Lee Park in the Memphis riverfront.
The AMFA is Studio Gang’s first project in Arkansas.
“It was the setting in the park and the multiple programs that coexisted in the same building that really attracted me to the project,” Gang says. “I often describe my studio’s motto as ‘Start with what’s there.’ We begin our designs by looking at the existing qualities of place, and we try to build upon them in ways that draw out new possibilities. For AMFA, our goal was to renew and reuse as much of the existing campus as possible. This was an important way to limit the embodied carbon of the project.”
Destined to be among the 133,000-square-foot AMFA’s more recognizable features will be the folded plate concrete roof and a reincorporation of the 1937 Art Deco facade, returned to its original role as the north entrance of the museum.
The central addition offers an entrance on the south, MacArthur Park side and creates a naturally lit connective space leading visitors to the reimagined galleries, art school, performing arts and public gathering spaces, restaurant and museum store.
In collaboration with the work of SCAPE and Orff, the design links the architecture and 11-acre landscape to extend the museum experience into the park. Planted groves, a framework of new trees, 2,200 linear feet of walking paths and trails, seatwalls, rain gardens and more than 50 species of perennials, shrubs, native trees and ornamental grasses will reflect Arkansas’ native ecosystems.
“In the concept stages for the project, we really fell in love with Arkansas’ native landscapes and biodiversity, and tried to incorporate that identity throughout the planting design across the south and north plazas,” Orff says.
“In both architecture and landscape, the museum rebuilds some of the social connective tissue between downtown Little Rock and MacArthur Park, which is already such an extraordinary civic asset. We wanted it to feel like a more open, welcoming, seamless connection for visitors — so, although there are 250 new trees, we matrixed them in such a way that they’ll merge with the existing canopy over time.”
With so many creative ideas floating around, Ramirez says it has literally taken years to whittle the project down to a concept into which everyone involved could place their energies.
“You have to pick your horse and run with it,” she says.
But thanks to one of the nation’s “premier architects” and the creative group of women behind the project, Ramirez says the AMFA is running in the right direction, reinventing a local institution that weaves together art and nature to enhance a sense of community.
While the AMFA is expected to celebrate art and artists for decades to come, Ramirez hopes the opening celebrations will be focused more on the creation than the gender roles of any of the creators. When the first visitor passes through the doors, she says, it will be clear that the work speaks for itself.
“Take the resume of every individual woman that’s a part of this project and erase their name and find somebody better,” Ramirez says. “I don’t think you could.”