At the unveiling of the new Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts (A/MFA), Executive Director Dr. Victoria Ramirez made something very clear, “While we are welcoming you to a new museum, this is not a new museum.”
Founded in 1937, the A/MFA has been steadily expanded over the course of its long history, with eight separate additions (each with their own wiring system—a nightmare). In an aerial photo, the white block of the original building is surrounded on all sides, with even its art deco facade concealed. The interior of this Frankensteined building became a bit of a maze, with printed signs directing lost patrons taped up at many a critical fork in the path.
Yet, as Ramirez described in her opening remarks, A/MFA was “a victim of its own success.” The building had to expand to accomodate multiple uses, as the building isn’t just a museum but a cultural center. There are performances spaces for dance, a children’s theater, and a thriving art school with classes in drawing, ceramics, metal smithing, woodworking, and glassblowing.
After the museum closed for several years for renovations, some classes, as well as the administrative offices, were hosted in an abandoned Walmart nearby.
“I had people crying in my office,” Beth Lambert, the director of the newly re-named Windgate Art school, told ARTnews. “I told them, the school isn’t the building, it’s the people.”
The building, as it exists now, designed by Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang, could not be more different than its predecesssor, despite the absence of any major demolitions. The building is white-washed and flowing, suffused with plentiful natural light. From the high ceilings of the atrium, a fanning, paneled wood fixture curves, leading the way to the galleries and to a floating, enclosed terrace called the Cultural Living Room. Arkansas granite, skillfully designed, snakes toward the art school, with its new kilns and pale wood tables. Gang and her team often refer to the design ethos of the A/MFA as a blossom, holding all the different needs of the museum, the precious community life, within a single, blooming entity.
The project was largely shaped by Warren and Harriet Stephens, local philanthropists whose fortune comes from Stephens Inc., one of the largest privately-owned investment banks in the United States. Like many Arkansas-based companies, the history of the company is entangled with local heavyweights Walmart and Tyson Foods. Stephens Inc. handled Walmart’s IPO in 1970 and advised on Tyson Food’s hostile takeover of Holly Farms in 1986. Today, Stephens Inc. is privately owned by Warren Stephens, whose family has long been involved with the A/MFA.
The private collection of Warren’s father Jackson, which includes Effect of the Sun Setting on the Seine at Port-Villez (1883) by Claude Monet (it used to hang in the family home), have been on loan to the museum for the past twenty years. Jackson Stephens’ focus on collecting works on paper have shaped the museum’s focus in acquiring studies, drawings, and prints. Avid collectors themselves, Warren and Harriet bought their first piece of art on their honeymoon and soon after their nuptials, got involved in museum leadership. The couple spearheaded fundraising for the redesign of the A/MFA after the citizens of Little Rock approved a plan in 2016 to hold a bond for a $37 million investment into the A/MFA that would be paid back over the next 30 years using an increased tax on hotel revenue.
“When we got the money from the city, that was that was a huge moment,” Warren Stephens told ARTnews, as we settled into the Cultural Living Room, which overlooks the museum entrance, with lemonades. “We realized that we really owe it to ourselves to go see what we can do, what we can raise.”
The state of Arkansas is growing rapidly as the government has been trying to attract more people to the region. The Walton family set an example of how to attract workers and tourists to the region when they founded Crystal Bridges, and with the pandemic’s push to remote work, Arkansan cities have been investing in cultural offerings that would encourage remote workers to move into the state.
“You’ve got to make your city and your state a compelling place for people to want to be because now, they can go and be anywhere,” Harriet Stephens, a brooch of quartz carved into the shape of scallop shells glinting off her shoulder, told ARTnews.
In total, $160 million was raised to reimagine the A/MFA, with major donations from the Stephens as well as the Windgate Foundation. This price tag doesn’t only include the architectural work, the landscaping, and improvements to amenities like the theater (which now has a backstage). Money was also set aside for acquisitions and, crucially, to clean 100 works in the permanent collection that had long been languishing in storage.
“There was so much we’ve been wanting to share with our public but were just unable to until now,” Theresa Bembnister, a curator at the A/MFA, told ARTnews.
Through the conservation effort and a spate of acquisitions, the museum is now prepared to show more works by Indigenous artists. A third of the works included in the inaugural exhibition, titled “Together,” were acquired by the A/MFA with a focus on Midwestern and Southern artists, like Ryan RedCorn, Jess T. Dugan and Julie Blackmon. Two site-specific works by Natasha Bowdoin and Anne Lindberg were also commissioned using the new funds available to the musuem.
“I’ve found that you can make a bigger difference working at an institution that is outside of art centers like New York where you’re surrounded for museums,” said Bembnister. “It’s a huge opportunity.”