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After 40 months of construction, the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts is preparing to reopen its doors to the public Saturday, April 22. Although it is not new, the reimagined art museum is now the largest cultural institution of its kind in the state and incorporates its outdoor setting into a space that visitors to the former Arkansas Arts Center will barely recognize.
“It draws on its rich heritage,” Dr. Victoria Ramirez, AMFA executive director, said about the facility that opened in downtown Little Rock’s MacArthur Park in 1937 as the first museum dedicated to the fine arts in Arkansas. “It is all that a 21st-century museum can be… A place for art, and a place for people.”
More than 3,000 people have already claimed their free tickets to the grand opening day, and additional free timed-entry tickets will be available for entry beginning May 2, when normal operation resumes.
The Arkansas Arts Center, an addition to the 1937 structure, opened in 1963. Over the next 50 years, the museum underwent seven more expansions, including a 1982 renovation that preserved the 1937 façade as a design feature of an interior gallery. Although the permanent collection, temporary exhibitions and other offerings over subsequent years were impressive, the result was a grouping of buildings that felt disjointed. It was often hard for visitors to even find the entrance.
But that has changed. The courtyard entrance on the north end now serves as AMFA’s formal entrance, providing a grand entry while allowing visitors to cross the 1937 courtyard and enter through the historic Art Deco limestone façade, arriving in the 1937 lobby.
The park entrance on the building’s south end faces MacArthur Park, which was previously very separate from AMFA. At this end, the “blossoming” roof meets arriving guests, extending into deep overhangs that shade the entrance and the dining terrace of the new indoor/outdoor full-service restaurant. From outside or inside, guests can take in views of AMFA’s new landscape, which includes more than 50 species of perennials, shrubs, native plants and ornamental grasses. In addition, 250 native trees were planted, and many of the old oak trees were preserved in an attempt to replenish the oak canopy. The goal was to blur the boundaries between the museum and MacArthur Park.
The 11-acre landscape plan, designed by SCAPE landscape architect firm, is one of the most exciting new features. There are 2,200 linear feet of new walking paths, outdoor sculpture, and curving, sculptural benches that connect the architecture and landscape throughout the northern and southern entrance plazas. The 5,100-square-foot event lawn off the restaurant is designed for hosting AMFA programs and activities or special events. The 10,000-square-foot crescent lawn along Ninth Street preserves the park’s iconic oak trees and reintroduces groves and native plantings.
Another preserved feature of the former Arkansas Arts Center is the emphasis on drawings and works on paper, which has long been a focus of AMFA. In fact, the AMFA Foundation has the largest public collection of Paul Signac’s watercolors outside of France.
The inaugural installation in the Harriet and Warren Stephens Galleries contains more than 150 diverse works from the AMFA Foundation Collection. They fill more than 15,000 square feet across eight galleries. A recently conserved, nearly life-sized bull painting by Elaine de Kooning greets guests as they enter. AMFA representatives proudly remind visitors that de Kooning gave a workshop at the Museum’s art school in 1972.
Many of the works now on display are making their AMFA debut.
One of the most fun new exhibits is titled “Together,” offering “meditations on family, friends, community, and our connection to the natural world.” The exhibit “demonstrates the power of art to tell complex stories with wit and substance.”
Works include a collaged felt triptych by Oliver Lee Jackson and a photo by Julie Blackmon that pays homage to “The Shining.”
Anne Lindberg’s passage exhibition is a site-specific installation commissioned by AMFA. It creates an art experience overhead as visitors walk through the galleries.
Interspersed among these exhibitions are works by Arkansas artists, such as “Carving Out Time, Scene 1: Morning” by LaToya M. Hobbs of Little Rock.
Although visitors don’t have to exit through the gift shop, it’s not to be missed. Well-curated offerings include a central section devoted to up-and-coming artists from around the state, as well as materials for budding artists. Some of the currently featured Arkansas artists include sculpted glass artists the Riley brothers of Hot Springs, ceramics maker Jingjing Yu of Bentonville, and woodworking artist Steven Hurd of Conway.
For more information, and to reserve free timed-entry tickets, visit their website.
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