“How does a museum stay relevant and stay vibrant?” Illinois-born architect Jeanne Gang recently raised this question from the sun-illuminated Cultural Living Room on the second floor of the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts’s live construction site.
At the helm of the AMFA’s reimagining is Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang, an architect who calls herself a “relationship builder.” Gang is known for her stunning, inventive responses to environmental concerns and her design impetus to reinvigorate staid social roles. Her “actionable idealism” is exemplified in the firm’s reformulation of a police station (Polis Station) on Chicago’s West Side, where the architect incorporated a basketball half court for off-duty police officers and neighborhood kids to play together.
Reconfiguring the role of Little Rock’s art museum, or any art museum for that matter, means addressing the art world’s stigma of elitism, irrelevance, and disconnection from daily life. Gang’s design renders the museum nearly transparent—a “museum in the park,” an apparent extension of the universal enjoyment of a leisurely garden stroll.
During a tour of the construction site guided by the women presiding over the redesign, Gang identified the grand corridor as the “orienting device” of the new museum, which is straddled by its theater and art school, and the adjoining artist-in-residence spaces. The new north entrance reframes the original 1937 Art Deco limestone facade by artisans of the Works Progress Administration as a defining feature of the building. Viewed from the north, the museum appears to be nearly weightless, perched on V-shaped columns, with a concrete roof that looks as light and pliable as origami paper. The wave of clerestories at the south entrance are meant to entice visitors of the park into the light-drenched, crystalline structure.
Gang stated that the redesign—her firm’s first museum redesign—is a very important opportunity for the architects to show both their skills and philosophy: “It shows our attention to what’s already there and how we can transform that into something that is really social, welcoming, and safe for the environment….In this building, we looked at every single system, every column, every corridor and are really redoing the whole, entire building using what we could….It’s a study of what you can do with reuse.” While Studio Gang preserved the Art Deco facade of the 1937 building, Gang considers the AMFA project a “reinvention” more than historic preservation. Juliane Wolf, the design principal at Studio Gang, has previously spoken of the potential for cross-fertilization between departments due to the “permeability” of the new design and the way the building is configured to provide uninterrupted sight lines across the structure.
Kate Orff, of the landscape architecture firm SCAPE, described how the south atrium would reveal a verdant expanse of MacArthur Park. A crescent lawn, restored with magnolias and oak trees, will be visible from the north side of the grand corridor. This portico entrance will also feature a sculpture by Henry Moore in front of the 1937 facade. Orff outlined “the geometry of a series of pathways that will reach out and try to pull people in from 9th Street.”
From above, the AMFA is shaped like a double blossom, and the grand corridor is the stem. The low points of its blossom-like pleated roof will catch rainwater for the gardens near the museum’s new indoor/outdoor restaurant and bar, from which the Tal Streeter sculpture Standing Red can be viewed. Fourteen acres of sustainable landscaping throughout MacArthur Park will provide an event lawn and a plaza of carved stone seats inviting visitors of the park’s pathways to seamlessly observe the natural beauty of the landscape. The architecture will draw visitors inside to view selected works from the museum’s 14,000-piece collection. Highlights include Dos Mujeres (Two Women) by Diego Rivera; a survey of late-nineteenth and twentieth-century Occidental avant-garde works of art; an extensive anthology of works on paper, the earliest of which dates back to circa 1465; works by artists from the South, such as Carroll Cloar; and contemporary craft. Both Kate Orff and Jeanne Gang described the liminal “inside-outside” quality of the building designed to cultivate a visual and social connection to the surrounding neighborhood and city, and they described how the museum’s activities will spill out into the surrounding park while inviting the community in at multiple points. In response to SCAPE’s and Studio Gang’s redevelopment of the area, the city of Little Rock has invested in renewing its portion of the park. Little Rock based architecture firm Polk Stanley Wilcox is also collaborating on the AMFA project.
Columns notwithstanding, the redesign required razing 75% of the previous maze-like structure that was the Arkansas Arts Center. Engineers of the new building are working towards LEED Silver certification. In the current stage of construction, around 200 workers, mostly from Arkansas, are installing fixtures and wooden slats that will be suspended from the ceiling following the pattern of dynamic, curving lines that flow through the building. Those suspended slats will mirror the organic arcs of the floor—all lines serving to intuitively orient viewers in their experience of the building.
The new museum will feature a starburst-shaped art school, whose configuration will allow glimpses into all of the studios. Through the exterior windows of the studios and from the Art Lawn, the surrounding community will be able to view art being made. The second floor features the Cultural Living Room, a hybrid performance space and meeting place to relax and converse over coffee—evoking a twenty-first-century Salon—as well as the more spacious temporary and permanent galleries, a new media gallery, and one particularly luminous gallery from which neighbors of the institution will be able to view large-scale works through a 20-ft window from adjacent 9th Street. The glass-enclosed Cultural Living Room features a 350-degree view of the surrounding structure and streets. Executive Director Victoria Ramirez says the Cultural Living Room exemplifies the AMFA’s “commitment to the community,” noting that “whether it’s for an informal gathering, or even just a space for comfortable and supportive dialogue…we hope it becomes a destination on its own….Thinking about that need for museums to reach out beyond their core audience, this is a great opportunity to underscore the social component of visiting a museum, and the social component of art.”
Ramirez also noted that the museum will remain free of charge and the importance of that commitment in creating a gathering space that fosters connection to the community: “One of the less tangible by-products of experiencing architecture and art is it’s just this sense of awe and wonderment and surprise and beauty….and [following that encounter] you just feel connected to the world in a different way….It’s an emotional connection almost—and I think that’s something people will be able to feel when they come into the new museum. It was designed for that.”
The Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts will re-open its doors in 2022.