Arkansas Arts Center
The Arkansas Arts Center in the MacArthur Park Historic District of Little Rock (Pulaski County) is an art museum with a children’s theater and a studio school. Its mission is to facilitate learning, inspiration, and creative expression for all ages and backgrounds.
The seed for the Arkansas Arts Center was planted in 1914, when the Fine Arts Club of Arkansas was formed. In 1937, its core supporters and volunteers contributed to the creation of the Museum of Fine Arts in Little Rock’s MacArthur Park. In 1959, in cooperation with the museum’s Fine Arts Club, the Little Rock Junior League, and the city of Little Rock, the future governor and first lady—Winthrop and Jeannette Rockefeller—agreed to help launch a statewide capital campaign to enlarge the museum significantly and expand its programs.
The museum was created by city ordinance in 1961 and renamed the Arkansas Arts Center. By 1963, it had expanded to include five galleries, a 381-seat theater, four studio classrooms, sculpture courtyards, and an art reference library. It offered temporary art exhibitions, a community theater, and a school of fine and performing arts. Acquisitions were limited to gifts, regional paintings, and a few works by major artists.
Townsend Wolfe was hired as director in 1968. With input from the board of trustees, new programs and services were introduced. The studio classrooms developed into a community school for children and adults, and a State Services department was formed. At this time, the Arts Center began to look beyond the city for private funding.
In 1971, Wolfe and the board of directors decided that the collection would be concentrated primarily on drawings, an area to which few museums were committed. They believed the center could acquire drawings with limited resources, excel in the area, and make a unique contribution to the field. The quality of exhibitions increased accordingly.
The Arkansas Arts Center Foundation was formed in 1972 as a non-profit organization to hold title to the endowment (apart from the city) and the permanent collection. Three years later, the Museum School studios and art storage areas were enlarged. Shortly thereafter, the theater was transformed into the Children’s Theatre, modeled after the Minneapolis Children’s Theater. A 3,200-square-foot gallery named for Rockefeller was added in 1982.
The Arkansas Arts Center opened the Decorative Arts Museum in the Pike-Fletcher-Terry House in 1985. This historic Greek Revival house, a few blocks from the main building at 7th and Rock streets, was bequeathed to the city for use by the Arts Center as a gallery for the decorative arts, specializing in contemporary craft.
The 1,300-square-foot Strauss Gallery was added at the main facility in 1989. Beginning in 2000, it was designated primarily for rotating, regional art exhibitions. In February 2000, the Arts Center completed its most ambitious expansion—a $22 million capital campaign to construct a 30,000-square-foot addition to the main facility, renovate spaces, upgrade systems, and infuse the endowment with an additional $10 million.
The Paul Signac Gallery and the Donald W. Reynolds Center for Drawing Research and Education opened in July 2001. In response to a gift of 133 watercolors and drawings by Neo-Impressionist Paul Signac, the center created an intimate space that displays a rotated selection of his work. Also at this time, the Reynolds Center became available to the public. Open by appointment, the center is intended for scholarly and student research and access to objects in storage.
Dr. Ellen A. Plummer served as executive director from November 2002, following the retirement of Wolfe, to April 2010. A new strategic plan, including a revised mission statement, was implemented with a strong emphasis on integrating increased educational components. In April 2011, Todd Herman was named executive director; he served until 2018.
To offer its contemporary craft collection and exhibitions to a broader audience, the center moved these programs from the Terry House to the newly renovated main building in June 2003. In the fall of 2004, the former Decorative Arts Museum was renamed the Arkansas Arts Center Terry House Community Gallery and reopened as a space for collaborative exhibitions and programs with arts and non-profit agencies. In February 2018, it was announced that the Arkansas Arts Center would undergo a $70 million renovation that would include new entrances and expanded museum school and restaurant facilities, with the project scheduled for completion in 2022.
With support from the cities of Little Rock and North Little Rock (Pulaski County), the state, and the public, the Arts Center has undergone tremendous growth while remaining committed to bringing art and people together. The drawing collection has an international reputation, the Museum School has the state’s largest non-degree instructional program, and the State Services programs—the Artmobile, Tell-A-Tale Troupe, and Traveling Exhibitions Service—extend to all seventy-five counties. Watercolor in the Park restaurant is also located inside the Arkansas Arts Center.
The organization’s vision includes increased communication and collaboration with civic, educational, and cultural partners to expand its participation in community life and serve the broadest possible constituency. The Arts Center’s artistic goal is to become recognized as unique among museums of its size for the strength and depth of its specialized collections, in concert with supporting material and programs.
For additional information:
Arkansas Arts Center. https://www.arkansasartscenter.org/ (accessed September 27, 2017).
Arkansas Arts Center Dedication Program, May 18, 1963. Special Collections. Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Cottingham, Jan. “A Gem within Our City.” Arkansas Business, May 20–26, 2019, pp. 1, 16–17.
Trieschmann, Werner. “Displays of Ambition.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 28, 2010, pp. 1E, 6E.
Ellen A. Plummer
Arkansas Arts Center
Peninsula Fine Arts Center
Last Updated: 01/08/2019