Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts
The Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts 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. With support from the cities of Little Rock and North Little Rock (Pulaski County), the state, and the public, the museum has undergone tremendous growth over the years while remaining committed to bringing art and people together. The drawing collection has an international reputation, the Museum School created the state’s largest non-degree instructional program, and the State Services programs—the Artmobile, Tell-A-Tale Troupe, and Traveling Exhibitions Service—extended to all seventy-five counties. The organization’s vision includes increased collaboration with civic, educational, and cultural partners to expand its participation in community life and serve the broadest possible constituency, and the museum’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.
The seed for the museum 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 was 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. The following year, Dr. Victoria Ramirez was named the new executive director.
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 initially scheduled for completion in 2022 (and later moved back to the spring of 2023). Three years later, with renovation ongoing, the museum was rebranded as the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, hearkening back to the original name. The renovated museum reopened in April 2023 featuring special events, with regular museum hours beginning in May. By the time of the opening, $170.8 million had been raised for the museum and its operations in a private fundraising drive, in addition to a city bond issue paid for by hotel taxes to cover about $31 million of the renovation. The new Park Grill restaurant inside the museum has a view of the re-landscaped grounds.
For additional information:
Arkansas Arts Center Dedication Program, May 18, 1963. Special Collections. Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts. https://www.arkmfa.org/ (accessed April 24, 2023).
Besson, Eric. “Center Now Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 26, 2021, pp. 1A, 6A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2021/jan/26/center-now-arkansas-museum-fine-arts/ (accessed April 24, 2023).
Clancy, Sean. “Doors Open at Fine Arts Museum.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 23, 2023, pp. 1A, 6A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/apr/23/doors-open-at-fine-arts-museum/ (accessed April 24, 2023).
———. “Doors Open for Preview at Museum of Fine Arts.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 19, 2023, pp. 1A, 7A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/apr/19/doors-open-for-preview-at-museum-of-fine-arts/ (accessed April 19, 2023).
———. “Museum Opening Its Art to State.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 16, 2023, pp. 1A, 12A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/apr/16/four-exhibits-set-for-opening-of-arkansas-museum/ (accessed April 17, 2023).
Cottingham, Jan. “A Gem within Our City.” Arkansas Business, May 20–26, 2019, pp. 1, 16–17.
Grear, Daniel. “Together at Last.” Arkansas Times, May 2023, pp, 55–58, 60–61. Online at https://arktimes.com/rock-candy/2023/04/21/a-first-look-at-the-arkansas-museum-of-fine-arts (accessed April 28, 2023).
Lundgren, Kaye M. “Arts Advocate: Jeannette Edris Rockefeller and the Founding of the Arkansas Arts Center.” MA thesis, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, 2017.
Trieschmann, Werner. “Displays of Ambition.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 28, 2010, pp. 1E, 6E.
UA Little Rock Seminar in Public History (HIST 7391) Files on the Arkansas Arts Center, 2007 (UALR.MS.0193). Center for Arkansas History and Culture. University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Little Rock, Arkansas. Finding aid online at https://arstudies.contentdm.oclc.org/utils/findingaidfull/collection/findingaids/id/4587 (accessed April 24, 2023).
Ellen A. Plummer
Arkansas Arts Center
Peninsula Fine Arts Center
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