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The new Arts Center 

It's four years off, but worth the wait.

click to enlarge A VIEW FROM NINTH STREET: The Arts Center's new face will no longer be a loading dock, but a plaza leading to 1937 doors.
  • A VIEW FROM NINTH STREET: The Arts Center's new face will no longer be a loading dock, but a plaza leading to 1937 doors.

The gods have smiled on the Arkansas Art Center. Its original structure, the Museum of Fine Arts, got a commanding two-story Art Deco entrance thanks to WPA artists and federal grants. In the 1960s, the Arts Center got Winthrop and Jeannette Rockefeller. In 2000, it opened its newest wing, thanks to Townsend Wolfe's successful wheedling from donors like Jackson T. Stephens.

Now it's got two geniuses, of the MacArthur Fellowship variety, to make a whole of its nine construction stages and glommed-on architectural scheme. They see a smoothed-out floorplan with an organic whoosh of pleated roofing with clerestory windows along the facility's north-south axis, extending out into MacArthur Park on both ends. A sensible floor plan reveals and expands the museum school, brings the theater into the 21st century, adds a "cultural living room" with a view of the city, and makes a connection to the park it occupies. No longer will the loading dock be the primary view of the Arts Center from Ninth Street. No longer will the Arts Center show the north its backside and hide its southern entrance with its recessed entry.

Architect Jeanne Gang of the Chicago firm Studio Gang told a crowd gathered in the Children's Theatre last week that the Arts Center today, "even though it's a building in a park, it's really a building in a parking lot."

That will change, thanks to Studio Gang's decision to uncover the 1937 façade and extend into the park on the north with a plaza and the south with a glass-walled restaurant. Thanks to designs by SCAPE landscape architects, landform alterations will create a presence for the Arts Center on its approach, even before one gets to the door.

Gang and SCAPE founder Kate Orff — both McArthur fellows, TED Talk givers, Harvard School of Design graduates — made a day of presentations Tuesday, Feb. 27, to the AAC's board of directors, the AAC Foundation, city agencies and finally to the public, which arrived for the evening talk in droves and filled both the theater and lecture hall.

Looking up at the projection of an aerial view of today's Arts Center, with its numerous levels and building phases and jagged outline, Gang told Tuesday's audience that the project is probably one of the most intimidating projects she's taken on "because, look at that." She said the competition to get the job — Studio Gang was up against Norwegian firm Snohetta (designer of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), international firm Shigeru Ban (Aspen Museum of Art), Thomas Phifer and Partners of New York (Corning Museum of Glass) and allied works of Portland (Clyfford Still Museum) — was "very fierce. But then, after that, we had other architects calling me and saying, 'Good luck with that.' "

Still, the project is one Studio Gang is "very excited about. It might be one of our best projects," Gang said. The firm's resume includes the Aqua Tower in Chicago, the University of Chicago's North Residential Commons and Tour Montparnasse in Paris, among others.

Gang clicked through the images to a view of the new Arts Center's south entrance from above, showing the pleated spine "blossoming" over a glass-walled restaurant and a landscaped entrance where broken fountains, parking lots and dead grass are now. There was a hush in the audience. "I know," she said. "It's beautiful."

The Arts Center had several goals for Studio Gang: It wanted more connection to MacArthur Park, with a welcoming "identity" to the development spreading south from the River Market District. It needed more art storage and improved and integrated heating, cooling and mechanical systems.

That's what it got.

Studio Gang's concept shows a new entry at the original — the 1937 entrance facing Ninth Street — with a plaza and fountain featuring Henry Moore's "Large Standing Figure Knife Edge," now at Louisiana and Fifth streets. (Mayor Mark Stodola earlier confirmed that the city had worked out the move.) Outdoor sculpture gardens and a tree-lined walkway will follow the crescent driveway; parking will be along the west side of the building in alleys of bald cypress.

Gang's design allows visitors to see all the way from north to south, through a sky-lit passage with tall ceilings, wooden columns and spacious entry points to the theater and museum school. It adds a second floor over the northwest quadrant, atop the atrium and the Wolfe and Jeannette Rockefeller galleries. It moves the loading dock to today's west entrance, providing direct entry into what will be storage and conservation areas. The move means artwork will no longer have to be schlepped from the Wolfe gallery on the west, through the Arts Center's public spaces, and to its current storage area on the east.

There will also be a library and research center in the northwest ground floor quadrant, something the Arts Center attempted in 2000 just off the Jack Stephens gallery but was unable to make work.

The galleries, to be on the new second floor, will open into a glass-walled public area overlooking the Ninth Street entrance — the "cultural living room," with places to gather, hear talks, work on laptops, drink coffee.

The Children's Theatre will get technical upgrades and new seating and its rehearsal space, behind the stage, will get natural light, with glass walls replacing concrete blocks.

The museum school, in the southwest quadrant, will grow by 25 percent and feature room for student lockers and a courtyard. The restaurant, which will extend into the park behind transparent walls, will create a space unlike any other in Little Rock, Gang said.

In all, the design includes 127,000 square feet of renovated or new spaces.

Landscape architect designer Orff said she took inspiration from Little Rock's interface with Delta lowlands and Ouachita uplands and its riparian setting for a design that would create a home for the Arts Center. The landscaping will borrow from the textures of the "mineral landscape," and use water runoff from the creases in the clerestory "spine" to feed native grasses and perennials. Orff envisions pathways through meadow-like plantings along the crescent drive off Ninth, and landscaping that allows programming to "spill out," but be connected to the building.

At the close of the public program, the Arts Center handed out small champagne bottles to mark the expected opening of the new building, in 2022.

Construction costs, originally at $46 million, grew to $70 million when the Arts Center and its foundation realized the lower figure would not provide the pizzazz Little Rock expects to see in the facility, which will receive an estimated $35 million from a bond issue financed by the city tourism tax receipts. The foundation is raising money for furnishings and an endowment but has not gone public with its capital campaign goal.

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