Date: April 3, 2023 | Story: Stephanie Maxwell Newton | Photography: Tim Hursley, courtesy of Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts |
What’s on display when the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts celebrates its grand opening this month
The city of Little Rock and the wider arts community in Arkansas can breathe a sigh of relief when the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts opens its doors on April 22. Formerly known as the Arkansas Arts Center, the organization has long been one of the state’s most beloved cultural centers. Now, the rebranded, rebuilt, and reimagined AMFA takes what people loved about its former iteration and expands the possibilities. “I think the museum itself—and when I say museum, I mean not only the collection of art, but the programs offered, the theater, the art school, the building, the grounds, the entire institution—they’re really being designed to be almost future-proof,” says curator Theresa Bembnister. “We’re creating a space for today’s audiences, but also the audiences we hope to see tomorrow. It’s a space where people are going to be able to do so many things in terms of learning, relaxing, socializing, and understanding better who they are. I don’t think very many other museums in the country are offering that to their communities.”
Here, Theresa shares insight on the permanent collection, temporary exhibits, and what makes the museum, still at home on East Ninth Street in downtown Little Rock, so special.
A New Home
While AMFA’s galleries and offices are new, there are vestiges of the former arts center present throughout. This was an intentional design decision made by the museum’s lead architecture team, Studio Gang. “Studio Gang is really interested in sustainability,” Theresa says. “They wanted this building to match the footprint of the old building as much as possible for conservation purposes.”
Inside, there are five galleries dedicated to the permanent collection, one featuring a series of rotating exhibitions (currently showing “Drawn to Paper,” selected drawings from the permanent collection), two galleries for temporary exhibitions, and, brand-new for the institution, a new-media gallery for showcasing work with audio-visual components. There are also areas both inside and outside the building for site-specific installations, two of which will be in place for the grand opening. “Studio Gang created spaces we can use for programs both formal and informal. It could be educational programming or a gala,” Theresa says. “We can also display art in those spaces. It’s really flexible, and that’s by design. I’m hoping that moving forward, after we have the building open for a while and we understand how it works and how people are using it, we can activate some of these other spaces for site-specific works, too.”
Not every part of AMFA worth celebrating is brand new. Take, for example, the permanent collection of approximately 15,000 works that the museum has been growing since its inception. “This institution is unique in that the majority of our collection is works on paper,” Theresa says, noting that this designation encompasses not only drawings but photographs, prints, and paintings as well. Because of the delicate nature of paper, these pieces can only be displayed (and exposed to light) for three to six months before they have to be put back in storage for five to seven years. “We’re turning over those works on paper every six months. So if you think you’ve seen what we have, come back again.”
For the museum’s initial opening, Theresa and the rest of the curatorial team have put together an exhibition that serves as a reintroduction to the museum’s permanent collection. “We’re telling stories with the art we select,” she says. “We’re telling stories about art history, about the history of this institution, and about Little Rock, all with the choices we make.” The five galleries will follow an almost chronological timeline, starting with a “who’s who” of the collection and then showing impressionist, modernist, and contemporary works. Throughout, the curators have carefully juxtaposed contemporary art with older works, hoping to inspire people to pause and consider the effect historical context has on art. “We’re looking for people to ask, how is it different when we have a portrait done in the 1800s versus a portrait done in 1980? We want to inspire those stop-and-think kind of moments.”
One of AMFA’s opening exhibitions will be visible before you even step foot in the building: An installation by Texas-based artist Natasha Bowdoin takes over the Art Perch, a space visible from the museum’s north entrance. “Natasha is known for her gardenscapes. She makes these very lush, colorful flowers and leaves that look like they’re going to come to life and grow over everything,” Theresa says. In the Corridor, another area designated for installations, New York artist Anne Lindberg has made an ethereal creation suspended overhead. “Anne makes these sculptures that she considers to be drawing. She takes miles and miles of cotton thread and staples them from wall to wall, back and forth and back and forth to create this cloud of thread and space,” the curator says. Specific lighting casts a glow over the final installation. Like Bowdoin’s gardenscape, this piece is being designed specifically for AMFA, meaning you won’t ever see this exact work anywhere else.
“There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes to make these happen,” Theresa says of these larger-than-life installations. “Being a curator, we’re often front and center, but I have a lot of colleagues working behind the scenes to make it look like everything’s seamless. It’s really a team effort.”
Several temporary exhibits have also been specially curated for AMFA’s opening. “Chakaia Booker: Intentional Risks” showcases the work of Chakaia Booker, most well known for her sculptures created out of shredded tires. “Even just the smell of those draws you in,” Theresa says. “Her work to me engages so many senses.” “Intentional Risks” will show prints by the artist along with one of her signature sculptures.
Sun Xun will be the first artist to have work featured in the AMFA’s new-media gallery. “Sun Xun: Tears of Chiwen” incorporates traditional Chinese ink drawing into a contemporary form: animated film. “My secret curator tip for museum going is that new-media galleries are a really great place to rest your feet,” Theresa laughs. “Just sit down, take a break, and take it in.”
Finally, “Together.” invites viewers to consider the meaning of togetherness through the work of artists from all over the world, in mediums ranging from video art to photography, painting, sculpture, and fiber arts. “After being closed, the museum hasn’t been able to welcome our community in the way that were when we were open to the public,” Theresa says. “So it’s a way to celebrate being together again.”
Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts opens on April 22. Visit arkmfa.org for hours and more information.
A detail from Natasha Bowdoin’s “In the Night Garden,” an installation for the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, shows the graphic nature of Bowdoin’s organic-inspired creations. “Natasha Bowdoin: Spring Song” will be on display in AMFA’s Art Perch.
“Standing Bull” by Elaine de Kooning is part of the permanent collection. “This piece was recently conserved, so it will be on display in all its glory greeting people as soon as they walk in the door,” Theresa says.