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story.lead_photo.caption The Arts Center’s proposed new north entrance and cultural living room as seen from Crescent Drive are depicted in this artist’s rendering.

Private donors have pledged more than $86 million to remake the Arkansas Arts Center, officials said Wednesday evening while announcing a broader appeal for money to finish paying for the ambitious public-private project.

The Arts Center overhaul also will rely on $31.2 million raised from Little Rock's sale of hotel tax-backed bonds late last year, bringing the tally to $118 million toward a $128 million goal.

Attendees at Wednesday's event shouted with delight, stood and applauded when the figures were announced by Harriet and Warren Stephens, who led a 2½-year "silent" campaign targeting the wealthiest potential donors. Warren Stephens is chairman and chief executive of the Little Rock investment firm Stephens Inc.

"Y'all are giving yourselves the applause," Stephens told the room of roughly 200 people in the Arts Center's atrium. He added that he believes the remade Arts Center will be "an architectural treasure" that attracts visitors from across the country.

The announcement marked the first public disclosure of fundraising numbers, which help illustrate how the project's aim has transformed, more than doubling in price since officials began planning it in 2015.

Gallery: Renderings show plan for Arkansas Arts Center

Work to expand and renovate the downtown Little Rock museum is scheduled to begin in early October, or less than five months from now.

Wednesday's ceremony served as a pivot to soliciting the general public. Attendees gathered afterward to drink champagne, and view an exhibition chronicling the Arts Center's history and showcasing what it is expected to look like upon the project's completion.

In an interview after the ceremony, Harriet and Warren Stephens said they initially anticipated raising $10 million to $15 million in private donations to supplement the Little Rock bond sale. That need grew after officials were unimpressed with initial design mock-ups, which showed the limits of a then-$46 million construction budget.

"We started over," Harriet Stephens said, later adding: "Arkansans are generous. Across-the-board generous, not only with one organization but with many. They know what institutions like the Arkansas Arts Center mean to a thriving, vibrant place. We're getting ready for the next generations here."

Architect Jeanne Gang (left), founder of Studio Gang, points out details on a model of the planned Arkansas Arts Center makeover for Max Mehlburger and Kaki Hockersmith at a reception and fundraising announcement Wednesday at the Arts Center in downtown Little Rock.
Architect Jeanne Gang (left), founder of Studio Gang, points out details on a model of the planned Arkansas Arts Center makeover for Max Mehlburger and Kaki Hockersmith at a reception and fundraising announcement Wednesday at the Arts Center in downtown Little Rock.

Windgate Foundation donated $35 million as a lead project sponsor. The Little Rock nonprofit is a major benefactor of the arts. Earlier this year, for example, the foundation pledged $20 million to establish a fine arts school at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.

The Arts Center's art school will be named the Windgate Foundation Museum School, and the art school gallery will be named the Robyn and John Horn Museum School Gallery. Two curatorial positions will also be named because of the gift.

The Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust gave $5 million, the second-largest announced contribution. Some donors asked to remain anonymous, and most did not disclose specifically how much they gave.

Harriet and Warren Stephens were among 21 individuals, families and foundations to give at least $1 million each. At least 20 others have given a minimum of $100,000, Harriet Stephens announced.

New gallery space for the permanent Arts Center collection and special exhibition galleries will be named the Harriet and Warren Stephens Galleries. They did not disclose how much they gave.

"It's probably fair to say it's over a million [dollars]," Merritt Dyke, president of the museum's board of trustees, said after the ceremony.

Warren Stephens is a board member for the nonprofit Arkansas Arts Center Foundation, which owns the museum's art collection and has the task of raising private money for the project.

Officials, who spoke in grandiose terms, expect private donations to more than triple the public money put toward the project. This phase of the campaign is called "Reimagining the Arkansas Arts Center: Campaign for Our Cultural Future."

Little Rock owns the Arts Center building and pays $700,000 each year toward maintaining it through an agreement reached under former Mayor Mark Stodola. The city Board of Directors appoints the museum's board of trustees.

Mayor Frank Scott called the expansion and renovation project "bold" and a "beacon of light for this city and region and entire state." He said he hopes the project will "help us become a catalyst for the new South."

"The city's support for the Arts Center remains steadfast," Scott said to applause.

The Arkansas Arts Center Foundation, aside from owning the collection, controls an endowment from which it issues grants to cover day-to-day operating costs.

Seeds for the expansion and renovation were planted in 2015 after it was reported that the foundation considered taking the artwork to North Little Rock over complaints about the building.

Little Rock officials subsequently increased the annual maintenance payments. The city also agreed to increase the hotel tax by 2 percentage points, pledging the additional money to pay down voter-approved bonds for renovations.

The Arts Center's board in 2016 hired Chicago architectural firm Studio Gang to oversee project design. When the firm unveiled a high-level concept earlier this year, the estimated construction budget swelled from $46 million to $70 million as museum officials squared their wish list with what they thought was affordable.

The construction budget doesn't include an array of "soft" costs -- including architectural fees, rent for a temporary location and increasing the endowment to cover higher annual operating costs -- that are factored into the $98.8 million top-line price.

Architects sparked enthusiasm when they first released design plans over a year ago. Now the design team and contractors are coordinating on detailed blueprints ahead of construction, tentatively planned to start by early October and wrap up in early 2022.

Jeanne Gang, principal for Studio Gang, provided updated project renderings Wednesday that show more detail but little changes to the previously released concept design.

Gang has said the goal is to make the facility more inviting, easier to navigate and better linked with its MacArthur Park surroundings.

The plans don't lack flourish.

Portions of the 82-year-old, repeatedly upgraded museum will be torn down. The original "Museum of Fine Arts" facade, currently buried inside the facility, will be uncovered and used as a new entrance facing East Ninth Street. A glass-enclosed "cultural living room" will extend over the entrance, stretching toward Ninth Street.

A walkway designed to draw abundant sunlight will better link the remade museum's expanded art school, children's theater and gallery space, including a new second-floor exhibition area, the architects said.

The path will connect the Ninth Street entrance with another that spills into MacArthur Park, where asphalt and parking spaces will be replaced by a new garden and cypress trees. A restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating will extend into the park.

During construction, the Arts Center will move its headquarters and arts school to 2510 Cantrell Road in the Riverdale neighborhood in a space commonly known as the former Walmart Neighborhood Market building. Roughly 3 miles separate the sites.

Museum staff members are working to impart an identity on the interim location -- a board member Monday suggested calling it the "Arts Center at Riverdale" -- and are planning to hang colorful banners and back-lit signs on the exterior.

Excluding the museum school and theater programs, which will finish their terms at the existing building through the summer, the Arts Center will close June 30.

Photo by Image courtesy of Studio Gang and SCAPE
An artist’s rendering gives an aerial view of the re-imagined Arkansas Arts Center that includes a new restaurant with outdoor shaded seating and a great lawn, new pathways and connections to MacArthur Park. Under the plan, a tree canopy will develop on the grounds.
Photo by Image courtesy of Studio Gang
An atrium, here with a view toward MacArthur Park, would connect the Arkansas Arts Center’s three pillars: Galleries, the Museum School and the Children’s Theatre.
Harriet Stephens

A Section on 05/16/2019

Print Headline: Pledged funds top $86M to transform Arkansas Arts Center


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Archived Comments

  • TheGoodGuy
    May 16, 2019 at 7:56 a.m.

    They can raise that kinda money for this crap, but yet can't manage to come up with money for schools to keep programs from getting cut or teachers from getting realistic pay raises!!! THIS IS STUPIDITY AT ITS FINEST!!!

  • PopMom
    May 16, 2019 at 9:14 a.m.


    I posted the same comment yesterday, and it got erased. The Little Rock rich elites care too much about art and too little about the kids. Some of these people get contracts from these projects which line their pockets. Money to attract better teachers or to offer more summer programs does not help them personally so they just don't care. Eight years of practicing law in Little Rock taught me so much about greed and corruption.

  • PopMom
    May 16, 2019 at 9:57 a.m.


    Much of Little Rock was built by the "Negro takers", and much of the work was performed by them over the years. I basically was raised by a "negro taker." Isn't it better to provide a good education to somebody than to pay for them to go through the prison system? Kids who look forward to going to college are much less likely to commit crimes or take drugs, and these kids go on to become taxpayers. The bad schools and the high crime are weighing Little Rock down. Building a great arts center is like putting lipstick on a pig!

  • purplebouquet
    May 16, 2019 at 10:24 a.m.

    I am thankful to these generous donors. I love the Arts Center and I look forward to its new look and its expanded programs. They need to bring back Thursday Argentine Tango nights!
    A vibrant cultural scene has multiple benefits, such as attracting new residents, fostering stronger bonds among local residents and keeping them in town, and spanning new business, which generate more tax income for municipal and county coffers.

  • PopMom
    May 16, 2019 at 11:32 a.m.


    Of course, the numbers are better when there is a two parent family, but there is even a stronger correlation between school quality and crime rates. Bloomberg attacked crime in New York City with a two pronged approach of improving schools and implementing stop and frisk.

  • conservative
    May 16, 2019 at 11:56 a.m.

    Popmom: First, thank you for your thoughtful and respectful dialogue. I will continue to express my thoughts regarding situations in Little Rock as I see them. Never-the-less, this thread started as a forum for the Arts Center project, and I must insist that the arts are essential to education, and to that end, a fine arts center is a "positive" for all. (to mind, the Kimbell in Ft. Worth, the River Walk/Alamo district in San Antonio, New Orleans Botanical Garden, et al.)
    Regardless, I wish this Arkansas-on-Line website had an open forum where civil discussions could be posted and vetted regarding the growing racial animosity that we are experiencing these days in Little Rock.
    What we experience now is a growing schism between blacks and whites, and as this polarization continues, it can come to no good.

  • PopMom
    May 16, 2019 at 2:09 p.m.


    I agree, but I am not sure that it is as much a schism between the rich and poor or really more between conservative and liberal. Wealthy black professionals don't want high taxes on professionals. Many people in more educated areas want the money spent on the schools because they end up generating income for the community down the road by creating businesspeople, doctors, scientists and yes, artists. I am all for art; I just don't know that you need a fancy building to do it. I'd rather have a not so fancy building with art classes for the youth. Those other areas you mentioned with the fancy art buildings also are known for high crime and bad schools. Now, of course, the multimillionaires can do with their money what they will. I just wish that they would spend more of it on programs for poor kids and less of it on fancy art or on sports facilities for fancy prep schools.

    May 16, 2019 at 2:23 p.m.

    Donations to the Arts Center bring tax write-off and preferential treatment.
    More money (taxes) for schools brings - well - more taxes.
    Kinda short sighted, but in our instant gratification society where appearance matters more than......

  • Seitan
    May 16, 2019 at 3:39 p.m.

    This is amazing news. And good for the community.

  • conservative
    May 16, 2019 at 4:27 p.m.

    And twice again, my comment has been deleted, apparently by some editor that doesen't like my opinion, as originally posted and as follows:
    Popmom: Apparently my original comment was removed by "editors"; yet my point was/is that most of the crime is directly a result of the destruction of the Negro family culture . . .that includes knowing who the father is. All of this a result of 5+ decades of the entitlement of the "Great Society" (see LBJ). Approximately 95% of the crimes reported by the ADG, eg., murders, rapes, car-jackings, gun violent shootings, et al., are committed by Negros. I know of course that all are not part of this subculture but it is significant enough to leave a "black" mark on all.
    This is a very real problem -- accept that it is very real. You can try all the sitting around a campfire making smores and singing Kum Ba Yah, but this is not going to change anything until the devolved social concept of family is resolved.
    You don't have to sit in the back of the bus any more. Do something positive about it.

    So Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, are you going to continue censor my opinion?