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Arkansas Symphony plans new 20,000-square-foot music center in Little Rock's East Village

Fundraising campaign moves from private to public push to raise $9 million for project by Eric E. Harrison | January 12, 2022 at 10:51 a.m.
Arkansas Symphony Orchestra CEO Christina Littlejohn reveals the plans for the new Stella Boyle Smith Music Center on Wednesday, at the Clinton Presidential Center. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Tommy Metthe)

The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra announced Wednesday that it is planning to build a new state-of-the-art, 20,000-square-foot music center in Little Rock’s East Village.

The $9 million Stella Boyle Smith Music Center, named for the orchestra’s longest standing and most generous patron, will be between the Clinton Presidential Center and Heifer International.

The announcement primarily focuses on the shift from private fundraising, which has brought in $5.4 million over two years, 60 percent of the expected total cost, to public fundraising to come up with the remainder.

Orchestra officials say once they have all the funding in hand, they expect it to take 18 months from first shovel to completion.

Plans call for a large hall, says orchestra CEO Christina Littlejohn, that will serve for rehearsals, recitals and small-ensemble concerts and would be able to seat up to 300; a number of practice spaces; music classrooms; climate-controlled instrument storage; and “additional flexible space to serve future generations of Arkansans,” according to a news release.

The orchestra’s education programs include the Sturgis Music Academy, which provides violin and cello instruction to more than 350 students from across the state and the ASO Youth Ensembles Program, which has nearly 200 students enrolled in two full orchestras and a strings-only ensemble. The orchestra also operates a community orchestra for adult amateurs it took over a few years ago from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

For the past quarter century, the orchestra has rented two floors of Byrne Hall at Little Rock’s St. John Catholic Center, mostly offices on the upper floor and, on the lower floor, a large room that serves as rehearsal space for the youth orchestras and a former storeroom that has been converted into a multipurpose area.

With a couple of hundred music students from across the state crowding in most days of the week for lessons and rehearsals, things have become strained beyond the limit of what’s tenable.

“Children must rehearse and practice outside, in the storage room or in offices because of the high demand for music classes and the limited space in [the orchestra’s] current facility," Littlejohn said. "The staff gets to hear every beginning violin player in the building. We can’t grow at all.”

The new center would allow the orchestra not only to meet current demand but to possibly expand music instruction offerings (to include, perhaps, music theory and chamber music coaching, Littlejohn said).

However, “orchestra concerts will still be at Robinson,” she said. “The new music center is not taking the place of the Performance Hall.”

The building will also include a dedicated streaming studio, something for which the pandemic has created a demand. The orchestra streamed smaller-scale individual and ensemble performances from various spaces in Byrne Hall, including the enormously popular “Bedtime With Bach” series that went viral across the world. (It also enabled the orchestra to keep its musicians employed and active while other organizations were having to shut down altogether, and Littlejohn said it has given people a chance to get to know the orchestra’s musicians on a more personal level.)

Among other things, the studio will provide access to the orchestra’s music and educational resources to Arkansans in nursing homes, retirement centers, libraries, schools “or anywhere who cannot come to the community music center in person,” the news release explains. 

The orchestra will be subleasing the land from Heifer International, and the location, near an off-ramp from Interstate 30, makes it more accessible to folks coming in from 33 other communities in the state.

Geoffrey Robson, who has been serving as the orchestra’s artistic director while it searches for a full-time music director and who has been conducting the youth ensembles, says he has been consulting with the team, including Little Rock architects Witsell Evans Rasco, in terms of having the new music center fulfill “what our greatest needs are.” He expects the new facility to be a “destination for the arts” in Central Arkansas.

In addition to serving the needs of students, the large hall could be used for chamber music concerts, and/or a secondary recital space for the musicians who come in to solo with the orchestra, a venue for late-night performances, receptions and mixed social/performance events. However, he said, it probably won’t become the main performance space for the orchestra’s River Rhapsody chamber concerts, which have been taking place in the Great Hall of the Clinton Center.

“This project will become an incredible addition to the arts and culture landscape of Arkansas and a vibrant jewel of creativity in Little Rock’s East Village,” said Brigita Gardner, board member, donor and the chairwoman of the fundraising effort.

Fundraising for the center is separate from what the orchestra raises for its annual operations; its $3.5 million annual budget goes to pay 12 full-time musicians, more than 70 part-time musicians and 15 administrative staff members and it has been balanced for a dozen years.

The new facility will also provide new space for the orchestra’s administrative offices, which at one point had been slated to move to a space on Little Rock’s Main Street, where it would have formed, with its neighbors, Ballet Arkansas and the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, what the city was trumpeting as “the Creative Corridor.”

“The space wasn’t working,” Gardner said. Among other issues, tap dancers in an upstairs studio and a faulty electrical box made it ultimately untenable, she said.

That prompted a five-year search for someplace that would be more suited to the organization’s needs, which would have included considerable alterations for better acoustics. Eventually it became evident that it would be easier and no more expensive to build from scratch than to buy and renovate an existing facility.

Gardner said the orchestra board is determined to have the complete sum — $9 million to build the facility and another $1 million in an endowment to run and maintain it — in hand before starting construction.

Gardner said the goal is to have the center complete by July 2023.

With $5.4 million in cash and pledges in the coffers, the next phase of the project will now require support directly from the communities it serves, orchestra officials say. The orchestra is setting up a website,, with information and providing a way to donate.

Read full details in Thursday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

  photo  The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra's new Stella Boyle Smith Music Center will occupy 20,000 square feet in Little Rock's East Village. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette)


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