Harriet and Warren Stephens looking for ‘wow factor’ with Arkansas Arts Center overhaul

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 2,459 views 

Through decades of financial support, volunteer work and leadership with the Arkansas Arts Center, Harriet and Warren Stephens knew it was time for the premier central Arkansas arts touchstone to be reimagined.

“We reached a pivotable point with the Arts Center that I think if we didn’t have change – big change – that it was not going to be positioned in the same way it had been in the early ’80s,” said Harriet Stephens. “We felt like for future generations that we needed to do this renovation. And really, a lot of it is a rebuild, it’s a new build to position ourselves for the future.”

“Cultural organizations are so important to the fabric of a community and the Arts Center for years has been the leading cultural organization in central Arkansas,” said Warren Stephens. “I think this campaign and the result is going to make sure that it remains that way.”

The husband-and-wife duo are the co-chairs of the current $128 million arts center renovation capital campaign. At last week’s groundbreaking ceremony for the nearly two-year overhaul, the Stephens announced they have already reached $122.7 million in commitments, but they expect to far exceed that stated goal.

“We actually hope we get beyond that. We don’t know how much it’s going to cost to operate the new Arts Center, and we won’t until we start operating it. So, the more we can raise and go into endowment, the better,” Warren Stephens said.

Originally, plans were to bring parts of the arts center’s infrastructure into the 21st century. Located at 9th and Commerce streets in downtown Little Rock’s MacArthur Park, it has been built, added-on and expanded multiple times since its initial construction as the Museum of Fine Arts in 1937. Harriet Stephens said after being underwhelmed with a requested mechanical update, she and her husband decided to ask for something bigger in imagination.

It started with a “much less grand scheme” to improve storage, the HVAC system and some interior space. When they asked for a “wow factor” proposal, the architecture firm delivered.

“It was pretty much the design we have now,” Warren Stephens said, and the couple’s reaction was, “Wow, that’s kind of what we were talking about. And of course, it cost a lot more money.”

The Little Rock-based art museum will undergo a major renovation between now and 2022 led by renowned architect Jeanne Gang and Studio Gang. The revitalized landscape, designed by Kate Orff and SCAPE, will expand the connection between the architecture and MacArthur Park.

The design for the reimagined Arkansas Arts Center features new and renovated spaces for gathering and community events, state-of-the-art galleries and exhibitions, a renovated Museum School, and upgraded Children’s Theatre. The site design will provide a seamless transition between the Arkansas Arts Center and MacArthur Park and will include native plantings, a tree canopy, walking paths, and a great lawn for park events.

The Stephens said they expect the renovated museum space will provide new ways to use one of the more underutilized parks in the city.

“I think it has been underutilized and so the restaurant actually will creep out into the park and it has both indoor and outdoor seating and there will be a lawn for special events. And you know, I hope down the road, the park can do more programmatic things in the park,” Harriet Stephens said.

The Stephens also want the Arkansas Arts Center to remain a cultural icon for central Arkansas, including finding ways to capitalize on art appreciation tourists who have been drawn to Arkansas for spaces like Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville.

“Raising the bar here just helps tourism within the state. It helps attract people that want to move here, it’s great for the economy,” Harriet Stephens said.

You can watch their full interview and see more artist renditions in the video below.