With help from a $70 million building project and $128 million overall capital campaign, the Arkansas Arts Center is undergoing a massive transformation in Little Rock’s MacArthur Park. The renovated building will be further integrated in the park and is expected to open in 2022.
The arts center staff has moved out of its historic building into temporary space in an old Walmart building in the Riverdale area. The new space allows for all of the Arts Center programming to continue, although the coronavirus outbreak has put a short-term closure on the facility.
Dr. Victoria Ramirez, the newly named executive director of the Arkansas Arts Center, has had several months to find her footing. She comes to the center from El Paso, Texas, where she previously led the El Paso Museum of Art. Prior to that, she’s done stints in Austin and Houston, and she grew up in Cleveland, where the Cleveland Museum of Art was her childhood introduction to her career.
Talk Business & Politics Editor-in-Chief Roby Brock sat down with Ramirez for an in-depth interview for her vision for the Arkansas Arts Center, its mission, and the role the arts play in our everyday lives.
Roby Brock: The plans for the new arts center were in place before you came on board. How much of it was them selling you on coming here and how much of it was you selling them on, ‘I’m the right person to help execute this mission.’?
Dr. Victoria Ramirez: It was such a natural conversation that I had with the board, or the hiring committee, I should say. It was really about: ‘Is this the best fit? Do I believe that art and museums need to serve a community in the same way that Little Rock wants to see service to the community?’ When we talked about not only the building of the new facility but the programming for it, they wanted to know: ‘Who am I? What are my expectations? What have I done in the past that I’ve viewed as successful?’ And I asked them the same questions. Fortunately, we had a lot of matches and it felt like just the right fit. I felt like I could execute their vision and they could support my vision, which, I don’t think you can ask for better than that.
Brock: You’re an art historian. You have worked in Texas, but you’re from Cleveland originally. Tell me a little bit about your earliest experiences with art. When you were in Cleveland, the Cleveland Museum of Art was where you got hooked on art. What hooked you on it?
Ramirez: You know, I would visit the Cleveland Museum of Art to look at the art. I took art-making classes there. I was a member. I was just an art nerd when I was growing up. But, you know, it was a place that I felt, I think the best way to describe it, it felt like I was connected with a bigger world. I was always curious about the world. And when I went to the art museum, I traveled, in my mind and through the art that I saw, through the art that I was making. And I was just hooked from there.
Fortunately also, the Cleveland Museum of Art has a very broad collection, so I got a chance to see and learn about art from around the world and from different eras. It just solidified for me that I could study history and humanity and social justice and all the things I was interested in through art.
Brock: Tell me a little bit about the ‘reimagining’ of the Arkansas Arts Center. This is the $70 million campaign to really transform the Arts Center building. I describe it as the Millennium Falcon the way it was built at one point over the years, over the decades. What do you think it’s going to mean to Arkansas as a whole, to central Arkansas as well?
Ramirez: The ‘reimagining’ is – sometimes I don’t even know if that’s a strong enough word for it – because it truly is taking the Millennium Falcon and replacing it with a Ferrari. This will be a brand new day for the Arts Center, for Little Rock, and really for the region. Yes, we do have a $70 million project, but the campaign is actually $128 million because we certainly recognize the need to increase our endowment so we can have increased funds coming to us to support programming for the Arts Center in the future.
Brock: What’s going to be the same once you’re back into the new facility? And what are you going to be able to do differently that you weren’t able to do before this big capital campaign and this whole reimagining process?
Ramirez: We still have the same assets that we’ve always had. We will move back a collection of 14,000 works of art, with strengths in contemporary craft and works on paper. Our fabulous museum school will move back with the fully-equipped classrooms and schedule of classes that we teach. And then, of course, the Children’s Theater and theater programming will also move back.
But really, what we’re saying to ourselves, getting back to the ‘reimagined’ word, is how do we reimagine these offerings? How do we take the successes that we had before we moved out and bring them back into the new Arts Center in a much fuller way? Because the truth is we’ll have different types of programming space that we haven’t had before.
Those who have seen renderings of the new Arts Center probably notice a glass facade that’s in the front, and we’re affectionately calling that ‘the cultural living room,’ which will be a fabulous gathering space and programming space. And then we’re also landscaping into MacArthur Park. And so, we’ll have the opportunity to create programming and really robust offerings into the park, which will, we hope, attract even bigger crowds to come to the Arts Center.
Watch Ramirez’s full interview in the video below.