Arkansas Arts Center project boosts Little Rock economy

MacArthur Park construction work includes more than 50 Arkansas companies

Daytime view of the Arkansas Arts Center's new north entrance
Daytime view from Crescent Drive of the Arkansas Arts Center’s new north entrance, featuring the 1937 Museum of Fine Arts Façade, and, above, a gathering space with views of downtown Little Rock. Image courtesy of Studio Gang and SCAPE.

Construction on the new Arkansas Arts Center in MacArthur Park continues on schedule, despite the challenges posed by a global pandemic, boosting the Central Arkansas economy in a challenging time.  

At the downtown Little Rock jobsite, which is managed by Arkansas construction companies Nabholz and Doyne along with Chicago-based Pepper Construction, nearly 150 people are working daily in various aspects of construction. The project is also currently employing the expertise of more than 50 Arkansas companies in subcontracted services – from concrete and foundations to elevators, doors and flooring, as well on-site office and storage space is provided by Little Rock-based Hugg & Hall Mobile Storage and fencing by Little Rock-based Fence World.

This expansion of the Arkansas Arts Center is one of the most significant construction projects currently underway in the state of Arkansas,” Nabholz president Jake Nabholz said. “A project of this magnitude helps stabilize the state’s construction community, especially during these uncertain times. Close to 90% of the subcontractors and suppliers involved in this expansion are Arkansas-based, meaning that the majority of building funds from this project will be poured back into the state’s economy.”

Arkansas companies are integrated into every aspect of the construction. Demolition and excavation on the site was completed earlier this year by Rogers & Dillon Demolition & Excavating – based in Mayflower, Ark. Construction on the steel structure for the two-story gallery and collections space is underway with steel sourced by WW/AFCO, based in Little Rock, and C & F Steel Erectors, based in Benton, Ark. The original 1937 façade of the Museum of Fine Arts has been revealed as the new north entrance, and restoration work on the limestone façade will begin this fall. Inside the 1937 building, a new sleek glass balcony marries the historic building into the contemporary design of the newer spaces. Glass for these balconies as well as for the glass-enclosed gathering space at the north entrance – will be sourced by Mabelvale, Ark.-based Glass Erectors, Inc.

The concrete blossom roofline – a key element of the building’s architecture – will create a connective axis through the building. To create this complex and innovative feature, each unique piece of the blossom’s geometry is poured and cured in a custom mold. To date, 2,700 cubic yards of concrete have been poured for the building – much of it provided by Little Rock-based Bass Commercial Concrete.

At the south end of the site, structural modifications in the art school are also underway to expand the number of studios and include a gallery for displaying student artwork. New elevator shafts are being placed by Little Rock-based Otis Elevator Company. Significant updates to the theater space will improve the efficiency while also bringing state-of-the-art features into the space to allow for a wide variety of performing arts ventures.

Mechanical improvements – by Action Mechanical, Inc., based in Barling, Ark. and Middleton Heat & Air, based in Bryant, Ark. – throughout the space will result in a building that is significantly more energy efficiency while also providing appropriate and stable atmospheric conditions to house the Arkansas Arts Center Foundation Collection, which includes 14,000 works of art from around the world.

“The Arkansas Arts Center is one of the largest and most complex projects I’ve directed due to the integration of a one-of-a-kind custom addition as well as extensive renovations of the existing buildings and integrating new mechanical systems throughout the facility,” Pepper Project Executive Anthony Alleman said. “Our team shares the Arkansas Arts Center’s commitment to hire local contractors to complete this historic project.  Along with having an immediate impact on the local economy, the monumental project will attract people from throughout the region to visit the Arkansas Arts Center and Little Rock for decades to come.”

Arkansas Arts Center Gallery view
View of the Arkansas Arts Center’s expansion, which connects improved spaces for exhibition with new public spaces such as the glass-enclosed gathering space at the north and a double-height atrium to the south. State-of-the-art Galleries showcase the Arkansas Arts Center’s world-class permanent collection of local, national, and international art, and house special exhibitions. The glass-enclosed space to the north will host for casual gatherings as well as elevated events. Image courtesy of Studio Gang.

As construction continues, more Arkansas-based subcontractors will be employed on the project: Custom Millwork; Covington Roofing; Roberts-McNutt; Royal Overhead Door; PC Hardware; Oaks Brothers, Inc.; White River Flooring; McCormick Industrial Abatement Services’ and Smith Underground.

At the end of May, the construction spend on the project had reached $20.2 million, with another $3.5 million projected to be spent throughout June.

The Arkansas Arts Center project is being realized through a public-private partnership, with a $31 million commitment from the City of Little Rock, funded through a hotel-tax revenue bond. Contributions from generous private donors have more than tripled the public commitment – and fundraising is ongoing.

In October 2019, capital campaign co-chairs Harriet and Warren Stephens announced that they had raised more than $122.7 million toward a $128 million goal. The campaign will also provide transition and opening support, while also strengthening the Arkansas Arts Center Foundation endowment, yielding support for operations, exhibitions, acquisitions, and education and outreach programming in the new building – meaning that the boost to the Central Arkansas economy from the Arts Center’s project will continue far beyond the end of construction on the physical building.

“With every decision we make about this project, we’re considering two critical things: First, what is the optimum environment for looking, making and enjoying art? Second, how do we create the most inspiring spaces for all visitors?” Executive Director Victoria Ramirez said. “With careful planning and employing the expertise of so many Arkansas companies, the Arkansas Arts Center that opens in 2022 will celebrate the arts and celebrate our community in a space that’s welcoming, inclusive and inspiring.” 

Upon its reopening in 2022, the new Arkansas Arts Center will be a hub of activity. Exhibitions – as well as the architecture itself – will be a major tourist draw. Art classes, educational programs and performing arts events will bring visitors from communities far and wide to downtown Little Rock. Engaging events, a world-class restaurant, stunning landscaping, and other amenities will also draw visitors to MacArthur Park.

Designed by renowned architecture firm Studio Gang and landscape architecture firm SCAPE, the new building’s distinctive architectural identity signifies the Arts Center’s role as a cultural beacon for the future of Arkansas while celebrating the institution’s proud legacy. Scheduled to open in 2022, the project will strengthen the Arkansas Arts Center as the region’s leading visual and performing arts institution.

Arkansas Arts Center programs are supported in part by: Arkansas Arts Center Foundation; City of Little Rock; City of North Little Rock; Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau; and the Arkansas Arts Council, a division of Arkansas Heritage, and the National Endowment for the Arts.