Forerunner of Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock’s Museum of Fine Arts opened on October 5, 1937

On Tuesday, October 5, 1937, the Fine Arts Club of Little Rock held its first meeting in the new Museum of Fine Arts.  But it was not a typical meeting. It was an Open House and Dedication for the new building.

Construction on the 10,140 square foot building had commenced with the January 3, 1936, groundbreaking.  By September 1937, the keys were presented to the City, marking the end of the construction process.

During the October 5 events, a letter of congratulations was read by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and WPA Administrator Harry L. Hopkins.  A letter which had been prepared by Sen Joe T. Robinson prior to his death was also read.  Mayor R. E. Overman, architect H. Ray Burks, and Fred W. Allsopp spoke at the event.  The latter was chair of the museum’s board.  Over 1,000 people were in attendance. At the time the city’s population was around 87,000.

The museum officially opened its doors to the public on October 28, 1937.  Nettie L. Robinson, a longtime member of the Fine Arts Club, was its first director and would serve in that capacity for two decades.

The original facade of the Museum can still be seen inside the Arkansas Arts Center.  Once the expansion and renovation of that building is complete in 2022, the original entrance will be highlighted even more with the new design.

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Artober – Past, Present, Future

October is Arts and Humanities Month nationally and in Little Rock. Americans for the Arts has identified a different arts topic to be posted for each day in the month. Today looks at “Past, Present, Future.”

In keeping with that, today features images of the original 1937 Museum of Fine Arts, the 1963 version of the Arkansas Arts Center (the successor to the previous museum), the 2000 edition of the AAC, and the 2022 future look of the building.

The first building faced north onto 9th street.

The second building shifted the focus of the building. It faced south into MacArthur Park with the original entrance now being covered and part of the back of the building.

By 2000, the entrance had shifted to the west facing Commerce Street (though the 1963 entrance remained as a convenient entry for the Children’s Theatre and Museum School.

Finally, in 2022, the main entrance will return to the newly uncovered 1937 facade on the north.  It will be situated inside a courtyard framed by the new two story cultural living room at the historic crescent drive inside MacArthur Park. Standing in the center of the courtyard, in front of the historic facade will be Henry Moore’s Standing Figure Knife Edge (Large).  Studio Gang is the lead architect for this project with SCAPE serving as landscape architect.  Polk Stanley Wilcox is the associate architect.

The Arkansas Arts Center was formally established on Sept 6, 1960

Architectural model of the original Arkansas Arts Center which would open in 1963.

On Tuesday, September 6, 1960, the City of Little Rock Board of Directors adopted ordinance 11,111 which formally established the Arkansas Arts Center.

In July 1957, the City Council of Little Rock granted the Museum of Fine Arts the authority to solicit and receive funds for expanding that museum’s physical plant.  During that process, it had been decided that the museum needed an expanded mission and a new name.  By the summer of 1960, the museum supporters had raised sufficient funds to proceed with constructing the new facility.  Therefor the new ordinance was prepared and submitted to the City Board.  (In November 1957, the City Council had been replaced by a City Board.)

Ordinance 11,111 set forth that the Museum of Fine Arts would be known as the Arkansas Arts Center and that the previous museum’s board would serve as the board for the new museum.  The Board of the Arkansas Arts Center was given the authority to have the new building constructed in MacArthur Park and the existing building modified.  As a part of the planning for the new museum, the City committed $75,000 for the capital campaign.

The groundbreaking for the new museum would take place in August 1961.  Mayor Werner Knoop, who signed Ordinance 11,111, took part in the groundbreaking.

Media attending the September 6, 1960, City Board meeting were more interested in discussion about a potential leash law for dogs within the City limits.

August 20, 1961 – Groundbreaking for Arkansas Arts Center

On a warm Sunday afternoon, ten golden shovels turned dirt to mark the start of construction for the new Arkansas Arts Center.  The activity followed a series of speeches that day, August 20, 1961.

The speakers and dignitaries sat on the front portico of the original Museum of Fine Arts in MacArthur Park. That building would be incorporated into the new structure.

Among those who took part in the speeches and groundbreaking were Winthrop Rockefeller, Jeannette Edris Rockefeller, Gov. Orval Faubus, Congressman Dale Alford, and Little Rock Mayor Werner Knoop.

The efforts to create the Arkansas Arts Center started in the mid-1950s when the Junior League of Little Rock started an effort to establish a new art museum.  Next, the business community founded a Committee for a Center of Art and Science to accept funds donated.

When a suitable location within Little Rock could not be found, the decision was made to join with the Fine Arts Club and the Museum of Fine Arts.  Under the leadership of the Rockefellers, the drive to form the Arkansas Arts Center was launched. In September 1960, the City of Little Rock formally established the Arkansas Arts Center.

Planning to create Arkansas Arts Center authorized by City of Little Rock

Twenty-two years after authorizing the creation of the Museum of Fine Arts in City Park, the Little Rock City Council was asked to consider expanding the facility.

By 1957, the existing structure was felt to be inadequate.   There was a desire for more gallery space as well as for more space for educational programming.

On July 8, 1957, the Little Rock City Council passed an ordinance authorizing the Board of the Museum of Fine Arts to be able to raise the funds for an expansion.  This was merely the start of the process which would eventually lead to the creation of the Arkansas Arts Center.

The ordinance allowed for the expansion or extension of the building. It also authorized the museum’s board to accept gifts for the project and to invest those gifts for the purpose of the museum.  Since the museum only received City funds for maintenance and salary, the ability to raise funds for the expansion was key to the future of the institution.

Lastly, the ordinance gave the museum’s board the ability to increase its membership by up to six positions without having to get additional approval by the City Council.  With a fundraising drive underway and a larger facility planned, these additional board members could certainly prove to be key.

The ordinance passed with nine Ayes, zero Noes, and one absent.

Little Rock Look Back: Fine Arts Club opens first public art gallery in Arkansas

Pulaski County Courthouse, site of Fine Arts Club first gallery

On Tuesday, May 15, 1928, the Fine Arts Club opened an art gallery on the fourth floor of the Pulaski County Courthouse. This was the first step toward their dream of creating a visual arts museum.

County Judge C. P. Newton identified space within the Courthouse for the gallery.  It opened with works by 40 Arkansas artists and fifteen from outside of the state. The collection was mainly watercolors and oil paintings.

Judge Newton spoke at the dedication ceremony. Other speakers were Fred W. Allsopp, representing the Fine Arts Club and Janet Hempstead Pierce (making historical remarks prepared by her father, Fay Hempstead, who was unable to attend).

Berta Hamilton Baird, president of the Fine Arts Club presided over the event and also made remarks about May Danaher, the founder of the club. Musical entertainment was provided by Alma Colgan, Toistine Haley, sisters Grace and Elizabeth Schaer, Margaret Farrior, and Lucile Owens.

Among those helping Mrs. Baird and Miss Danaher plan the event were Eula Terral (former First Lady of Arkansas), Mary Chapple Allsopp, Frances Edmonson Almand, Jennie Holmes Tillar, Louise Loughborough, Jean Hollenberg, and Dilla Horrocks among others.

The gallery was open from 2pm to 5:30pm on weekdays.

Seven Mays later, plans were authorized by the City of Little Rock to construct the Museum of Fine Arts in City Park.  In May 1961, the plans were unveiled for the new Arkansas Arts Center (incorporating the existing Museum of Fine Arts building).  Now, 91 years later, the Arkansas Arts Center is preparing for an even bigger future.