As an expansion of The Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas, ASC ARTS x3 continues their efforts to provide community art space in downtown Pine Bluff. What were once a firehouse, dairy creamery, and auto parts shop are now ARTSpace, ART Works, and ARTS Yard. The renovated spaces are woven together, carved into, and modernized to provide dynamic spaces that respect their pasts while serving their new art disciplines.
When the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas (ASC) first looked at expanding nextdoor, they looked at it through an ambitious lens of how to honor the past legacy of Downtown Pine Bluff, the history of the building, and the origin story of their own organization while still addressing and adapting to the current needs of the city, community, and their patrons. Downtown Pine Bluff, Arkansas was once one of the three largest concentrations of African-American owned businesses in the entire United States. In its heyday, the ARTSpace side of the existing building was a firehouse, dairy creamery, and an auto parts store. It was this synergy that the design team used as a primary focus in the overall design and concept of the project. The client’s vision was to have three distinct art related components combined between these two historic buildings: The ARTSpace on Main, ART Works on Main, and the ARTS Yard. These spaces together are referred to as the ASC ARTS x3 by the owner.
As phase I of this project, the northern half of the building was renovated to be the new home for ASC’s ARTSpace. This portion houses art galleries, multi-purpose spaces, costume storage and a multi-use shop for set building for the ASC Theater. The existing commercial storefronts were replaced with bi-fold garage doors similar to the original firehouse doors. On both the first and second floor, large garage doors divide each space to allow the building to use each space individually or all in unison for one large event. The series of glass garage doors also allows for the visual connection from Main Street all the way through the building to the ARTS Yard behind it. On the second floor, new skylights have been installed in the original openings to again allow natural light to permeate more evenly in the center of the building. All of the exterior brick and original window openings remain, with any damage repaired and restored. On the interior, the existing first level concrete floors have been refinished as well as the existing wood floor on the second level. A large portion of the historic tin ceilings has been reused in the Event Space. The new stair was added in a newly created two story volume that allows visitors to see and interact on both levels simultaneously, while also pulling natural light and the connection to Main Street further into the space. There are few multipurpose event spaces available to the community of Pine Bluff, therefore ASC has made this space about inviting the community inside to learn, participate, engage, and enjoy.
The ARTS Yard is located behind the ARTSpace, and can act independently or as an extension of the program for both the ARTSpace and the ART Works buildings. It is a gated multi-use space that serves several purposes including space for outdoor pottery wheel classes, welding, outdoor movies and shows, bike repair workshops for the community, and overflow space for the shop when it’s fabricating sets and scenes for performances. The exterior stair for the second floor of the ARTSpace is a steel structure with metal mesh to serve as the movie screen and event backdrop while also offering storage for the various program types that take place in the yard.
As phase II of the renovation and the southern portion of the building, ART Works furthers ASC’s mission of community engagement, but in a different vehicle. This building was still an active auto parts shop when phase one, ARTSpace, began construction. The idea with ART Works was to create a multi-use flexible black box theater to complement ACS’s established more traditional theater. The building is connected both internally and externally to the ARTSpace and the ARTS Yard to allow all three elements to work together and reconfigure as needed. Along with the black box theater, ART Works also has a ticket and concession stand, a lobby, a green room with dressing stalls, laundry, theater storage and an elevated sound booth. There are four ways to access the black box theater and enough storage to fully clear the room to encourage various performance types. The owner also really wants to encourage artists in residency and new apartments in Downtown Pine Bluff, so there are five dwelling units and five leasable artist studios along with shared common area for residence, artists, and performers to bond, collaborate, and build community.
The biggest achievement of the ASC ARTS x3 project is the success of taking two underutilized historic buildings and turning them into mixed-use spaces that allow downtown to have a 24/7 community engagement. This constitutes a fundamental shift in the feeling of community ownership, pride, and a sense of progress. As the owner likes to remind visitors, all of the construction funds were raised through private donations, so these projects didn’t cost the citizens of Pine Bluff a dime. It is a wonderful way for a community to start believing in their downtown again, by seeing private individuals and foundations invest in their future by reviving essential historic buildings from their past.