LONGVIEW — In 1958, a group of Longview women decided the city needed some culture.
The Longview News-Journal reports the only problem was that none of them had the art, location or money needed to start the museum they envisioned.
Sixty years later, the Longview Museum of Fine Arts has amassed a collection of more than 700 pieces, hosts prestigious traveling collections and, in October, had its largest fundraiser to date.
The museum’s executive director, Tiffany Jehorek, said it all began when members of the Junior Service League of Longview — forerunner of the Junior League of Longview — asked a simple question: “Every great city has a great museum, so how do we get one?”
The answer wasn’t easy and in many ways, the museum and its supporters are still striving toward the same goal today its founders were 60 years ago: to provide cultural and artistic opportunities for East Texans.
First, they needed an art collection. While many museums start with a personal collection or donation, the Junior Leaguers were starting from scratch.
A year later, they conducted their first annual art invitational, a competition among area artists. The Junior League bought the winning pieces with money raised in their “Red Stocking Revue,” a variety show that raised about $3,000.
Soon enough, they were putting the works on display at local high school auditoriums, with the women hauling as many paintings as would fit in their station wagons.
By 1970, they had acquired more than 50 paintings they housed at the Nicholson Memorial Library, one of five locations that’s been home to the museum at one point or another.
Jane Akins was a 20-something housewife and mother in the museum’s early days. Despite not having a dedicated museum building, she recalled, early exhibits gained more and more exposure every time.
“We did everything we could to get it going,” she said.
Akins, who at one point stored the collection in her pool house, said the museum members got permission to use a house as a more permanent exhibition hall. It wasn’t until January 1998, 40 years after the museum’s foundation, that it moved into the present location on Tyler Street.
Mike Snell, a museum board member and former board president, was on the board during the move to Tyler Street. He said the space gave them room to expand and not have to worry about the “leaky roofs” and other problems at the previous location. Snell, his family and other volunteers did the building’s needed upgrades — it was previously a Home Furniture Co. store — themselves.
“We sort of cobbled together getting it done,” he said. “It was all volunteers. I made my kids work when they were itty-bitty, painting the walls.”
The do-it-yourself approach to running a full-fledged art museum has, at times, been part of the reason for its survival through the decades.
In newspaper stories from those days, Akins described a financial struggle in the 1970s, when it was known as the “Longview Museum and Arts Center,” saying that “when the economy gets hit, the arts are the first to suffer.” In the 1990s, board President Ronald J. Dreyer said the museum was “engaged in a real struggle for survival” as the board launched fundraising and membership campaigns. And as they moved into their current building, construction projects allowed the museum to spend money on up to five shows a year.
Today, Snell attributes the museum’s longevity to the community it serves.
“Sixty years is a long time for a museum to actively grow,” he said. “It’s been a labor of love by lots and lots of people in town for generations.”
Over the years, they’ve also added a new lecture hall, ArtWorks Creative Learning Center, a sculpture garden, a climate-controlled vault and more.
Jehorek said the museum has been able to pull through eras of struggle because of the continuing desire for the arts in Longview.
“It’s always a struggle, but I would say that we’ve been on a rocket trajectory in the last two years,” Jehorek said. “To stay local and see something world-class is a worthy goal and a worthy achievement.”
To celebrate its six decades of bringing art and culture to Longview, Jehorek said the museum is lining up events and visiting collections, each with a special opening night in honor of the milestone anniversary.
First up is “Rediscovering Andy Warhol,” featuring the artist’s Cowboys and Indians series, with an opening reception scheduled for Saturday. The exhibit will run through March 24.
The museum’s 58th annual student invitational will begin March 4, with collections from Lee Cunningham and Jac Lahav planned for later in the year. The sculpture garden’s renovation should also be completed this year, Jehorek said.
She said she hopes the museum’s community-focused events attract new faces in 2018.
“Some people think art museums are a snooty affair and everyone stands around and drinks wine and looks at art,” she said. “But we want people to see that it’s much more than that.”
The museum also plans to highlight its own history with an exhibit featuring old photos and news clippings from over the years, recognizing “those people involved in making this dream happen,” Jehorek said.
As the board begins to plan the next era in LMFA’s history, Jehorek said the museum is beginning to “take things to the next level” by working toward accreditation. The extensive process could start as early as 2019 and open up the door for more grant funding and more prestigious shows.
“I would like Longview to be known for LMFA,” she said. “We would need more parking, but wouldn’t that be a nice problem to have?”
Akins said constant growth was part of the founders’ plans all along. Someday, she said, she hopes the museum grows into a free-standing building.
“I’m so proud that we have the museum,” she said. “I’m hoping that we’ll just keep growing and adding. It’s a success story.”
Information from: Longview News-Journal, http://www.news-journal.com