Art Works Blog

Blue Star Museums Spotlight on Grace Museum

“What a drab life it would be without the arts! The arts touch upon the area in people’s lives that nurtures inspiration, hope, and understanding and builds a strong connection to our past.” -- Laura Moore, the Grace Museum

Today, we’re checking into the Grace Museum, a Blue Star Museum in Abilene, Texas. In 1909, a railroad traveler passing through Abilene could stay the night at the grand Grace Hotel located just across the street from the rail station. Today, a visitor won’t find a place to sleep at The Grace, but they will find a multi-purpose downtown cultural center housing a world-class art museum, a history collection, and a children’s museum.

As rail travel declined, so did the Grace Hotel, which by the 80s had become a dilapidated ruin patronized mostly by stray cats. The site was saved from demolition by the Abilene Preservation League and was converted into a museum, part of a successful effort to revitalize downtown Abilene. The Grace Museum balances its strong ties to the local community with an impressive collection, which includes works by, Ansel Adams, Romare Bearden, and Robert Rauschenberg, among others. This summer The Grace is presenting a three part exhibition series called FINDNG HOME which explores the many ways in which to understand the concept of home, from refugee populations to the idea of coming home.

We spoke to Executive Director Laura Moore about balancing a local focus with a universal Texan story, the museum’s constant drive to push new initiatives, and why the Grace Museum has decided to “be a Blue Star Museum year-round.”

a colorful painting of sheep and clouds by Melissa Miller
Melissa Miller, Tempesta, 1981, oil on canvas, The Barrett Collection, gift of the Dallas Museum of Art, Collection of The Grace Museum

NEA: What is the origin story of the Grace Museum?

LAURA MOORE: The Abilene Fine Arts Museum [AMFA] [was founded] in 1937 by a group of people that said we need art here and we need to be responsible for it. The mission of the AMFA was to exhibit and collect art for the “good of the citizens of Abilene” from the start. We need to have our own collection. They were very tenacious. In the 80s, when this museum, or this hotel, was in such disrepair, a group of people said, "We're going to save it and we're going to make it the museum." It’s really a nice marriage of a legacy, of history, for this area.

NEA: What sets the Grace apart as a museum?  

MOORE: We work very hard at it being very open to everyone and to creating programming that is thoughtfully considered for lots of different people. We just see [The Grace Museum] as a treasure for our area and an opportunity for learning on lots of levels and we want people to take advantage of it.

The museum is comprised of three main areas of interest: fine arts with a Texas connection; Texas history; and a children’s museum. In 2005, The Grace earned American Alliance of Museums accreditation bringing national recognition to a museum with a commitment to excellence and highest professional standards. Accreditation expanded the ability to borrow artwork and artifacts from major museums and collectors, bringing exhibitions to Abilene and the surrounding rural communities that are similar in caliber to museums in major cities.

Every Thursday evening admission is free, and museum visitors can experience the art and history exhibitions, explore the children’s museum, and find activities to please everyone. Family nights in the courtyard with art activities and a movie, a watercolor painting class, a gallery talk with an artist, or learning how to preserve family treasures are just a few of the choices. The Grace has evolved into the cultural hub of our Central West Texas community.

NEA: Why did the Grace Museum decide to participate in the Blue Star Museums program?

MOORE: We have a military base here, Dyess Air Force Base, so we're constantly aware of what they give for all of us. We of course participate in Blue Star Museums but we're actually free all year to the military. When I came to the museum we were participating in Blue Star Museums and then we just from there said, "Let's be a Blue Star Museum all the time." In 2015, we had 916 military adults and 470 children, who were military [dependents]. In fact, there's been some other military initiatives that have come out of it that have been really good. We now do a distance-learning program for the military while they're deployed. We have podcasts on our website [to help service members explore] journaling and art. We just really try to keep thinking up, “What's something else we can do?” That's kind of our motto.

NEA: When a family is visiting the Grace Museum, how should they prepare, particularly because there are three components-- the children's area but also the history and art galleries?

MOORE: We really try to make the museum accessible to all ages. We have learning areas in each of the actual galleries and so--for families going through--there's going to be something that an adult can show a child and say, "Look at this!" In our education area, we have pop-up art, so any day that you're here, if we don't have a scheduled program, you can walk into that room and do art. On our second floor we have a children's museum which is a combination of lots of things reflective of our community. The Children’s Museum is a hands-on discovery-based learning center for children and families. The gallery features a replica of Abilene's Paramount Theatre, an interactive sound wall, Texas tornado, life-size Operation game, children's art exhibits, a diner, and a historic Dixie Pig Restaurant sign.

NEA: Can you tell me about the exhibition, More Life in a Time Without Boundaries and the FINDING HOME exhibition series? What was the inspiration behind it?

MOORE: It's the story of home. It’s an installation on the first floor that [Roger] Colombik [and Jerolyn Bahm-Colombik] did. He came in and actually interviewed people who make this [city] home that came from another country. At our opening we had the people featured here and it was just really wonderful. On the second floor, there's [Home Work], photography [selected from our Alice and Bill Wright Photography Collection to examine the challenges of photographing strangers in their environment.] The photographs selected for this exhibition reveal a narrative composed of a particular person, place and moment in time as well as the unseen photographer. Then the third floor is more of a [historical] focus on home. Home Coming is an exhibition of paintings and works on paper from the Grace Museum's permanent collection designed to bring together diverse concepts of home across time and place. [Part of the exhibit is also] a video that tells the story of three families: one that for generations has lived in the same home, another family that comes from India, and then another from Mexico, so those three families’ stories are woven together in calling Abilene home.  

Painting of a church in a country landscape.

Edward G. Eisenlohr, Country Church in Palo Pinto, c. 1935, oil on canvas, Collection of The Grace Museum, Abilene Fine Arts Museum purchase with funds from Friends of Art.

NEA: Do you have a favorite piece in the collection?

MOORE: Yes. It's an [Edward G.] Eisenlohr [painting Country Church in Palo Pinto] that's just wonderful, that I love, that was collected at the very beginning. It depicts a time that they said, "It matters what we do." I appreciate the spirit behind a group in 1937 saying, “Let's put our dollars together and collect art.” I just think it took a lot of vision.

NEA: Is there something in the museum that you think is underrated?

MOORE: I think that sometimes people don't really explore exhibitions to the degree that maybe they could, because I think that sometimes exhibitions can be daunting. It's because they're not quite sure how to access it, so we work really hard at the access point.

One way that we work on accessibility is to have a learning component that's not specific to a particular age because sometimes that create an entrée. I think having [people as] gallery guides is really important and making them easily accessible to people as they walk into the gallery. We’ve worked to to have somebody accessible and friendly that can fill in the blanks for people so to speak. We offer tours for free.

We have a programming committee that's reflective of people in the community. We have a family programming committee, and we are just now beginning a college programming committee, because we are a strong college town and I realized recently when I spoke to a college group that only a third of them had ever really accessed the museum out of about 100 kids. That group is going to have one Thursday night a month that'll be free to college kids, where we create programming specific to them. I think the programming is really key because it opens the door.

NEA: Aside from the Grace Museum, what is your favorite museum?

MOORE: I think my response would be it's difficult to really identify one because so many different museums feature different things that speak to a different part of your soul and so I always learn every time I go, to a different museum, because I think, "Wow this is something else I'm being exposed to and having the opportunity to enjoy and learn from."

NEA: Why do you think the arts are important to us?

MOORE: What a drab life it would be without the arts! The arts touch upon the area in people’s lives that nurtures inspiration, hope, and understanding and builds a strong connection to our past. The opportunity to experience a work of art and explore the artist’s intention and technique opens conversations and minds. 

Visit the Blue Star Museums page on arts.gov to find a participating museum near you.

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