The Beaumont Art League is the oldest art organization in Southeast Texas, and was instrumental in the development of the arts in our area.
In May of 1943, a group of artists meeting weekly at the studio of Robert Stapp (located in the former little theater building on the fairgrounds) decided to form a working group of painters to foster and stimulate fine arts and crafts in the Sabine area. The charter members also included Will-Amelia Sterns Price, the first president of the league, as well as Bertha Weber, Lorrain (Mrs. H.C.) Tadlock, Lillian (Mrs. O.J.) Hayes, Mrs. Horace Eddy, Tom Tierney, and Robert Stapp. The group was modeled after the Art Student’s League of New York.
The newly-established league met weekly in that little theater building. Anna Lipscomb of the Beaumont Enterprise gave the group good publicity, and the membership was so large that in 1944 it moved to the reception room at the YWCA. Some of the earliest members were Clyde Gray, Holmes Jones, Jack Evans, Bill Skinner, Lewis Wright, Myrtle Davis, Clarice Holloway, Ethyl White Velia Gindratt, Maudee Carron Thames, Audrey Jarrell, Elizabeth Halliday, Katherine Green Baker, Veozey Rainwater, Jean Marks, Shirley William “Jo” Scurlock, Lynn Walker, Dennis McCarthy, Frank White, Dick Shorkey, and WayWay Hoffman.
The first annual exhibition of the art league was held April 24 through May 1, 1944 at the Jackson Motor Company at 555 Pearl Street. (By coincidence, that street number would be squarely in front of the Art Museum of Southeast Texas, but the properties are unrelated. The Jackson Motor Company was near the intersection with Calder, several blocks north.)
Mrs. Price states in a Sunday Beaumont Enterprise article by Merita Mills in 1947, “we want to bring good pictures before the public thereby doing a little education work for art’s sake and to encourage those who are interested in art byt have no local opportunity outlets other than private education, which many cannot afford.” An individual membership back then was $2.50, which is not much less in today’s dollars ($34) than our current individual membership rate ($40).
During this time, the League was highly instrumental in cultivating the arts in the Southeast Texas region, holding annual membership exhibitions, traveling exhibitions, workshops, lectures, and summer art colonies taught by such accomplished national artists as Frederic Taubes and Jacob Getlar Smith and by local talents such as Dennis McCarthy and Jack Shofner.
Until 1947, the BAL had sponsored “the local showing of three circuit exhibits of painting by native artists and two print exhibits by members of the Texas Women’s Print Makers Association.” The group discussed their needs for an exhibition space, led by Mrs. William H. Hoffman. “If we can pay rent for a gallery to exhibit local work, why not a museum to also bring in traveling exhibits and house a collection to be bought with funds that would accrut from other benefits?” said Hoffman.
In 1949, the BAL held a canasta party and raised the initial $400 needed to rent the Mabry Home at 1035 Calder. The home needed a great deal of cleaning and repairs, and BAL members pitched in and did the work.
On July 16, 1950, work was completed at the Mabry home and it opened as the Beaumont Art Museum. The names “Beaumont Art League” and “Beaumont Art Museum” were used somewhat interchangeably for a number of years and the league organized many of the shows at the museum. Soon, a new board of directors was formed for the museum, with Mrs. Hoffman named as the first president.
In 1952, the BAL organized a traveling exhibit of twenty paintings, mixed media, which proved so successful that the league expanded this to two circuit exhibits in 1953. During this time, the league also organized a number of open-air exhibitions at places such as the Gateway Shopping Center. The league also handled many of the shows at the museum.
Mrs. Scurlock began volunteering at the museum when it opened in 1950, and served as its director between 1954 and 1967. In September of 1956, she convinced Colonel Sanford Perry Brown and his wife Rozina Cavett Brown to build and donate a building on the fairgrounds for the museum. It was completed a year later, and is still called the Brown Gallery.
In the late 50’s, the museum activities and league activities had both grown tremendously, so the Beaumont Art League began operating independently and moved its offices to the Beaumont Recreation Hall at 1800 Louisiana. When the recreation hall was closed for repairs in April 1959, the league moved to the parish hall at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.
In March of 1960, the league began in earnest to find a permanent home, and formed a committee to find a suitable place for exhibitions and education. The Medical Arts Building offered its space for exhibition. In February 1961, the league moved to 236 Oakland, and a month later, to 1709 Railroad for more exhibition space.
The first Tri-State Exhibition was held in 1962, bringing in art from around Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi.
In May of 1963, the league moved again, this time to the first floor of a colonial home at 1792 Broadway. This home was built in 1910 by Stewart R. Smith, an early Beaumont lawyer, and his wife Ida Jarvis Smith. Mrs. Smith lived in the house until her death in 1959. Mrs. Roy Batchelor, president at the time, said “It’s really our first home… we have plenty of space now and the art league will be able to extend its activities…” By May of 1967, the BAL had moved again to the Mildred Building at 1425 Calder.
In October of 1967, construction of the second building at the Fairgrounds was completed. The building was donated by Mrs. Brown, who was by then living in Austin. This new building and its gallery was named in honor of Mrs. Scurlock, the outgoing museum director. A patio joining the two buildings was dedicated to S. Perry Brown, Jr., who had supervised the construction of both buildings.
In mid-January of 1968, the BAL closed the facility on Calder and resumed meeting at the fairgrounds in the new Scurlock building, and the fairgrounds facility has been the league’s home ever since.
In 1969, the family of J. Crooke Wilson donated their 5-acre estate at 1111 9th Street to the City of Beaumont for the Beaumont Art Museum, and the museum decided to expand to that location.
In 1972, the museum expanded to the Wilson home. The ribbon-cutting was on April 20, and the facility was named the Wilson Memorial Art Center. The museum continued operating out of both the Wilson and Brown-Scurlock galleries until early 1973, with the BAL sponsoring many of the events.
When Col. Brown deeded the buildings at the fairgrounds to the city, it was with the understanding that the buildings would always be used for the promotion of fine art. So when the Beaumont Art Museum decided to move wholly into the Wilson center, Bob Willis petitioned the City of Beaumont, at the suggestion of Frank White, for the two buildings on the fairgrounds to be used by the BAL. The Beaumont Art League acquired a two-year lease on the properties from the city on March 27, 1973.
In May of 1975, the league held its first annual Tri-State Exhibition, taking in works from Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The next month, June, it held the first competition of The Nude, another show tradition that continues to this day.
By the early 80’s, the museum had outgrown the Wilson center, and they began raising money and making plans to build a new facility. Initially, plans were made to build at the site of the old Jefferson County Tuberculosis Sanatorium on French Road near Delaware, but there was some consternation among both nature lovers, who were concerned for the trees on that plot, other local art supporters, who saw the chosen location as too isolated. In January 1985, Ben Rogers donated a parcel of land downtown, and plans were re-drawn to use this property (and an adjoining one already owned by the city) as the site of the new museum. In September 1987, the Beaumont Art Museum was renamed the Art Museum of Southeast Texas, and moved to this new location at 500 Main Street, where it remains today.
The Wilson Center was purchased by the late Chris Quinn, a local attorney, and converted back into a residence, and the land at French and Delaware became Wuthering Heights Park.
The Beaumont Art League continued to thrive at the Brown-Scurlock galleries, holding many exhibitions, juried shows, workshops, and educational activities.
The Tri-State Exhibition was expanded in 1998 to become the BAL National.