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The Artists League of Texas: The Roots of The Center for Contemporary Arts

By Larla Morales Special thanks to Lynn Barnett and Bill Wright for contributing to this story.

The seemingly sleepy West Texas town of Abilene in the 1980s may not have possessed many of the metropolitan offerings of the larger cities surrounding it, but the arts were thriving in the small city on the rolling plains. William Whitaker, the Entertainment Editor for The Abilene Reporter-News (ARN) wrote in 1984 “ ...the town boasts a symphony orchestra, two community theaters, three college theaters and a host of exhibits… One of the most recent developments in the local cultural scene is the forming of The Artists League of Texas, with gallery and studio space provided for local artists at the corner of North Second and Cypress.” It is in this environment that the beginnings of the nonprofit organization known today as The Center for Contemporary Arts took root and flourished in West Texas.  In the early days, the group responsible for the inspiration, passion, and commitment to showcasing local and visiting artists were known as the Artists League of Texas. The League was a labor of love born from the ambition and foresight of a group of local artists and their supporters among the community. Bill Wright, who is now a noted and well-established force in the international art scene, reminisced about a fateful stroll he took in downtown Abilene with Lynn Barnett, the Executive Director of the Cultural Affairs Council. “We were walking down the street,” recounts Wright, “bemoaning that we didn’t have a place to display art.” He recollects that they stopped to look into the windows of one of the numerous vacant buildings that sat in downtown Abilene as an idea began to form. Not long after this, Lynn recalls Larry Gill, the Grants Administrator for the Dodge Jones Foundation (now The Matthews Office), stopping by with some news that would bring their idea into reality. “Larry Gill came over one day and told them (The Artists League) that the space at North 2nd and Cypress was available,” and the rest, as they say, was history. 

Pictured: Artists League of Texas Members renovate 1140 ½ N.2nd Street. Photos by Max Brinson (Digitized Slides) and Newspaper Clippings from The ARN  1140 ½ North 2nd Street  In an article written by William Whitaker, published in the ARN on September 30th, 1984, Max Brinson, a local artist and board member of The League  “...who has been playing a major role in the restoration of the gallery and studio space…” described Abilene “...as unusually “artsy” for West Texas, Brinson says the project has come together through the enthusiasm of the arts community, and, in turn, volunteers willing to donate their time, money and energy to make it work. In fact, the idea of a studio/gallery/co-op has been on many minds for some time. Bill Wright, one of the more active members in the arts community, had been pushing for a photography gallery while sculptor Chris Diaz was pushing for an artist co-op. These influences came together and with the help of the Abilene Cultural Affairs Council…(and) they settled on the present location. Except for a $2,800 grant from the Expansion Arts Program and some friendly advice from the local Cultural Affairs Council, hard work is what brought the league into existence. “Everyone put hours into it,” says Brinston.”  Christian “Chris” Diaz, a noted sculptor, served as The League’s President as the formation of the physical gallery and studio spaces came into formation on the second floor of the Paxton Building above Robert’s Studio in Downtown Abilene. In the same article by Whitaker, Chris shared The League’s intentions; “Indeed, much of the idea of having the co-op downtown, he explains, is to accent Abilene’s cultural goings-on and in an area of the city some had dismissed as dying. “It’s come up from a trashed out space to something we’re really proud of,” Diaz says.” 

Pictured: Artists League of Texas Co-Op Space Grand Opening (Photos by Steve Butman, Digitized Slides) and Grand Opening Fliers and Participating Artists

220 Cypress Street: Becoming The Center for Contemporary Arts

By 1989, The Artists League of Texas was a well established local art co-op that had hosted many groundbreaking art exhibitions featuring the work of many notable local artists, as well as the work of visiting artists from around the country. So much creative momentum had been building within the co-op that five years after moving into the space on N. 2nd, The League was looking to expand into a larger space to house more artists, art, and cultural and educational events. Lynn Barnett explained that at this time “The Artists League has grown so that it could evolve into a stand-alone nonprofit not under the Cultural Affairs Council.” This ambition undertaking was made possible by the generosity of The Dodge Jones Foundation which was created by Ruth Jones, Julia "Judy" Matthews, and Edith Jones O’Donnell. With the support of the Dodge Jones Foundation, The Artists League of Texas evolved into the 501(c) nonprofit organization known today as The Center for Contemporary Arts.  Judy Matthews’ legacy is stamped with decided humility and a love of service and community. She made countless quiet donations to many local organizations and worked tirelessly to beautify, renovate and preserve downtown Abilene, all under the umbrella of The Dodge Jones Foundation. The true depth of her impact and support are still being realized to this day, as it is through her generosity and devotion to the betterment of the community of Abilene that some 300+ organizations exist into the present day. As The Dodge Jones Foundation sunsetted in 2018, The Matthews Office took up the mantle of gracious generosity and support and continues to add to the legacy of Judy Matthews to this day. 

220 Cypress Street in 1955 (Grissom’s Department Store)

Judy Matthews’ belief and support in the mission of The Center propelled the organization to new heights and allowed for the physical expansion of the organization to take place. In 1993, The Board of Trustees began renovations on a historic building located at 220 Cypress Street that had formerly housed Grissom’s Department Store.  Bill Wright relates the elation felt by the members of The Center concerning the move. “We were delighted, it was a much nicer environment. It was a major place on a major street,” and much like the previous gallery, Bill recalls that “...the artists did much of the carpentry and painting.” And this new space lent itself to new energy in the local art scene, Wright reflects “We became more professional and developed a much broader conception of contemporary art. We focused on local artists and invited others who would be inspirational to local artists. Now we display work of national and international significance.” 

The Center for Contemporary Arts at 220 Cypress Street continues to function as a hub for creatives of all ages and disciplines to connect, create, learn, and exhibit their work. The creations of many notable local and visiting artists have graced the walls of The CCA over the years and the spirit of inspired ambition, innovation, artistic exploration, and service to the local community still remains strong at The Center. The CCA hosts ArtWalk every 2nd Thursday of the month and maintains community outreach “ArtReach” Programs such as ArtHeals and ArtCamps for students throughout the summer alongside many other educational and cultural offerings throughout the year. The space currently houses classrooms, a number of artist’s studios, and 4,653 square feet of gallery space featuring the Jane Breed Gallery and The Bill and Alice Wright Photography Gallery. 

Links: Learn more about The CCA: https://www.center-arts.com/about Read more about The Legacy of Judy Matthews  https://www.reporternews.com/story/news/2018/02/03/dodge-jones-foundations-history-inextricably-tied-judy-matthews-family-vision/1075745001/

Learn more about Bill Wright: https://wrightworld.com/about Abilene Cultural Affairs Council:  https://www.abilenecac.org Photo Citations: Artists League of Texas Grand Opening Flier 1140 ½ N.2nd Street Renovation Photos by Max Brinson (Digitized Slides) 1140 ½ N. 2nd Street Grand Opening Photos by Steve Butman (Digitized Slides)  Grissom’s Department Store 1955:  Unknown Photographer: https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth57309

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