On October 24, 2023, Humanities Texas celebrated our fiftieth anniversary in Abilene with a reception at The Grace Museum. While there, our staff spoke with several local grantees about their work in the humanities, including The Grace and the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature.

The Grace Museum and the National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature (NCCIL) are two museums in Abilene's vibrant downtown, each with a history closely tied to Abilene's own. With twenty-six historic buildings, a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, and recognition by the Texas Commission on the Arts as one of the five most important cities in Texas with historic downtown cultural districts, the city of Abilene is a model for its commitment to art, culture, and history.

The Grace is housed in one of these historic buildings, a 1909 hotel known originally as Hotel Grace, then The Drake, which closed in 1973. The Grace Cultural Center (renamed The Grace Museum in 1998) opened in the space in 1992, five years after the Abilene Preservation League purchased the historic hotel.

The NCCIL was established after former Abilene Mayor Gary McCaleb invited author William Joyce to speak at the Abilene Cultural Affairs Council luncheon about his children's book Santa Calls in 1993. During this visit, McCaleb and Joyce jointly came up with the idea for a museum dedicated to children's illustration. In 1997, the National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature was incorporated as a nonprofit organization.

Both The Grace Museum and the NCCIL have had long relationships with our grants program, receiving their first Humanities Texas grants in 1998 and 2006 respectively. These organizations are two of twenty-four in Abilene and the Big Country region that have received Humanities Texas grants in the last fifty years. During our fiftieth anniversary reception in Abilene, held at The Grace Museum, we spoke with these organizations to learn about their service to their community in prior years and today.

The Grace Museum

As both a fine art and history museum, The Grace Museum curates anywhere from twelve to fifteen art and history exhibitions each year. Since 1998, Humanities Texas has awarded The Grace thirty-seven grants, many of which have supported curated exhibitions such as Russian Socialist Realist Art, 1930–1980 in 1999; West Texas Clubwoman, 1880–1950 in 2013; and Mary Vernon: Painting is Drawing in 2017.

Currently, Witness: Black Artists in Texas, Then and Now is on display. The exhibition, supported by a Humanities Texas mini-grant, features eighteen Black artists—including John Biggers, Charles Criner, Earlie Hudnall Jr., Elizabeth Montgomery Shelton, and more—whose work "bear[s] witness to the transformative power of art to create a personal and authentic record of Black culture."

"We had a wonderful opening," said Executive Director Laura Moore. "We had a lot of artists in the show come in for it. They talked about the generations of art teachers in the show. It was a golden moment. We are loving it. We're having so many people coming to see an amazing exhibit."

In addition to curating exhibitions, The Grace emphasizes children's education. The museum has an interactive area visited by close to 650 family members a week, as well as a public school art education program, where museum staff send experienced art educators into local schools, some of which may not have a full-time art teacher.

By virtue of being in a historic building, The Grace also has many opportunities for hosting events. "We have a ballroom, we have an outdoor courtyard, and a terrace on our rooftop," said Moore. "We have a lot of events—a lot of public events but also private weddings. We run about one hundred paid events a year."

In October, The Grace Museum hosted our fiftieth anniversary reception for the Abilene area. Everyone associated with Humanities Texas over the years was invited—directors of local libraries and museums, leaders of area colleges and universities, elected officials, grantees, exhibition renters, donors, winners of our Outstanding Teaching Awards, scholars who have served as faculty in our programs, and many more.

"A high point [last] year has been the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Humanities Texas and having the privilege of being a part of that story," Moore said. "It was such a great mechanism to educate people on the breadth of Humanities Texas and all the different ways they serve people and Texas. It was just really rewarding. . . . a good moment to stop and celebrate a really good thing."

National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature

The National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature (NCCIL) collaborates with children’s book illustrators to create exhibitions of their artwork. Since the Center’s founding, they have had over sixty illustrators showcased in their museum. In 2024, the Center will host three new illustrators and their work: Jason Chin, LeUyen Pham, and Rafael López, all of whom are nationally recognized, award-winning artists.

The artists go through a rigorous selection process by the NCCIL before having their work showcased. The NCCIL's exhibitions and programming committee is made up of community members, founding members, and educators, many of whom are librarians.

"We also talk to previous NCCIL artists to see who they would recommend. These artists are almost like a community that bands together and advocates for each other," said NCCIL Executive Director Molly Bellah. "We love to have their input because they know what it takes and how hard we work for them."

The artists selected typically have had seven to ten books published and must be award-winning. Once selected, the NCCIL's curator begins putting together an exhibition of the artist's work for display.

Two of the four Humanities Texas grants received by the NCCIL supported these exhibitions, one featuring Bryan Collier's work in 2006 and another featuring Ashley Bryan in 2009. 

"[The artists] walk through the doors, and they see all of their art from the past twenty, thirty years on the wall," Bellah said. "It's a very emotional moment for them because they've never seen their pieces hung in frames. They've never seen their pieces in one room."

After the exhibition completes its term, it goes on tour for three years as a traveling exhibition. This is an opportunity to extend the life of the exhibition, as well as a way for the artists to sell their pieces and the books that feature them.

Both The Grace Museum and the NCCIL also received Humanities Texas COVID-19 Relief Grants in 2020 to support operating costs and virtual programming during the pandemic.

"The NCCIL was able to survive the COVID pandemic in part because of this grant," said former NCCIL Executive Director Trish Dressen. "We were able to make our gallery accessible to all virtually [and] created a virtual school tour program to reach schools and households."

In 2024, Humanities Texas will continue offering grants to organizations like these to support their unique missions and efforts to bring the public a wide array of humanities programming.

"When I think of Humanities Texas, I think about a truly strong partner that wants the humanities story to be told and will strongly support that effort," Laura Moore said. "They want us to succeed, and they want everyone else to succeed to be able to tell those stories."

These organizations are just a few of the many that have benefitted from Humanities Texas support over the past five decades. We look forward to sharing more stories from our grantees in forthcoming newsletters.

The Grace Museum in downtown Abilene.
The National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature in Abilene.
West Texas Clubwoman, 1880–1950 at The Grace in 2013.
Mary Vernon: Painting is Drawing at The Grace in 2017.
Witness: Black Artists in Texas, Then and Now, currently on display at The Grace.
Illustrator Bryan Collier at the opening of Defining Moments: Bryan Collier at the NCCIL in 2006.
Collier speaks to a group of students visiting the NCCIL in 2006.
Ashley Bryan at Rhythms of the Heart: The Illustration of Ashley Bryan at the NCCIL in 2009.
Photographer and former Humanities Texas board member Bill Wright gives a toast at our 50th anniversary celebration at The Grace in 2023.