Like many in this community, we mourn the death of J.P. McDonald, who served as the executive director of the Museum of East Texas since April 1991.
Museums consist of more than just art hanging on the wall, she once told a young reporter at this paper.
“We want everyone, no matter what age or background to be able to come here and partake in the arts,” she said. “It’s important to have art in your life and in the community.’’
What an amazing legacy she leaves, Museum Guild president Becky Cota said. “She was a woman like no other, so passionate about The Museum of East Texas, but even more passionate about the children and families that the museum served. J.P. was full of class and sass; she told you like it was and loved you deeply. She always greeted you with a smile and hug and sent you away with a kiss.”
The Lufkin Historical Creative Arts Center opened its doors on Jan. 20, 1976, after a lot of hard work and planning by members of the Lufkin Service League (now the Junior League of Lufkin). ‘‘We wanted it to be a living, breathing entity,” Emily Shelton said at the time, “much more than people’s idea of a museum.”
Their vision, McDonald wrote in a 2018 column, was that families, especially children, would have the same cultural enrichment opportunities as those in urban areas. The museum’s primary mission has always been education through exhibitions of visual arts and humanities, she wrote.
“She lived, breathed, ate, slept this museum,” interim director Sherry Reinhardt said. “She loved what she did; she loved this museum with everything she had to give. She loved all the people who were associated with it. She embraced everyone, and so many people embraced her because of her enthusiasm for (the museum).”
The museum started a number of kid- or family-friendly events under her leadership — in collaboration with the Junior League and both the museum’s board of trustees and its Member’s Guild.
Without a doubt, two of the most popular events are the annual Art Camp, which has grown into a summer-long camp where young artists and artists that are young-at-heart come to learn a variety of art mediums and myriad of crafts including painting, drawing, photography, textile art, sculpture, print making, beads & knots, pastels and puppetry.
Art Camp 2020 was one of the many community events canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the participants in both the 2018 and 2019 camps created more than 1,000 works of art.
Scholarships to Art Camp are available to all artists due to the generosity of the Museum Guild and sponsors of their annual Festival of Trees, an immensely popular Christmas display that transforms the museum into a winter wonderland for the holiday season.
Other popular events at the MET include the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo School Art Program; the Lufkin ISD Young Scholars Showcase; Clay Day; Celebrate Paint; the annual Pumpkin Party, in collaboration with the Lufkin Fire Department; Family Day; Dinner and Dancing Under the Stars; and the annual Member’s Gala — all instituted under McDonald’s leadership.
Plans for the Simon W. Henderson III Education Building were unveiled almost two years ago at the 2018 Member’s Gala. The building will be a new place for the museum to host events, performances and art classes for more adults and children throughout the year. It will feature six classrooms, a kitchen, a covered entryway and a large multipurpose room for special events that will be available for rental. At the time, McDonald said she was excited to see how the new building will help expand the museum’s mission to educate through exhibitions of art and history.
While the programs and events the museum puts on year to year have become staples of the region, the MET’s collection also has grown to include some of the art community’s most revered names. The museum’s collection now totals thousands of pieces of art, with a historic photographic collection spanning more than 100 years of East Texas’ history.
“Some of the works that we have collected over the years are astonishing,” McDonald said. “It’s what the museum strives to be to the community — life-enhancing.”
McDonald often said the museum would not have grown into the renowned art facility it has become if it weren’t for the many dedicated women and men who have put in their time willingly for the love of art.
“We wouldn’t be here without the help and support of our fabulous trustees, members and volunteers,” she said. “I feel blessed to be a part of such a supportive community. We really are lucky to be living in East Texas.”
We agree, wholeheartedly. But we also know the museum’s success came to fruition because of one very special woman who possessed a heart for art, as well as for the people in her community.
Today, the museum is the dynamic cultural institution its founders envisioned. And thanks to McDonald, that vision has been a magical, memorable experience for countless East Texans.
Goodbye, sweet friend. Love ya.