By Jo Williams
Visual Arts Society of Texas (VAST) was founded in 1975 as the Denton Area Arts and Crafts League. The name was soon changed to North Texas Area Arts and Crafts League and finally to the North Texas Area Art League (NTAAL). It operated under this name until 2006 when the name was changed to the Visual Arts Society of Texas (VAST).
The organization was originally started in a hobby shop at 903 N. Elm by a group of artists and craftspeople interested in publicizing and establishing a market for their work. Early meetings were held in the craft shop and in members’ homes.
VAST first achieved non-profit status in 2006.
NTAAL Juried Fine Arts Awards Exhibition
The first art awards exhibition in Denton began in 1968 as the first community-wide activity of a newly formed Cultural Affairs Committee. Fine Arts Festival was the name originally given to the exhibition and was held under the auspices of the Cultural Affairs Committee for three years prior to the formation of the Greater Denton Arts Council (GDAC) in 1971.
The exhibition was first held on the second level of the Denton Civic Center with two categories – professional and amateur with ribbons awarded for prizes. The practice of offering a purchase award for one (sometimes two) outstanding works (in any medium) was begun in 1969 and continued until 1983 according to permanent collection records. These works form the basis for the Greater Denton Arts Council Permanent Collection. At least two NTAAL members are represented in the collection, Jo Williams and James J. Johnson.
The early exhibitions were under the supervision of Ken Havis, Director of the North Texas State University (now UNT) Art Gallery. The method of hanging an exhibition introduced by Havis continues to this day by VAST and GDAC. Viewing of the exhibitions at the Civic Center was a challenge because of the many joggers running past the exhibition. Another challenge was the hanging of the show. Special hangers were found that hung on the edge of the protruding brick. The exhibition eventually grew so large that the entire second level and part of the main floor of the civic center was used for the event.
In 1979, NTAAL submitted a proposal to the Arts Council requesting that the responsibility for the show be given to NTAAL. This became a reality largely due to the efforts of Martha Robbins, NTAAL President, and James J. Johnson, GDAC President (1980). In 1980, the first NTAAL sponsored Spring Juried Exhibition was held with Martha Robbins and James J. Johnson presiding at the awards ceremony.
The practice of selecting qualified jurors, begun in the early years, has continued to the present. Jurors have included a variety of museum and gallery directors, artists, and college and university art faculty. Some of the early jurors included: Mark Lombardi, Curator, Houston Contemporary Art Museum; Arnold Leondar, Chairperson, Tarrant County Community College; and Dr. Kenneth Prescott, Chairperson, University of Texas Department of Art. For a period after 1979, separate jurors were used for the GDAC Purchase Award. In the beginning there were no restrictions on entries such as the current 3 entries/1 accepted rule. The pre-selection process having pieces juried into the exhibition began in 1982 and because of that and the selection of qualified jurors, the quality of the show improved immensely.
In 1985, after the renovation of the old city power plant, the Greater Denton Arts Council moved into its present-day facility, now known as the Patterson-Appleton Arts Center. NTAAL was able to then move the awards exhibition into that facility and for the first time it was held in Meadows Gallery. NTAAL, also as an Arts Council member, began holding its meetings in the Arts Center. Another major change in the exhibition occurred in 2003 when it became a national exhibit. This exhibition continued until 2013 when it was finally eliminated. However, a Members Exhibition with soft jurying was added in 1988 and continues today. In 2008, a third exhibition was added, the 125 Mile Exhibition, open to artists within a 125 mile radius. This became the 175 Mile Exhibition in 2020.
In 2003, the organization hired an Executive Director, which was funded at the time by Point Bank. The organization was ultimately able to fund the salary of the ED and continued to employ one until 2010 when it once again became an all-volunteer organization.
In 2007, the Denton Poets Assembly approached VAST with the proposal to do a collaborative exhibition of art and poetry, which evolved into the Merging Visions exhibit first held in the Denton Public Libraries in 2008 and continued in the libraries until it was able to move to the Meadows Gallery at the PAAC in 2014 and into other venues including the Lightwell at the old art building at UNT and the UNT gallery on the Denton downtown square. VAST continued this collaboration until 2021.