Kermit Oliver exhibit puts new Art Center Waco spot on the map
Good art captures the eye and for Art Center Waco, the Kermit Oliver exhibit that opened its downtown location captured plenty of eyes across the state, putting both the center and Waco on the map for some Texas art fans.
The retrospective exhibit, “Kermit Oliver: New Narratives, New Beginnings,” ends a three-month run Saturday. Its success led officials to add an extra three weeks to accommodate viewers.
For new CEO Doug McDurham, the Oliver show surpassed what Art Center Waco trustees and supporters had hoped when they scheduled it as the first exhibit for the center’s downtown location at 701 S. Eighth St., a former one-story brick child care center that got a $3.1 million facelift into a contemporary visual arts space.
Judging from sign-in logs, headcounts at organized events and more, McDurham estimated more than 3,000 people have visited the Oliver exhibit since its opening Oct. 21, with turnout the highest in its early weeks, the week between Christmas and New Year’s and after major articles in statewide media.
In comparison, Art Center Waco exhibits in 2016, the last full year in the organization’s former facility, drew 7,557 visitors. Art Center Waco was housed in the former summer home of the William Cameron family for much of its four-decade history, until structural problems in the century-old structure forced the center to find a new home.
For years, Art Center Waco leaders and supporters had contemplated moving to downtown Waco to increase the center’s visibility and access. A task force led by board member Lisa Monroe and board Chair Jill Michaels found the current facility at 701 S. Eighth and set in motion a $3.1 million building renovation that, due in part to delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, took much of last year to complete.
Houston arts writer and scholar Susie Kalil, who is writing a book on the 78-year-old Refugio native, curated “New Narratives, New Beginnings,” and with the help of Oliver and local collectors assembled 54 paintings touching the breadth of Oliver’s professional career.
Oliver’s striking combination of detail, assemblage and symbolism has earned him a reputation in Texas art circles — and beyond, thanks to his highly collectible scarves designed for Paris fashion house Hermes. The Waco painter also is represented at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
At the same time, his avoidance of the limelight made the soft-spoken artist relatively unknown in Waco, where he and his wife Katie raised their family of three children after moving here from Houston in 1984. For more than three decades, Oliver worked at night as a mail sorter for the U.S. Postal Service and painted by day.
The Art Center Waco’s show not only introduced many Waco art lovers to the talented but publicity-averse artist in their community, but drew the attention of Oliver fans and collectors from across the state. Statewide media attention did not hurt. A Nov. 3 Texas Monthly feature by Michael Agresta is published under the headline, “The Must-see Art Show of the Fall Is in … Waco?“
McDurham said readers’ reaction to the Texas Monthly feature was “shockingly immediate,” spurring out-of-town visitors within days, if not the day after the article appeared online.
“Folks must have been fully dressed and their cars fully gassed,” he joked.
Staff members at the Waco Convention Center and Visitors Bureau did their part, recommending the exhibit and new art center to callers.
“Certainly, we sent a lot of our visitors there,” city tourism director Susan Morton said. “Everyone here fell in love with it.”
The Christmas holidays brought another wave of out-of-towners, and McDurham often found himself chatting with art gallery owners, collectors and museum administrators impressed not only with the quality of the Oliver exhibit, but the new center that hosted it.
Attendance was strong in the show’s final week, which ends Saturday with exhibit hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission is free.
For Waco’s new Art Center Waco facility and its equally new CEO McDurham, the Oliver exhibit set the table for the months ahead. The center’s next show will open Feb. 10 with works by neon artist Ben Livingston, followed by photographs from former National Geographic photographer Greg Davis on May 10.
Thanks to the Oliver exhibit, the Art Center Waco and Waco itself now are on visitors’ maps, with a good chance of return visits.
“I think we’ll be able to open the doors for more,” McDurham said.
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