The Gaston County Museum of Art and History is probably one of the best-kept secrets in the county.
“And that’s a shame,” says Jason Luker. “It’s really about time people knew about us and the wonderful things we have to offer.”
Luker is the museum’s programs coordinator. And the sentiments he recently expressed are echoed by all those who are in the know about the museum. Nestled in the corner of the historic Court Square in Dallas, the Gaston County Museum of Art and History (or GCM) is housed in what was once the Hoffman Hotel. Built in 1852 and a listed site on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s a locally unique structure with a storied past, according to museum educational outreach coordinator Kelly Mason.
“There’s this perception that we’re just this quiet, little blip on the map that just sits there with dusty, old stuff inside,” says Mason with a smile. “We’re anything but quiet or little!”
Still, of course, the museum does have a lot of old stuff, as Mason notes.
“But it’s not dusty!” she adds with a wink.
Mason would be an excellent judge. She’s on the front lines for most of the museum’s public and school programs. Both on-site and by visiting the schools themselves, the GCM’s education staffers engage students in every grade level, usually multiple times and with different programs. It’s enough that children often recognize Mason out of her historical costuming, and they run up to give her a hug, much to their parents’ confusion.
“They always ask, ‘Who are you?’” she says with a laugh. “But the kids know!”
Ask anyone who works with children. They’ll tell you that this kind of reaction isn’t the norm for a place or a people that are quiet, boring and well––dusty.
Community engagement is the backbone of the GCM’s philosophy in both its programming and exhibitions. As department members of the Gaston County Government, the staffers take this idea very seriously: they’re here to serve the people of Gaston County. That begins with the museum charging no admission to visit the site and no admission for 99 percent of its program offerings. It continues with actively requesting public participation and assistance with exhibitions and research.
Combine that mindset with the knowledge and expertise of a staff that collectively has more than half a century of profound experience in the field, and you end up with the potential for something pretty spectacular. After all, we assume any staffers that have won multiple awards for exhibits and programs, to say nothing of being featured in The New York Times, might have some idea as to what they’re doing, right?
And what they’re doing seems to be gaining some well-deserved recognition. Attendance numbers for the museum and its various programs are on a steady rise. The museum’s two concert series, “Concerts at the Courthouse” in winter and the GCM Summer Concert Series host both nationally-renowned acts and local artists, all for free. That commitment to community engagement and excellence was one of the things that drew the organizers of Merlefest, one of the largest music festivals in the nation, to make the museum a recurring stop on the festival’s pre-tour “Merlefest on the Road.”
One of the few institutions in the state to boast an accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums, the Gaston County Museum of Art and History is definitely something for the community to take pride in. Staff telephones and e-mails buzz steadily with requests for tours, research assistance and queries about renting the buildings and grounds for weddings and events. And all of these things are matters with which the staffers are all too happy to assist.
Today, a casual check-in shows an institution bustling with activity. Perhaps a class reunion’s attendees have rented the historic courthouse for a weekend. Or at another time, half of the curatorial department is hanging a new art exhibit, while the other half is assisting a local corporation with research. Programming is a veritable beehive of activity, with new costumes being made, musicians being booked and educators running in and out on their way to engage the public. And through it all, the visitor service guides smile and greet those who find their way through the front door.
No, there’s nothing little, quiet or even dusty about that museum in Dallas. But there is an enormous amount to make one sit up and take notice and definitely take pride in.
The Gaston County Museum of Art and History is located at 131 W. Main St. in Dallas. It’s open Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Saturdays, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. For more information, call (704) 922-7681 or see the Website at www. gastoncountymuseum.org.