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"The purpose of the Visual Arts Center is to foster excellence, diversity and vitality of the visual arts, to broaden the availability and appreciation of such excellence, diversity, and vitality through education and exhibitions, and to serve as a source of information about the arts, activities and events in Northwest Florida. The Visual Arts Center shall serve the needs of and enhance opportunities for visual artists and assure them of an integral role in policy development and programming."
The Visual Arts Center of Northwest Florida credits its beginning to 17 artists who formed an association in 1955 for the purpose of exhibiting and promoting the visual arts in Bay County. The early group was known as the Panama City Art Group. In 1963, the name was changed to the Panama City Art Association. Members played a vital role in the cultural development of the community, lobbying for art teachers in elementary schools, placing artists in residence, teaching studio art courses, and installing art exhibits at the Bay County Fair Grounds, Junior Museum, Panama City Mall and the Marina Civic Center.
In 1986, the Panama City Art Association and the Downtown Improvement Board received a $700,000 grant to renovate the old Panama City Hall and Jail (located in the heart of downtown Panama City) and transform it into permanent gallery space. The newly remodeled building was christened the Visual Arts Center of Northwest Florida, and opened its doors in 1988 as the only museum-quality exhibition space between Pensacola and Tallahassee. The Panama Art Association secured salary assistance from the Division of Cultural Affairs and hired the first director in 1989. Exhibits of local art were scheduled monthly while the organization adjusted to the demands of running a cultural facility.
The original building was built in 1925 in Spanish Revival style. There are also areas of Art Deco, which is described as ?a decorative combination of Neo-Classical, Gothic and Baroque features.? The stucco on the outside of the building has many pieces of multi-colored glass. Buildings of the 1920s were often covered with polychrome (many colored) glazed tile. Few buildings remain with this type of stucco; the Visual Arts Center is thought to be the only one in Florida.
The building fa ade is a key element, with Greek columns, Corinthian capitals, a Roman arch with a false gable and a Spanish terra cotta tile roof. The cornucopia and scroll represent wishes for a bountiful harvest.
The new addition to the building houses the entrance foyer, elevator and beautiful Art Deco style stairway. This stairway sweeps up to the Main Gallery. Glass blocks are used on the outside wall of the stair, allowing good light for exhibits.
The upstairs lobby, above the new main entrance, has floor to ceiling windows and seating for visitors to stop, relax and enjoy a view of Harrison Avenue down the marina. At the top of the stairs is the Main Gallery, which is used for larger exhibits and preview receptions. A full kitchen allows the VAC to rent the Gallery out for private parties. The hallway to the left, leading to the classrooms and the upstairs restrooms features a jungle mural created by a group of young students during a summer project. At the end of the ?jungle hall,? the room to the left is used for pottery and sculpture and the room to the right is another classroom. Both of the classrooms are part of the original structure; the interior walls have sections of unfinished brick and some windows still have jail bars. A brick stairway leads down to the executive offices, store rooms and a recently installed dark room in the back of the ground floor.
To the right of the entrance foyer, double doors open into a mirrored hall/gallery. At the end of the hall on the left are a smaller room used for exhibits and classes and the Higby Gallery. On the right is the Impressions Gallery, our hands-on children?s gallery. The double doors at the end of the hallway open into the original lobby. The floor molding here is Georgia pink marble, the same that is used in the Capital Building in Atlanta, Georgia. The stairs on either side of this entrance lead up to the Main Gallery on the second floor. At the bottom of each set of stairs are the original restrooms, tiled with mint green tile.
Education is a priority of the Visual Arts Center, the only museum of its kind within 100 miles. The staff and volunteers understand the importance of daily educational programs. The VAC offers educational programs and services such as:
After-school and early release day classes for children .
The hands-on Impressions Gallery for children, which encourages art exploration related to materials and techniques used by exhibiting artists.
Drawing, painting, photography, pottery and sculpture classes for adults.
Art appreciation lectures and demonstrations.
Year-round intensive studio workshops for mature artists.
Docent tours with trained volunteers.
Gallery talks by local artists.
Summer youth art programs for elementary and middle school students.
Evenings with Educators outreach program and training sessions for area teachers.
Through weekend and evening hours, the VAC offers opportunities for people of all incomes and schedules to visit and participate in our programs.
Panama City is recognized as one of America?s ?100 Best Small Art Towns? and the Visual Arts Center has a unique responsibility to the community to maintain its status as a cultural arts leader in Northwest Florida. With the help of a dedicated staff and volunteers, we strive to meet this goal each year.
- Tiffany Woessner
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