In 1943, Hickory Rotary Club member and artist Paul Whitener told a Hickory Daily Record reporter he wanted “to make Hickory an Art Center.” Concluding the article, the reporter added: “Some how when he says it, you believe it.” In addition to the fact that our country was involved in a World War, there was also only one art museum in the entire state of North Carolina. In September of that year, however, Rotarian Whitener’s personal journal reported a group of conscientious citizens had gathered to discuss organizing an art association in Hickory, with an ultimate goal of establishing a museum of art.
In December 1943 the Hickory Museum of Art’s first executive committee meeting was held, with Whitener as secretary/treasurer. Within eight weeks a full board had been selected. At their first meeting, Whitener was unanimously elected to serve as the first director of the state’s second oldest art museum. The February 4, 1944 inaugural address was given by former governor Clyde R. Hoey at Hotel Hickory. Concluding the ceremony, Whitener invited audience members to the Museum’s first exhibition in its first home, the Bradshaw building, located at 1212 Eleventh Avenue.
In addition to reporting about professional artists giving exhibitions and programs sponsored by the new art museum, there were also early Hickory Daily Record articles reporting about the importance of involving local students in the art museum. In March of 1947, Paul Whitener organized the first annual student art show which now carries his name. In the 1951 Hickory Museum of Art Annual Report Whitener wrote that the Museum “has annually conducted major competitive exhibitions which bring together the best works being done at the time in our local schools. This has created much interest in both the students and their parents.”
Over the past 67 years, thousands have enjoyed viewing student artworks exhibited in the Hickory Museum of Art’s annual Paul Whitener Student Art Show. This event provides an opportunity for local elementary school students from Hickory and Catawba County schools to exhibit in the Museum. The art show is sponsored by the Hickory Rotary Club, of which Hickory Museum of Art founder Paul Whitener was a long-time member. Hickory Rotary’s ongoing support of the student art show honors Paul Whitener’s belief in the importance of encouraging the creativity of youth and in his service to this community and is consistent with Hickory Rotary Club’s continued support of educational initiatives throughout the Catawba Valley area.
Today the Hickory Art Museum and the Paul Whitener Student Art Show is located at Hickory’s SALT Block. The SALT Block, a cultural arts complex opened in 1986, is one of the few places in the United States at which you can experience Sciences, Arts, and Literature Together on one city block. The SALT Block is located at 243 Third Avenue NE Hickory NC in a 4-building complex, which was formerly Claremont High School and Hickory High School, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Sharing space at the SALT Block with Hickory Museum of Art are Catawba Science Center, Hickory Choral Society, Patrick Beaver Memorial Library, United Arts Council, and Western Piedmont Symphony.