The Museum of East Texas, which opened under the name the Lufkin Historical and Creative Arts Center in 1976, was one of a number of Texas museums established in conjunction with the United States Bicentennial. The museum offers temporary and permanent exhibitions on regional history and art, and is housed in the historic St. Cyprian's Episcopal Church in Lufkin, built in 1906. The idea for the museum originated in 1974 with the Lufkin Service League, which determined that the church, gutted by fire in 1969 and subsequently acquired by the city, would be an appropriate location for the arts center. The city commission gave the Lufkin Service League permission to use the burned building in 1974, and the Lufkin Historical and Creative Arts Center was chartered on December 20, 1974. The league raised $20,000 to restore and remodel the church. Lufkin Historical and Creative Arts Center opened to the public on January 20, 1976. Initially operated by a twenty-one member board of trustees and volunteers from the Service League and the community, the museum acquired its first professional museum director, Rudolph Pharris, in August 1978. The position of director was subsequently augmented by a curator of education, an administrative assistant, part-time maintenance personnel and weekend staff, and, for a period of time, a curator of exhibitions. The museum staff has been supported by a volunteer Museum Guild, which began organizing in May 1979. The original church and Sunday school building are owned by the city, which pays for the museum's utilities and maintenance expenses. The museum owns all additions to the original structure, as well as items in the small but developing permanent collection of historical artifacts and art objects. The museum depends on membership dues and private and public grants to fund operations and special exhibitions. The Lufkin Service League has been a continuing source of support, supplemented by major donations from the Meadows Foundation, the Southland Paper Foundation, the Fairchild Foundation, the T. L. L. Temple Foundation, and such corporate sponsors as NationsBank and First City Bank.
The Museum of East Texas has acquired a number of historical artifacts related to East Texas, including clothing, tools, and furniture. It has also acquired more than 5,000 negatives of photographs by Clyde N. Merrill, who worked as a commercial photographer in Lufkin from the turn of the century through the 1970s. His work constitutes an invaluable record of the people, businesses, and city life of Lufkin. The museum has begun developing a collection of paintings, prints, and mixed-media works, primarily by regional artists. When space is available, the Museum of East Texas exhibits the Rotary Club's collection of work by regional artists such as Ancel Nunn, Philip Medford, Lucile and Reece Kennedy, and Connie Foreman.
Each year the museum hosts several traveling exhibits. Past exhibitions have included the Museum of American Folk Art's Tramp Art: An Itinerant's Folk Art (1977), Five Centuries of Italian Painting (1988), and Aspects of British Painting 1550–1800 (1990); the latter two were organized by the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation. New Art (1991), an exhibition of contemporary artists from New York, California, and Texas, was juried by Henry Hopkins and organized by the Texas Fine Arts Association. The Museum of East Texas also organizes its own exhibitions, typically featuring some aspect of local history or work by regional artists. Notable exhibitions organized by the museum and accompanied by catalogues include Remembrances of Two Artists: The Stitchery of Ruby Yount, The Paintings of Alma Gunter (1983), and the retrospective of printmaker and painter Janet E. Turner, Janet Turner (1914–1988): Some Past is Present (1989). The museum also organized a popular exhibition of local archeological finds, Early East Texas: A Window to the Past (1991), and a traveling exhibition on an African-American family in East Texas, One Family's Heritage (1991).
The Museum of East Texas coordinates an education program. The education curator trains docents who offer tours to the general public and to elementary students in conjunction with their studies. Exhibitions are supplemented by lectures, films, brochures, gallery talks, and other resources. Together with the Service League, the Lufkin Independent School District, and the Texas Commission on the Arts, the museum sponsored an artist-in-residence program beginning in 1980, in which students participated in the creative processes of such artists as Ancel Nunn. From 1983 to 1986 the museum joined with the Rotary Committee of East Texas Art in organizing an annual "Art Search," a competitive exhibition open to college students throughout East Texas, in which the winning art works were purchased for the Rotary Collection.
During the 1980s the museum grew. In 1980 the former classroom wing of the church was renovated to provide space for galleries, offices, a workshop, and reception area; the church sanctuary was converted into a performance area and meetingroom. In the same year, the Angelina Room of local history artifacts opened in the new wing. Further expansion occurred in 1981, with the addition of four rooms and a Memorial Courtyard that features one of sculptor Malcolm Alexander's bronze monuments commemorating the Alaskan pipeline. The museum's name was officially changed to Museum of East Texas in 1985, reflecting the organization's expansion in scope beyond the local level. In 1988 the museum began raising funds to remodel the existing facility and construct a new wing. The project was successfully completed at a cost of $1.17 million in 1990, bringing the museum's total area to 21,000 square feet. Environmental systems and a security system were installed in 1990 as part of an effort to gain accreditation.