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It was founded as the Winston-Salem Gallery of Fine Arts in response to a community and regional need of exhibition space devoted to modernist work by area artists. The group of local artists and community leaders who founded the downtown gallery, developed a statement of purpose which sought to "identify and exhibit the southeast's major artists of exceptional talent; to present educational programs for children and adults; and to bring the viewing public in direct contact with the artists and their art."
The original mission called for exhibitions of work from four states contiguous to North Carolina.
In 1963, the gallery moved to larger quarters and four years later, hired its first full time director, and changed its name again to the Gallery of Contemporary Art. At that time the gallery's scope was expanded to include all 11 southeastern states.
In 1972, industrialist James G. Hanes deeded his 32 acre estate to the gallery. Renovation of the Tudor style mansion, as well as the construction of a 15,000 square foot gallery addition and receiving area, was completed in 1976.
The gallery was renamed the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art. During this period of growth SECCA initiated its first artist support program, the NEA/SECCA Southeastern Artists Fellowships (later known as SECCA/RJ Reynolds Artist Fellowships), which annually awarded seven artists $3,000 each, plus document their work in a catalog and traveled the exhibition to three southeastern museums.
In 1981, SECCA initiated the national Awards in the Visual Arts (AVA) program, which annually awards ten artists from across the country $15,000 each. In addition, AVA coordinates works from the winners into a traveling exhibition and produces an accompanying catalog which includes an essay by a well-known critic. Each of the participating museums receives $10,000 to purchase work from the AVA recipients for their permanent collections.
SECCA entered its second phase of growth in 1984 when the Board of Trustees appointed an Expansion Committee to follow-up on the Long Range Planning Committee's finding that SECCA required additional gallery space as well as a permanent auditorium for program use. After several feasibility studies which pointed a community, state and regional need for an art center which could interact more fully on a national level, SECCA launched its Expanded Vision Campaign in 1986.
The campaign began with a $300,000 NEA Challenge Grant, a $500,000 gift from the NC General Assembly and a $250,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation. Additional foundation, corporate and individual contributions were solicited in order to reach the 3.2 million dollar goal. On May 4, 1990 the new 24,000 square foot addition opened to the public with the Next Generation: Southern Black Aesthetic exhibition and a three month series of 17 education programs held in conjunction with the exhibition.
With the completion of this phase of growth, SECCA's vision was changed to a national focus of the country's major contemporary artists while preserving an importance on the southeast region. SECCA's mission is still dedicated to encouragement of creative excellence in the visual arts and interpreting the diversity of American contemporary art. SECCA is now organizing and hosting major exhibitions of contemporary art.