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Volume 24, Number 4 — April 2017

Path Clear For Rebirth Of William King Regional Arts Center

Lemont Dobson, Assistant Director at the William King Regional Arts Center, talks about the expansion plans. (Photo by David Crigger|Bristol Herald Courier)
Lemont Dobson, Assistant Director at the William King Regional Arts Center, talks about the expansion plans. (Photo by David Crigger|Bristol Herald Courier)

By DEBRA McCOWN | BRISTOL HERALD COURIER | October 16, 2008

*** This story was published Oct. 16, 2008 in the Bristol Herald Courier. ***

ABINGDON, Va. ? Big things are happening on the big hill that overlooks Main Street: The William King Regional Arts Center is preparing for rebirth.

With Tuesday's purchase of the final piece of property needed for the center's expansion, the path is clear to build an entry road that will open the arts campus to downtown.

"I'm really glad to see it in place, secured, ready to go," said Betsy K. White, the arts center director. "We've been working toward this three or four years."

Although she is retiring at the end of the year, White said she looks forward to seeing the project finished.

"It's really my belief that an organization cannot remain at a standstill," White said of the arts center, "and when the project comes to fruition, the project will help the economy in Southwest Virginia."

Phase I of the expansion, scheduled to start in early spring and be completed within a year, will include the new entry road, to make access easier and make the arts center visible to downtown; re-landscaping of the grounds; and construction of an artisan courtyard that will house working studios. The cost is expected to be $4 million.

Phase II, which could be completed by 2012, will include a new entry building for the arts center ? with a rooftop garden overlooking the town. The preliminary cost estimate is $3 million.

The money for Phase I is coming from several different sources including the Appalachian Regional Commission, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Virginia Tobacco Commission, Washington County, the town of Abingdon, private foundations and individual donations.

Lemont Dobson, the arts center deputy director who will take over as director in January and oversee the expansion project, said he hopes the campus will soon become a destination in a walkable Abingdon downtown.

"We want people to use the grounds and view the grounds as a public park and a public space," Dobson said.

He said one plan he has in store to tie in the campus with downtown is a biennial sculpture contest, in which one piece of art will be selected every two years for placement somewhere in town.

"That way we will start to build a public art collection downtown," Dobson said.

There also will be a sculpture garden on the grounds, he said, which will be free along with access to the artisan courtyard, where artisans will work and interact with the public in studios on the hill ? and their work will be sold at the arts center, which will eventually have a cafe.

"The goal of the project is to make a career in the arts a very economically viable career," Dobson said of the courtyard.

Additionally, with the help of the new facilities, the arts center will move toward being self-supporting, he said.

White said the arts center has, until now, focused on programming rather than facilities, and it recently received the Governor's Award for the Arts, one of 10 winners from among 345 nominations around the state this year, according to the governor's Web site. The arts center was recognized for its traveling programs, which bring art education to 4,000 schoolchildren in 14 counties and in some cases is the only art education that elementary school pupils receive.

White said the expansion and redevelopment project on the hill is likely to be completed about the same time as another new arts landmark: Heartwood, an artisan center planned about a mile away. She said the two are closely tied and will provide similar information to help visitors find their way around town and Southwest Virginia along a regional network that is being developed of arts-related venues and studios.

After retiring, White's first project will be to create a public archive documenting the material culture of Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee, and she said the arts center project and arts venue expansion in Abingdon will help drive economic development by showcasing the region's cultural assets.

It's no accident that the arts have long flourished in Abingdon and in the region, she said; the natural resources available ? such as clay, hardwood trees, water and iron ? drew craftsmen here today just as they drew settlers in the 19th century.

In more recent decades, money made from another natural resource found in the region ? coal ? has helped fund and promote the arts.

White said the artisan courtyard will include both modern and historic aspects of the region's art and crafts; as an example, it might feature both a contemporary metalworker and a traditional blacksmith or tinsmith.

"I think it will provide continuity of that handing down of those traditions," she said. "It's a way for people here to understand their own rich background and history. ... I just can't wait for them all to happen."