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Volume 24, Number 5 — May 2017

Betsy White is on a serendipitous journey

Betsy White
Betsy White

AAME arts award winner

By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | April 27, 2016

Serendipity is the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. It is also Betsy White's description of how she became involved in the arts.

"It is safe to say that I entered my career through the side door, and definitely serendipitously," White says. "In 1988, things seemed to fall into place for me to assume the management of William King Art Center (now William King Museum of Art). My children were at an age that I was giving some thought to a return to teaching, and the William King board was wrestling with a large, deteriorating, half-empty old school building.

"I had been a member of that community board and so was both committed to its purpose, as well as understanding of its need to find a mission and program that would fill its old halls and bring them to life again. So we put our thoughts together. I abandoned my teaching plans, and we embarked upon a self-study that resulted in the regional mission and museum programs that you see today.

"My initial commitment was part-time and short-term. That, of course, didn't last. Within a few months we were very busy with an energetic group of thinkers and planners, and my part-time plan was abandoned. My short-term intentions instead lasted 20 years, and along the way it became my life's work."

Through White's efforts, William King became the only accredited art museum in a 100-mile radius. She led the effort to develop the security and climate-controlled galleries that allow the museum to showcase works by such celebrated artists as Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, Louis Comfort Tiffany and many others.

As executive director, White also took on the project of documenting the decorative and functional arts in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee, as part of Cultural Heritage Project. The project is a first-time documentation of the regional decorative arts and material culture. It resulted in two books showcasing the rich artisan and artistic history of this region in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They are "Great Road Style: The Decorative Arts Legacy of Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee" and "Backcountry Makers: An Artisan History of Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee."

"I continue to stay involved, at a distance, with the Cultural Heritage Project, having recently guest curated an exhibition at the museum showcasing the artisans and objects in "Backcountry Makers.' I still give illustrated lectures on regional decorative arts for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and others.

"A few years ago, I wrote a monthly column on area antiques for A! Magazine. Today I have one or two new writing projects under way and enjoy volunteer teaching for Abingdon's College for Older Adults. My subject matter is, of course, regional history. The balance of my time is spent very happily with my family and in my garden."

White's interest in art and family can been seen in the emphasis William King places on children.

"The importance of art to children became apparent early on, when we began our 1988 self-study. It soon became logical that one prong of our mission would be arts education, with an emphasis on elementary public school audiences. We were finding that most school systems in far Southwest Virginia lacked art teachers at this level and some even at the high school level. So we set to work creating viable programs that partnered with the schools — programs that are still going strong today.

"All one needs to do to realize the importance of art in children's lives is to look at their faces while they work on a painting project or make that first-time encounter with a room full of art in the museum's galleries. I think I can understand how easily put aside art can be, relegated to something extra and unnecessary. I am not an artist myself nor was I given a lot of deep exposure to art as a child. My real appreciation for it came late, through my serendipitous career. It has been a gift to me, and I think all children merit that same gift," she says.

Under her leadership, the gift of art was given to thousands of children at classes at the museum. She also began the VanGogh Outreach project, which delivers art education to tens of thousands of elementary students throughout the region. It was originally designed for second graders and was meant as a prelude to an already established program for third-graders, Art Express. White developed a pilot program for VanGogh that they tested for two years in Russell and Wise counties, before they launched it regionwide. This program continues today, even stronger than ever, serving nearly 160 classrooms.

In 2008 William King received the Governor's Award for the Arts in Virginia.

In addition to revitalizing the museum and starting the Cultural Heritage Project, White has been the president of the Virginia Highlands Festival several times. She was its leader during its 50th anniversary year, which included many special concerts and events and the publication of a history of the festival. She has been involved with Abingdon town commissions and boards for many years and served on the town's Board of Architectural Review. White also consulted with town officials on the management of Abingdon's historical treasures. "I am very committed to Abingdon's historic district as an important asset to community well being and currently serve as the chair of its preservation committee."

She has been involved in projects for Heartwood, the regional artisans' center. She is a member of the regional Cultural Heritage Commission, the chair of its Cultural Assets Committee and serves on the executive committee of Friends of Southwest Virginia. She has also been president of "Round the Mountain, the artisan network that supplies arts and crafts for sale at Heartwood.

"I am extremely honored to receive this award and to have been a part of building the arts community in our area," she says.

White went to St. Mary's Jr. College in Raleigh, North Carolina and then to Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, from which she has a bachelor's in English. Her husband, Ramsey, located his dental practice in Abingdon in 1978, and they have lived here since.

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