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Volume 26, Number 5 — May 2019

William King Museum of Art celebrates 25th birthday

This painting by Robert Vickrey was painted c. 1950 and is part of the
This painting by Robert Vickrey was painted c. 1950 and is part of the "Connoisseur" exhibit. Its medium is egg tempura. 46" W x 33 1/2" H.

By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | March 29, 2017

March 29, 2017 marks the exact 25th anniversary of the opening of the William King Museum of Art in Abingdon.

This year's anniversary will be celebrated by a monthlong series of events, but especially the opening Thursday, April 6, of an exhibit which reveals art collected in the region, "Conoisseur: Private Collection in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee."

Twelve area collectors have lent the museum objects from their collections whose eye for art-their connoisseurship — is evident in their art collections.

The opening will be on Abingdon's First Thursday from 6-8 p.m., with a lecture by Mary Haviland, the guest curator, at 7 p.m.

March 29, 1992 was a propitious day in Abingdon, Virginia, as it marked the day a group of dedicated people opened the door to their jewel on the hill William King Museum of Art.

Their journey began in 1979, when Dan Caldwell and a community group got together and decided to save the William King Elementary School building.

Betsy White, executive director, joined the board of that group in its second year. When she came to see the building, "we could hardly find it, because everything was so overgrown," she said.

The group's first step was to make the very rear part of the building usable. It contained a few artist studios, a small education space and a small gallery (now Cecilia Pippins studio). A new artist group, the William King Artists' Association (now The Arts Depot Artists' Association), had formed and the operation was leased to them. The front of the building was cleaned up, received a new roof and boarded up.

White came back to the board with the mission of creating a plan for the main part of the building. At that point, she went on a tour of the state, met with the Virginia Museum of Art, Virginia Association of Museums and any other group that she could find looking for ideas.

"My eyes were opened to the possibilities of what we could do," she says. "Then we turned our eyes inward to see what we needed. We decided we didn't need performing arts, because we had the Barter. What we were lacking was a visual arts place with security, so we could have art that required it. The other lack we noticed was art teachers in elementary schools."

Their plans required funding, so they put together a capital campaign called "Open The Doors." The visual metaphor was of the front door being opened and opening the door to the arts.

The drive raised enough money to renovate the main floor. The building had to be closed for two years for the renovation. While it was being renovated, White and her team operated out of the Greenway Trigg building, where they kept up their educational programming.

"The Virginia Museum staff was a great help. Their security, lighting and exhibition staff helped designed our security, lighting plans and exhibition space. Harry McKinney, our architect, met with them in Richmond and their staff came here," White says. "About 10 people from Richmond came for our opening weekend. Our opening night was a welcoming for Viginia's newest museum."

The first exhibit was "An Empire of Glass: Louis Comfort Tiffany," on loan from the Virginia Museum of Art.

White retired in 1994 to direct the Cultural Heritage Project. This National Endowment for the Arts funded program helped new and emerging arts organizations or museums move forward. White and Elizabeth McClanahan received training, and the grant provided a consultant.

The Cultural Heritage project grew out of a desire to display more humanities exhibits. When White called throughout the state looking for sources, she discovered there hadn't been a thorough survey of handmade artifacts in this region. She and her team spent two years conducting field research looking for pieces made by hand prior to 1940. The research is still at the museum.

"Our goal was one overview exhibit. Pretty much everybody said to me "you're won't find anything, nothing was made here.' They were wrong. We found so much that we had to divide it into three exhibits. That was 37 cultural heritage exhibits ago, and we're still going strong. We have another six on the schedule now for the next two to three years," she said.

White remembers the pride on the faces of the people who loaned their treasures to the museum at the first Great Road Show exhibit.

"There was such pride in their faces. Most of these objects had never left the family home. They would come into the gallery on opening night and come over and say, "I thought you said my chest of drawers was going to be in this exhibit.' We had polished them and didn't have anything in it or on it and it was lit. They couldn't recognize it. The look of pride on their faces was just wonderful," White said.

The Cultural Heritage Project also led to the museum's first permanent collection. "In 1998, a lot of these pieces were going away as families moved. A lot of people wanted a representation of what was made here to stay here. We had been a non-collecting museum. The decision to become a collecting museum required a lot of thought, and we could do it because we were managing the Fields-Penn House with the town of Abingdon."

The closing of the Fields-Penn House created a new opportunity for William King Museum. They needed a place to house the collection. The new cultural heritage gallery opens in December. The funding came from the Virginia Tobacco Commission and private funding.

There are also plans for the former county administration building. "We're going to renovate it and turn it into a studio complex and add an education component for teacher institutes, summer art camps and some storage for exhibition furniture (e.g. pedestals). The drawings have been done and the fundraising materials are in process," White says.

Additionally, they are creating a new entrance on the lower level of the main building that will lead to the existing elevator. They plan to clean up the outdoor areas and create more accessible parking to the new studio complex.

"The area where the Board of Supervisors used to meet has a cement floor. It is going to be used for messy projects. That's where we'll put blacksmithing, glassblowing and woodworking studios. The walls will open to the outside with garage doors, so artists can create projects that are very tall. I think it'll be wonderful," White says.

The museum is planning several events to celebrate its anniversary, including "Connoisseur," a new exhibition, a Walk the Hill 5K and "A Day on the Abingdon Branch," an O. Winston Link exhibit at the Findlay House.