A! Magazine for the Arts

The William King Regional Arts Center also markets Appalachian heritage crafts made in our region. (Photo by Hank Daniel)

The William King Regional Arts Center also markets Appalachian heritage crafts made in our region. (Photo by Hank Daniel)

Betsy White: Going, Going ... But Not Gone

October 28, 2008

While Betsy White, retiring executive director of William King Regional Arts Center in Abingdon, began saying her farewells, she chatted with A! Magazine for the Arts.

Regarding the Arts Center's receiving a Governor's Award for the Arts this year, how does that make you feel?

All of us, myself certainly included, are honored and delighted to be selected for this wonderful award. It's the statewide salute to years of work making this organization a useful part of the region's culture than makes this so special.

How did William King Regional Arts Center develop? It's a fairly new institution, isn't it? Wasn't it the old high school building in Abingdon?

It was organized as a private non-profit in late 1979 by a group of people who wanted to both save the old high school and create a community arts center. The 1913 high school was named William King in honor of the man who gave the school's predecessor, the Abingdon Male Academy, a large gift in the early 19th century. Since our own organization was formed to be essentially educational, it has worked well to keep his name associated with us.

At first, the building was in such bad shape that not even a meeting could be held in it. However, over the course of five or so years, the back of the building was renovated to include a small gallery and several artist studios and classrooms.

In 1990, following a study of the region's cultural needs that revealed a region-wide lack of large high-security gallery space and the absence of art teachers at the elementary level, we began a capital program that finally renovated the main front portion of the building, changed the name to include the word "regional" and expanded our programming to help address those identified needs.

How did you get involved initially with William King? Was it because of an interest in art or a sense of community pride?

I was on one of the early boards, and my initial interest was from a sense of community need.

What was the first major project you undertook as Director?

I would have to say that the initial study of the region's needs, the resulting development of our mission and capital campaign, and the big renovation project that adapted our building as a museum facility would be the first one.

You are passionate about William King's arts in education outreach program. Is that because of your own children, who were quite young, when you came to this area?

The VanGogh Outreach program was developed in 2000 following requests from schools as well as several legislators. It is designed for second graders and was meant as a prelude to our already established program for third-graders, Art Express. We developed a pilot program for VanGogh that we tested for two years in Russell and Wise counties before we launched it region-wide. My own children were well out of elementary school when these programs were started. The programs were developed specifically to address that original lack of elementary art teachers that we found upon our organizing study and a real wish to be useful to the schools, to be sort of an extension of the classroom.

For readers who don't know, what is the range of programs that William King offers to the region?

Our school programs are varied for grades K through college with three centerpieces that are designed to be used by full school systems, not just one or two classrooms. They are also designed to be free to children, in order that all youth, regardless of their ability to pay, will attend. These are the programs that we hope help our area teachers address the SOLs (Standards of Learning) by using art to teach across the curriculum. They are VanGogh Outreach for second graders, Art Express for third graders, and our new Heritage Express for fourth graders. The latter two are on-site museum visits, while VanGogh is delivered directly to classrooms across the region. Other programs for schools include ArtShops for middle and high school art classes. These are styled as one-day "master" classes, and we partner with Virginia Highlands Community College to teach their studio art classes here at our facility with our instructors.

For the general public, exhibitions are planned for our three galleries to present the cultural heritage of Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee within the context of world cultures and the continuum of today's artistic trends. We organize 75% of our exhibitions with the balance on loan from other museums and exhibition companies.

Our classes for public audiences include art camps during the summer held here in our building and across the region. This past summer 850 children participated in these camps. We also provide programming after school across the region as enrichment. And, of course, we have an ongoing series of lectures for adults that relate to our exhibitions and classes, workshops and demonstrations that appeal to all ages.

What have been the major stages in the development and evolution of the Arts Center?

The first step was the newly-formed William King Foundation leasing the building in 1979 from the Washington County School Board.

The 1990 decision to create a regional mission to focus on art education for schools and high-security exhibitions of original art was pivotal in that we intentionally moved ourselves from a solely local organization to one with broader scope and set our sights on museum status.

Another important achievement that took place at this time was the transfer by gift of the William King High School building and its surrounding 25-acre property to the Arts Center organization.

Other major milestones in our organizational development included:

  • the formation of the Cultural Heritage Project in 1994,
  • the 1995 second renovation project that completed the third floor and added two galleries,
  • the development of our first permanent collection of regional decorative arts in 1998 and the management of the Fields-Penn House Museum for its display,
  • the creation of VanGogh Outreach in 2000, and
  • our 2004 accreditation by the American Association of Museums.

What obstacles has the Arts Center (and you as its director) overcome -- and how? For instance, you tried to retire more than 12 years ago. Why did you stay and/or come back? What did you need to accomplish?

I did resign from this position in 1993 in order to head the new Cultural Heritage Project and to just try to put a bit of balance into my everyday life. I did not intend to return to my post but did so happily. It turned out, much to the surprise of many people, that the fieldwork had produced an amazing amount of examples of a rich heritage, and the Arts Center was ready to assimilate this new program into its mission.

The other surprising thing, at least to me, was that I had become totally bitten by this region's "culture bug" and was pretty easily persuaded to come back to implement this program. That's what brought me back; and coupled with the rest of our programming growth, it has been an irresistible and delightful, though perhaps somewhat unintentional, career.

There have been a lot of very impressive art exhibits at William King. Which of those are you proudest of?

Now that's a hard question. One of the things I'm always saying is how much I wish no one had ever missed even one of them. We've had the good fortune to have energetic and passionate curators here since the beginning, so our exhibition program has been the beneficiary of a lot of talent.

My favorites? Here are just a few:

  • Two exhibits titled "Great Road Style: Decorative Arts of Southwest Virginia & Northeast Tennessee" -- the first, in 1998, featured items dated 1780-1860; the second, in 1999, was dated 1860-1940;
  • "Stories on Canvas: Portraiture from Southwest Virginia & Northeast Tennessee, 1780-1940" (2000);
  • "That Happy Land: Views of the Valley, 19th Century Landscapes by Edward Beyer" and "That Sublime Arch, Images of Virginia's Natural Bridge" (2003);
  • "Virginia Collects: Art from Capitol Square" (2005);
  • "An American Perspective: Paintings from the New World" (2005);
  • "Sherwood Anderson and the American Modernists" (2005);
  • "A Century of Furniture: The Rose Cabinet Shops," on display through Jan. 4, 2009

The Arts Center's printed materials emphasize its "accreditation." Does this put the Arts Center on the same level as the Metropolitan Museum? Please explain the importance of that.

Accreditation was "in my sights" from the very beginning, once we formulated our mission that would address the lack of a high-security gallery space in our region in order to create the type of exhibitions we have come to do that are comprised of original works of art, often historic, and always one-of-a-kind works that require professional handling, a controlled climate and top notch security. It took us almost 15 years to consider ourselves ready to enter the application process. Thus, our national accreditation by the American Association of Museums is definitely an achievement for us that makes me very satisfied. And yes, the same standards are applied to all museums, regardless of size.

What have been your responsibilities related to the Fields-Penn 1860 House Museum?

In 1995, we took on the management of this house museum at the request of its owner, the Town of Abingdon. This was during the first year or so of our Cultural Heritage Project fieldwork. Once the Project was completed and its findings caused us to think a permanent collection of its representatives was in order, we formalized our arrangement with the Town. The Fields-Penn House is where our permanent collection of regional decorative arts and material culture is on display.

In March 2006, the Arts Center launched an online store (www.williamkingonline.com) to market Appalachian heritage crafts made by artisans in Southwest Virginia and surrounding areas. How did that develop? Did this evolve out of the Fields-Penn Museum operations? How successful has it been? What are the target markets?

These products evolved directly out of our fieldwork. We thought that reproductions and adaptations of the wonderful crafts made here during the 19th and early 20th century were perfect ways to give work to area artisans, give WKRAC a distinct and unique product line, and to market our region's heritage through these examples, each of which has a card that identifies the product, its historic maker and its contemporary maker.

The Appalachian Regional Commission funded this endeavor, along with several local contributors. We have about 25 products and are now ready to begin its second phase with product development.

How did the Cultural Heritage Project develop?

During the first year of our operation (1982) in the newly renovated William King High School, one of our exhibitions was "A Gift From Mother: The Quilt Legacy of the Virginia Highlands." We were pleasantly surprised at the different audience it drew from our usual fine art exhibitions and determined to have more humanities-styled exhibitions. The trouble was, however, there had been very little fieldwork done, almost no documented records to research, and pretty much a dead end as far as scholarship in finding objects for other exhibitions. So, we decided to do our own fieldwork to see what was out there and to develop the archive we needed. Roddy Moore, the director of the Blue Ridge Institute, became my chief consultant and was a constant source of support and help. He and I, in fact, are still faithful colleagues in discovering this region's fine heritage through its handmade objects.

Tell us how your book Great Road Style: The Decorative Arts Legacy of Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee developed.

From the beginning of our research and the resulting exhibitions, I hoped that ultimately a book would be one result, knowing that it would be a permanent legacy since the exhibitions were all temporary. Fortunately, I had the foresight to have good professional images taken of most of the exhibition objects, so the illustrations were all set when we began working on the book. The University of Virginia Press thought our project a good and timely one, and our book is the result.

Tell us about other books and/or articles you have written, based on your experience at the Arts Center.

Most of my other writings are around exhibition catalogs and gallery text, as well as lots of grant proposals and other business-type writing. I love to write, however, so all of these tasks are a pleasure to me.

Editor's Note: White previously wrote a guest column about antiques for A! Magazine for the Arts.

It seems to be a tough time for arts organizations to raise funds and maintain programs.

The Arts Center raises, through earned and donated income, more than $1 million each year. That is a tough nut to crack annually, and our success rate is subject to the economy and many other factors. I wish the Arts Center had large endowments to protect it financially, and it is the current plan to develop those now.

What are some of the future plans for William King?

The Arts Center is a major site for Southwest Virginia's new creative economy, providing one of the only sites that is open daily and year-round. We have developed partnerships across the region that contribute to our programming and resources and that will translate into a strong future as an important part of why people want to live here, visit here, and invest in our beautiful area.

What else are you going to do in retirement? Are you going to do more traveling?

I muse that I plan to be the chief gardener at 125 West Valley Street. Actually, I hope to have time to enjoy home and family, and to choose those things I love to do for a small continuing contribution to our community -- plus a bit of traveling!

Editor's Note: Before this story went to press, White and her husband enjoyed a three-week trip in Asia.

Are you going to have any relationship with William King after you retire?

Yes, for a time anyway, I'll focus on making the Cultural Heritage Project research materials into a publicly accessible archive, formatting the field notes into online accessibility and actually creating a small research center. I am delighted to be serving on the Governor's new Cultural Heritage Commission. I'm looking forward to focusing on the Cultural Heritage Project and all its facets very much.

It is such a privilege and joy to have been part of this fine organization for so many years. I think its next 10 years will be so exciting, and I look forward to them as one of the Arts Center's most enthusiastic patrons.

-- Funding for Arts Center Expansion
-- The Rose Cabinet Shops
-- Back to main story: Betsy White & William King Regional Arts Center