ABINGDON, Va. – If you’re looking for a volunteer to lead a project, don’t call Betsy White – unless, of course, you want it to take on a vibrant, community-changing life of its own.
That’s what happened when White was asked to help out with a small artists’ cooperative that operated in a rundown Abingdon building.
Under her leadership, the William King Artists’ Association evolved into Southwest Virginia’s first serious art museum, giving Abingdon a new sense of its artistic identity and spreading arts education throughout the region.
“Through the side door”
For White, 20 years of leadership at what became the William King Regional Arts Center was quite unexpected. There was no grand plan when the wife, mother and community volunteer agreed to join the board in the 1980s.
“I think I just respond to what needs to be done,” she said of her efforts then and in the years since, which have helped substantially with arts-related development in Abingdon.
Her entrance to involvement with the arts center to begin with, she said, “was definitely through the side door.”
Certainly her background was not in the arts or in Southwest Virginia. Raised in Virginia Beach, she had studied English in college and taught school before she and her husband, Ramsey, came looking for a small, beautiful place to live and discovered Abingdon at the suggestion of a friend.
“I’m from Tidewater, a long way away, and thought that Roanoke was totally the end of the world,” she admitted. “But…it was just beautiful, perfection, really the historic district was what sold us on Abingdon, so we came here in 1978.”
For years her focus was on being a wife and mother to their three children. When she was first asked to serve on the board of the arts co-op, she didn’t know where its building was.
At that time, the co-op was housed in a back portion of the old William King High School, the old building on a hill overlooking Main Street that was later developed into the William King Regional Arts Center.
“The whole main front of it was still plywood over the windows and a mess in there; pigeons lived there,” White said. “You couldn’t see it from anywhere, the vegetation was so dense around it, and so it was a real leap of faith to do what we did up there.”
When she was asked to be the coordinator of the group, she accepted the volunteer job as a part-time commitment. But it didn’t stay that way for long.
“It soon became full time,” she said. “It was a part-time and it was supposed to stay that way. It’s my fault that it didn’t.”
The Museum Grows
With much support for preservation of the building – an old school where many community members had attended – White set to work on a mission to figure out what kind of programming could be done to use more of it.
“I called the Virginia Museum [of Fine Arts], and I called the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and they then included for me the Virginia Association of Museums, and all three of those executive directors were enormously helpful to this basically out-in-the-hinterlands new fledgling person trying to figure out what to do,” she said.
“What they offered was a broad perspective so we weren’t operating our decision making in isolation.”
In a study done to develop the museum’s mission, the situation was clear: not just Washington County, but all of Southwest Virginia was devoid of high-security art galleries and elementary school-level arts education. Some counties, she said, even lacked arts education in their high schools.
With a mission focused on the need for galleries and arts education, in 1989 the arts center began its first capital campaign. The building was closed for two solid years during the renovation, during which the arts center operated an after-school program and some very small exhibitions from the Greenway-Trigg Building on Main Street.
“In the spring of 1992, we opened the doors, and it was too much, much happy anticipation not only in this hometown of Abingdon but all the way across the state,” White said of the William King Regional Arts Center.
“To that opening came the director of the Virginia Museum and five other principal staff, the director and staff of the Virginia Association of Museums, and the director and staff of the Virginia Commission for the Arts. We were so proud.”
Still, lacking funds to fully complete the project, the museum blocked off its third floor rather than renovate it before the opening.
The next chapter in the museum’s development was born with an exhibition of historic quilts – a popular exhibit that white said drew a whole new audience.
With a desire to do more, similar exhibits but no research on where the objects would be found, the arts center decided to do its own survey.
“This was 1994 and I retired and led that survey, led the effort, and when it was finished after about two or three years I was asked to come back, and I did because there was the Cultural Heritage Project now that needed to be folded into the mission,” said White.
“At the beginning, we still didn’t know how important it was going to be to us.”
One exhibition quickly became three. White was smitten with the history, the region’s material culture and the research aspect of bringing it all together.
By 1998, the arts center mission was changed to include the Cultural Heritage Project and the development of a permanent collection of objects representing the material culture of Southwest Virginia.
It wasn’t until years later – after her second retirement from the museum director’s job in 2008 that White had the chance to revisit the information.
“My retirement project has been to get the archive straight, she said. “I had wanted from the beginning to be able to organize all of those field notes from our field survey and computerize them, organize them so that they would be usable by people other than me.”
With the help of an assistant, the project took a year and a half.
In the time since, White has completed her second book; while the first focused on objects made in the region, the second is about the artisans, who were initially drawn to Abingdon both for its natural resources and for its location along a major transportation route.
She’s also been involved in arts development in Abingdon in other ways, from work with regional artisan center Heartwood and artisan network Round the Mountain to the preparation of frozen dinners for Zazzy’z, her husband’s art-gallery coffee shop. She also sits on Abingdon’s board of architectural review.
“I think for Abingdon one of its greatest assets is its cultural community,” she said, “and the fact that you can buy original works of art here any time you want to, easily.”
The development of a vibrant arts community, she said, plays into what makes Abingdon a nice place to live.
“I really believe in the whole idea of the creative economy,” she said. “That sort of forms the foundation, and an indirect sort of subtle foundation.”
Her three main accomplishments in helping to lay the block for Abingdon’s arts foundation: the creation of an accredited art museum, the development of art education programs capable of reaching every elementary school in the region and the cultural heritage project to document Southwest Virginia’s material culture.
White’s advice to other women is simply to have the confidence to get involved, whether their service is paid or strictly volunteer.
She said women like her, who have the luxury of a husband who supports them, can use their talents to do what needs to be done for valuable community projects.
“Do not think that you cannot do something,” she said. “See what you really enjoy doing and if it’s something that can be of good service.”
As the arts center – now called the William King Museum – pursues an effort to sell its old building and build something new in the heart of downtown, it would seem the institution has survived challenges before.
White, who has not been involved with the process since her retirement, said she continues to enjoy research and writing but isn’t ready to announce her next project. Still, she shared an idea that was positively intriguing in the midst of a recession: revive an old textile mill.
“They wove coverlets based on old, historic patterns,” she said. “I think we should do so again.”
The mill she speaks of, long since abandoned, was important to the culture of the region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, White said. The wool that was used there came from the region’s farms, where it was picked up.
“I think a lot of people would buy them,” she said. “And also our farmers could have their sheep farms productive not only with the meat but with the wool.”