Long history in the arts

Published 4:09 pm Monday, April 5, 2010

More than a half-century ago, Walter Cecil Rawls, a St. Louis businessman, inventor and amateur artist who was born and raised in Southampton County, decided to donate money toward the building of a library-museum to be located somewhere in the county of his birth. He envisioned a structure that would contain books and literary materials accessible to the public, with space to house artifacts of the county, as well as collections of art.

With the aid of his boyhood friend Junius W. Pulley, who suggested Courtland as the site of the building because it is centrally located in the county, Rawls donated both his name and funds to build the first library-museum in the area. It is today still the only art museum within a 40-mile radius of the town.

Some changes have occurred since the opening of the Walter Cecil Rawls Library and Museum in May 1958, however. The library and art museum are now separate entities, housed in separate buildings — the library on Main Street and Rawls Museum of Arts directly behind it on Linden Street.

“The objective in separating the art museum from the library,” said the museum’s executive director, Leigh Anne Chambers, “was to expand cultural outreach by offering more programs, art classes for all ages, exhibits and trips to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, with which it is affiliated, and offer opportunities to acquaint regional residents with the many facets of art.

“It has more than met those objectives,” she said, adding, “I think Mr. Rawls would approve.”

Chambers, now in her eighth year as director, said the museum has expanded to serve the counties of Sussex, Surry and Isle of Wight, as well as Southampton and the City of Franklin.

“It has been such an asset to the area,” Chambers said. “There are so few places for artists to show their work, have workshops, or just congregate with other artists.

“Then, the outreach program has been a great opportunity for young and older artists alike to learn more about the arts.”

Chambers said the outreach program alone, under the direction of education director Beth Fox, with volunteer teachers, instructs more than 4,000 students annually.

The art museum operated out of the library until 1990, when it moved into the Judge Davis House on Linden Street. With the acquisition of the house and 1.1-acre lot, an outreach art education studio was constructed.

But the need for autonomous gallery space, with museum-quality lighting, security and climate control, was so great, a consultant and architect were secured to draw up plans for a gallery, while trustees and board members pursued grants and other funding.

Chambers said in December 1999, RMA celebrated the opening of its 1,800-square-foot gallery. The new building, bright and spacious inside, houses, in addition to the main gallery, the Francis gallery, offices, a gift shop and storage space.

Since Chambers has been employed there, the museum has shown exhibits on a monthly to six-week basis, with just enough time between the shows for artists to disassemble and remove their displays. She has had works by area, regional and national artists exhibited there at one time or another.

A current exhibit, the Blackwater Artist League’s annual group exhibition, runs through April 19. Several local artists, including Russell Schools, Faye Schools, Nancy Stutts and Anne Strickler, are members.

Aside from exhibits and shows, the museum sponsors lectures, musical programs, art classes/workshops and fundraisers, the latter to help with operating expenses. Membership fees, proceeds from gift shop sales and rental of the building also help with expenses.

“We are supported by several art organizations, including the Virginia Commission for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Business Consortium for Art Support,” she said. “Locally we are funded by Franklin, Southampton County, Franklin-Southampton Charities and the Camp and Cameron Foundations.

She added that this funding is sorely needed, a tremendous help and “we are so grateful.”

The museum is open six days a week: Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., and Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Chambers said the mission of RMA is to promote, encourage and develop interest in, knowledge of, appreciation for and practice of the arts — that is, to provide collective cultural enrichment for the people of the area.

RMA is committed to bringing the many facets of art into the lives of people who otherwise have little access, she said.

For additional information, visit rawlsarts.com ←