Just a few years shy of its 100th anniversary, the Valentine Museum found itself on the brink of financial collapse in the fall of 1995. Sixteen months after opening a second location, known as the Valentine Riverside at Tredegar Iron Works, the museum faced the reality that its expensive "experiment" was a flop.
The Valentine was more than $10 million in debt, and its tour vans were in jeopardy of being repossessed. A city sheriff's deputy in charge of assessing the Valentine's collection for possible bankruptcy proceedings left in tears, upset that the city's history museum was probably going bust. The museum that concerned itself with Richmond's sometimes-tangled history had to unknot its own troubled chapter.
It was Bill Martin who inherited the responsibility of pulling the Valentine back from the rapids in concert with his staff. Piloting the Valentine through waves and troughs, Martin, his coworkers and the board have moved the institution ahead, improving the Clay Street campus' physical plant, opening the Valentine sculpture studio and research library to the public, modernizing the adjacent Decatur Davis House and completing the Gray Family Terrace. Martin himself has given countless talks and tours and managed to move between the city's traditional old family money and its younger, hip audience. To many, he is the museum.
Working from the outside in, the Valentine Richmond History Center is now poised to overhaul its permanent exhibits and let the light in from Clay Street, as architect Jim Glave wanted to do back in 1977.
A Museum Too Far
In November 1992, this magazine enthusiastically described Valentine executive director Frank Jewell as dreaming in "CinemaScope and Technicolor." Creating an industrial interpretative center in 1994 at the Tredegar Iron Works was his concept. Even though the Valentine Riverside featured laser light shows, an ice rink and carousel ride, at the cost of $22 million, it shut down in September 1995.
When it closed, Martin, who joined the Valentine staff in 1994, assumed the role of acting executive director. Previously, he was Petersburg's tourism director, a role that had expanded into an informal public relations spokesperson for the city, especially during 1993's tornado.
"I kept my house [in Petersburg until 1999], not knowing if I was going to have a job in Richmond," he recalls.
Martin says that, despite the fiscal challenges of that episode, the Riverside experiment allowed the Valentine's board of directors to ask questions about the fundamental purpose of the museum, which they wouldn't have otherwise thought to consider.
"For about a minute," Martin says, the directors had contemplated moving out of downtown altogether, perhaps to the Boulevard, but thought better of the notion.
"This is where the history is, after all," Martin says. "Considering what's happened in Court End, we'd have been crazy to move."
T. Justin Moore III, who served on the Valentine board from 1999 to this summer, credits Martin for pulling the Valentine from the brink. "He's come up with the most creative ways to engage the community," he says, "From the Stride Through Time to tours to Manchester and everywhere else you might not otherwise think to go. Seems like every six months he comes up with something new."
The museum's endowment, which once plummeted to $500,000 from $4 million, now flirts with $8 million. And its collection boasts more than a million Richmond-specific objects, including an immense stockpile of photography and the largest clothing and textiles collection in the Southeast.
And, in a down economy, the Valentine is seeking $7.5 million for a complete overhaul of the first-floor public spaces and increases to its endowment and operating funds. Not a cent is slated for spending, however, until at least $3 million is raised. About $1.2 million of that is in hand, and once the $3 million mark is reached, work will begin with an estimated completion of 18 months to two years.
"I would've loved for things to have hap pened faster," Martin says of rebuilding both the Valentine's fiscal standing and the community's faith. "We had to get our financial house in order and base our decisions on the principle of measure twice, cut once principle."
"The time it took for these important improvements," he adds, "allowed us to engage in some pretty significant planning ahead."
In the meantime, there‘s been plenty of making do, as some staffers can attest.
Ken Myers began working at the Valentine in the mid-1990s, at the time of the museum's near-death experience.
He was a history intern from Virginia Commonwealth University and was present when the Valentine's staff was slashed in one week's time from 85 to 12.
"I was asked, ‘Don't you want to do these five people's jobs?" he recalls, laughing. "I was 22 years old, overwhelmed and grossly underprepared, so naturally, I said yes. Plus, I needed the job."
Myers today is the director of operations and capital projects. He put his back — in the physical sense — into the task of reviving the Valentine after its 1995 plunge.
He references a display cabinet that the Valentine inherited from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts as an example of necessity meeting austerity. Since getting the cabinet, the Valentine has included the piece in eight or 10 exhibits. "We've repainted it so many times it's getting tough to put the lid on," Myers says. "It's this kind of post-Riverside budgetary restriction that we're trying to emerge from."
The Riverside experience prompted a severe restructuring of the museum while at the same time focusing on what the museum did best, and doing more of it. The institution has provided free access to schoolchildren since 1902, and in the post-Riverside experience increased its education activities. Each year, some 16,000 school children visit the Valentine.
The other component — concerning the many artifacts and curiosities the Valentine may display — went through a process of study.
For the first time in 50 years, the staff launched an initiative in 2002 to assess the objects, photographs, ephemera, and a 45,000-piece textiles collection that is among the largest and most diverse of its kind in the country. It includes a 17th-century baptismal robe and the paper dress philanthropist Pam Reynolds wore to the grand opening of the VMFA's new wing in May 2010.
Myers explains, "The staff was so busy researching and building shows and writing label copy that they didn't actually have time to go into the shelves in storage and assess the actual objects and work on, well, museum stuff."
In the years right before the opening of the Riverside project, the Valentine drove to create blockbuster exhibitions every six months that often were funded by large corporations and federal grants. The effort, while often noteworthy, strained the staff's ability to create thematic shows and got in the way of actual curatorial duties.
The forced march to make grand shows didn't cause an appreciable increase of visitation. Reaching out to the community by taking the museum to the public through programs rebuilt the museum's name
Martin is eager to see the creation of smaller community galleries. The community spaces will allow the museum to address Richmond's current events by displaying the elements that led to them. He makes an example of the present city plan to revitalize the train shed of Main Street Station. Martin explains that if the community galleries existed, the Valentine could use photographs, artifacts and text to show a brief history of the station, the importance of railroads in Richmond's growth and the various attempts at repurposing the station. A city representative could speak about the plans and engage in a public conversation. "This is the kind of thing we're looking to do more of," Martin says. "It's engaging, relevant — and even fun sometimes."
The Story of Us
There's not an exact equivalent to the Valentine in the South and perhaps anywhere in the country.
Martin contends that when the Valentine closed from 1928 to 1930, its administration made a "brilliant move" by reframing its mission. The VMFA, then in the planning stages, negotiated with the Valentine about what each of them would collect. The Valentine let go of trying to procure European paintings. The plaster copies of classic sculpture that art students used to practice drawing got packed away.
"It became really focused on the city proper," Martin says, "and, the best reflection of this was a tagline they developed, ‘A Museum of the Life and History of Richmond.' "
That line got revived in the 1990s as " The Museum of Life And History of Richmond."
"That's a fundamental distinction about what we are," Martin says. "The other institutions are defined in terms of motive — like the Museum of the History of New York — while we are defined by the terms of our collection: a museum of life in this city and that runs parallel to the broader scope of history. Chicago's is similar to what we do, but, it's bigger, too."
One of the reasons Martin has stayed at the Valentine when the average career of a museum executive director is three and a half years is, he contends, the variety of programming. And that has meant getting in buses and taking people on tours through parts of the city — like Union Hill or Manchester — that wouldn't have occurred as worthy subjects to some Richmonders.
At the Valentine, collecting continues because what's important today is eventually a headline on yellowing paper. Collection director Suzanne Savery needs to keep an eye out for what could be of interest for future exhibitions. One area is that of new immigrants who are becoming more part of our current population.
"Their items — among others — will be more interesting to collect now and not wait until it's been in the attic 90 years," she says.
Objects that tell stories need to be seen and discussed. Presently, when a visitor gets to the museum, finding the way through it can be somewhat off-putting.
When the next phase gets under way, the museum will get a new central corridor — an element that was sketched into a 1977 design. By uncovering formerly blinded windows at either end, it will bring new light to the way history is viewed at the Valentine. This gallery will provide a spine from which other spaces radiate. As it is now, Myers explains, "You enter the galleries at an angle. It was a '70s design thing. But people orient themselves on a grid, and they get turned around in there. You can't see a point in the distance to get your bearings." Walking through exhibition halls, Martin points out how architect and preservationist Jim Glave, who passed away in 2003, intended in his 1977 plans to open the central corridor along the back of the Granville Valentine row houses.
"What we're doing here is, if nothing else, making this Jim Glave's last project," Martin says. "We want to get it right for Jim."
When completed, passersby on Clay Street may glimpse the movement of visitors inside and at night gain a view of displays through reopened windows. That's part of the larger point: to build the greatest accessibility into the new version of the old Valentine.
The proposed permanent exhibit in the heart of the museum will be thematic rather than chronological. Those themes will include: "Why The Fall Line?," "Where Do We Live?" "What Do We Produce?," "Who Has A Voice?" and "What Do We Value?"
Breaking up the linear chronology also provides the opportunity to show off objects that haven't been seen in a while, if at all.
There's the flogger, presumably used to make tobacco warehouse workers move faster. A watch fob and cuff links belonging to Patrick Henry. A Ku Klux Klan paperweight. Here, too, will be the Woolworth's Department Store lunch counter and stools where black student sit-ins occurred to protest segregation.
What motivates Martin, and by extension the museum, is not what happened, but since it did, what comes next and why. The stories aren't always pleasant but necessary to know.
"We can come to realize through the elements of the Valentine's collections that Richmond's story is incredibly complicated. It's nuanced. It's not black-and-white."