History of the Museum
William King was an early settler who came to America in 1784 at the age of fifteen. For five years, he served as an apprentice to a merchant in Philadelphia before leaving to find his fortune, first traveling on horseback to Fincastle, VA, where his father, Thomas King, had settled several years earlier. Soon thereafter, he returned to Ireland to collect his younger siblings and a 100 pound legacy from his grandmother. By the 1790s, he had established himself in Washington County, VA, as a successful merchant. He built mercantile supply stores along the Great Road, the road by which thousands of people traveled from the American Northeast into the hills of Appalachia. He purchased 150 acres of land in Saltville and began producing salt, which proved incredibly lucrative. When William King died at the age of 39 in 1808, he was worth $1,000,000 (just over $20,000,000 today.)
During his life, King served on the board of the Abingdon Male Academy. In his will, he left a gift of $10,000 or “lands to that amount” to build a home for the Academy. The land chosen for the school was a hill overlooking Abingdon, adjacent to Sinking Spring Cemetery where William King was buried. That same hill is currently home to the William King Museum of Art.
The Abingdon Male Academy opened in 1824. By 1830, there were over forty students enrolled. It continued to thrive until 1861 when classes were suspended during the Civil War. For a time, the building served as barracks and a makeshift hospital for Confederate troops. The war took its toll on the schoolhouse and, in 1872, the Academy was rebuilt.
When the Abingdon Male Academy closed in 1905, its trustees leased the property to the Town of Abingdon and the Central School District of Washington County. The school board erected a new brick school building in the same footprint of the former Academy. This new public school, completed in 1913, was named William King High School, “so that people may know that William King’s memory still lives in the hearts of the people of Abingdon.” The building served as a home for public education, first as a high school (until 1959) and then an elementary school until 1973 when the last students were moved to the newly built E.B. Stanley Elementary School.
In 1979, the William King Foundation was incorporated and renovations began to turn the former schoolhouse into an arts center to help bring the arts to prominence in Abingdon and create a museum to serve the community. In 1992, the doors to the former William King High School opened once more to welcome visitors to the new William King Regional Arts Center. Where once there were classrooms, now there were offices, galleries, and studios. In 2004, the Arts Center (now called the William King Museum of Art) was accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. It is still Virginia’s only nationally accredited museum west of Roanoke. Today, the Museum hosts exhibitions of world fine art, material culture from Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee, and contemporary art by regional artists. It continues to serve as an institution of scholarship and education for visitors and students who walk through its galleries, attend a lecture, or take a class. WKMA is proud to continue the legacy of the immigrant boy who traveled from Ireland, the businessman who became a millionaire, and the man who gave the gift of education to the town of Abingdon.
For a virtual tour of the museum’s history click here to view part one.
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