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EDITORIAL: Enriching our understanding of Virginia's history

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Navajo rug from Fralin Museum

A Navajo rug from the Fralin Museum of Art’s collection.

A $250,000 grant given to an institution bearing the name of a prominent Roanoke family will help to give the Roanoke Valley a better understanding of its precolonial history.

In Roanoke, the name Fralin frequently pops up in connection with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC. It’s the center of an ongoing effort to shift the city from an economy built around a railroad hub to one that thrives on cutting-edge scientific breakthroughs. Roanoke business leaders and philanthropists Heywood and Cynthia Fralin, along with the Horace G. Fralin Charitable Trust (named after Heywood’s late brother), accelerated the biomedical institute’s development with a $50 million gift in 2018, the largest in Virginia Tech history.

Six years before, the Fralins set a different kind of record at the site of Virginia Tech’s longtime sports rival, the University of Virginia. The couple donated a 40-piece collection of American art to what then was the UVA Art Museum. It was the largest single gift of art in UVA history, and thenceforth the museum has been known as the Fralin Museum of Art.

We would be remiss not to note that at Roanoke’s Taubman Museum of Art—another institution that long has benefited from the Fralins’ support—“Treasures of American Art: The Cynthia & Heywood Fralin Collection,” an exhibition holding more than 90 works from their private collection, opened in May and will be on display through Sept. 4.

Meanwhile, the Fralin Museum of Art has shared exciting news—involving a famous patron from an earlier era—that will enable in-depth research to advance understanding of the institute’s Native American collection.

Born in 1879 in Danville, Nancy Witcher Langhorne’s remarkable, controversial life story involves the riches-to-rags-to-riches arc of her family’s Virginia fortunes, a tumultuous marriage to a wealthy Bostonian; a divorce; a second marriage to the American-born, future English viscount, Waldorf Astor; a watershed achievement as the first woman seated in Parliament; and a record of anti-communist, anti-Catholic and antisemitic views.

In 1937, Lady Astor bestowed upon UVA’s art museum—then only two years old—the gift that would become the core of its collection of Native American artifacts.

In 2022, the origin of Astor’s gift sounds quite cringeworthy: These historical objects—nearly 300 pieces and 100 photographs—were used as decorations in the Indian Grill Room, one of the many restaurants inside the Hotel Astor in New York City.

When the hotel underwent renovations, Astor—by then a longtime resident of London—still felt a strong connection to Virginia from her younger years spent in the Albemarle County estate known as Mirador. She arranged the gift, insisting the collection, which she knew to be valuable, belonged in her home state.

The Native American collection has grown from that seed to include 700 objects, up to and including works by contemporary Native artists such as Apsáalooke photographer Wendy Red Star and the late Wiyot artist Rick Bartow. But the artifacts were the responsibility of volunteers, with the exploration of the rich history in the museum’s possession largely left untapped.

In 2016, the museum hired art historian and anthropologist Adriana Greci Green as its first curator of Indigenous arts of the Americas. She has focused on reconnecting the collection’s items with the Native American communities where they originated.

The artifacts “really represent ties to those communities, to those artists, to the descendants, families of those artists and communities,” Green said. The enterprise she is undertaking “is really about anchoring our collections that we care for within a broader framework,” a mission of “ethical stewardship, shared stewardship.”

And now the news: The New York-based Henry Luce Foundation—named after and established by the founder of Time, Fortune, Life and Sports Illustrated magazines—has awarded the Fralin Museum a $250,000 grant that will support new research into its Native American collection, conducted in collaboration with Indigenous scholars and artists.

The grant will be paid out over three years. The additional resources will allow Green to more precisely document where the collection’s artifacts first were obtained and who made them, and use that information along with new photography to create print and online catalogs. These new publications also will include essays from Native American experts to provide even more insight and context.

“The point that’s really key here is shared stewardship and honoring the fact that these communities still have access,” said Fralin Museum Director Matthew McLendon. The project means to make the collection more accessible to all, but in particular to make sure “the source communities of these objects have access to them either in person or digitally or through scholarship or through catalogs, on as many different platforms as possible.”

As large as this collection is, it doesn’t contain items made by Virginia’s Native American crafters. But Green said that will change as a result of the labors ahead: “As we’re moving forward, that is definitely something that we want to see happen,” she noted.

She added that Charlottesville and Roanoke both were developed on ancestral homelands of the Monacan Nation. “A lot of the relationship building that’s already happening, not just between UVA and the Monacan Nation but myself in my interactions for the Fralin, are building in that direction.”

People in Roanoke saw a few items up close from the Fralin’s Native American collection as part of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ traveling exhibition, “Hear My Voice: Native American Art of the Past and Present,” which came to the Taubman in 2018. The Luce grant opens new possibilities for traveling exhibitions curated by the Fralin, using items in its vaults.

“The exhibitions that will be generated through this work will certainly be with a mind to traveling and we would love to travel throughout Virginia,” McClendon said. “While the objects are coming from Native communities all over the country, this is our American history, and it needs to be seen as collective American history as well.”

With our understanding of history and heritage enriched, all Virginia residents will benefit from these endeavors.

Adapted from The Roanoke Times

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