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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Thomas Jackson White Jr., March 14, 1986. Interview C-0029-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Legal and bureaucratic obstacles to the construction of Raleigh's art museum

In 1967, Governor Dan K. Moore asked White to lead the effort to build an art museum in North Carolina. White took on the project, which, slowed by interference from various interested parties, took eighteen years. In this lengthy passage, White describes the process, including his world tour of art museums to get ideas and the battle over site selection, which ended up in the state Supreme Court. The court ruled in favor of White's Building Commission, and the Raleigh citizens who were trying to take control of the process started to realize that their efforts would fail.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Thomas Jackson White Jr., March 14, 1986. Interview C-0029-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
The art museum, to look at it one way, was, I guess, a lot of hard luck and hard work for me. I don't know anything about art, never have been particularly interested in art except to look at objects of art and realize whether I liked it or not. I was a member of the senate in 1967. The Honorable Dan K. Moore was the governor. [interruption]
PAMELA DEAN:
You were saying that Governor Moore had asked you to take on this project.
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
For many years prior to 1967, North Carolina had owned a very fine art collection and many people, particularly people in Raleigh, Winston Salem, Charlotte, and in several other cities, were interested in the arts. The objects of art which the state possessed were so numerous that many of them couldn't be exhibted in any one available place. They were set up in various places. We had a very active state art society and they did a tremendous work toward protecting these objects of art and adding to them. I think it must have been when Governor Moore was running for governor, anyhow, it was either shortly before his nomination and election or shortly after it, Mister Smith Bagley of Winston Salem said to the governor that "if you will use your influence and help to build a new state art museum, I will recommend to a foundation of which I am a member (or have an interest in) that it give to the state a million dollars on a new museum. Governor Moore told me that this offer had been made and stated to me that he wanted to accept that offer and that challenge. Governor Moore asked me to introduce a bill which would provide for the creation of a state art museum building commission. I introduced the bill and it was passed and the governor stated that he wanted me not only to be a member of that commission, but that he wanted me to be chairman of it. To this I replied, "Well, Governor, I don't know anything about art, and I don't have any culture." To this the governor replied, "Well, I know that, but you know about land and money and people and how to get things done and I want you to be the chairman of this commission."
PAMELA DEAN:
This was after you had already demonstrated your ability to deal with these sorts of things in getting the legislative building through. Is that right?
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
This was subsequent to the building of the legislative building, yes. The legislative building was first occupied in 1963 and this was '67.
PAMELA DEAN:
So he knew you could get the job done, even if you didn't know art.
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
Well, I don't know what he knew but I knew what I didn't know. I didn't know at that time that it was going to take me eighteen years to do what the governor wanted me to do. And it need not have taken more than four or five years if we had had the cooperation of the people whose cooperation we should have had. Those who opposed the Building Commission's efforts wanted a new museum all right, but they wanted to put it where they wanted it and that's a story in itself. I told the governor that I would serve on that commission. The governor appointed, I believe, fourteen other members of that commission, and all of them except myself were very outstanding people in North Carolina.
PAMELA DEAN:
All of them except you?
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
Except myself; that would be for others to say. [Laughter] Fourteen of them I can speak for and say that they were very outstanding people. I don't have a list of their names before me. And of course, there have been many changes because in the eighteen years which have gone by, a few of them have died, one or two have resigned and they have been replaced by other equally qualified people. Well, we started out by having, of course, an initial meeting of our commission, and it appeared to me, as chairman, that the sensible thing to do would be to ask the commission to authorize me to appoint some committees, which they did. I appointed a committee on the selection of architects. I appointed a chairman of a committee on the selection of a site. I appointed a chairman of a finance committee. I appointed two or three other committees, one of which was, of course, a programming committee, which is very important because it's duty would be to say what the museum shall contain. Then one of the members of our commission, who was very much interested in the arts, Mr. Gordon Hanes, stated that he would provide the travelling expenses of a committee appointed to visit wherever the Commission chose to visit museums. Mr. Hanes himself has been in museums all over this country and perhaps all over the world, many places in the world I probably never heard of, because he's been interested in the arts. So I appointed another committee, we didn't call it a visiting committee, we didn't call it a travelling committee, I've forgotten the name of it for the moment, but anyway, it was a committee to visit other museums. The main object of visiting other museums at this time was not to see what they looked like or what they contained, but to ascertain the most sophisticated equipment that was available anywhere, and particularly in use anywhere, which would enable us to prevent vandalism and theft and damage to the objects of art which the state had and which it might acquire. We felt that this was very important. Had Mr. Hanes not had the experience he had he may not have thought of that; I wouldn't have thought of it because I didn't know anything about museums anyway. But anyhow, I appointed a committee, and that committee was very prompt in getting together their plans to visit museums. We visited museums in the United States, many of them. Some of our plans didn't work out because of things like illnesses at the time we could see a certain museum, but we visited museums in the northeastern and southwestern portions of the United States and just about encompassed this country. We visited museums in New York, Washington, and other cities in the northern and eastern United States. After visiting some of the museums in the southwest, we visited the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico, which is a wonderful thing to behold. You go into that museum, the architecture is beautiful, and the equipment is wonderful. For example, you can go into a room in that museum and you can hear descriptions of objects of art, that are available for you to see, in at least three different languages. We enjoyed that. When we left Mexico City, as I recall, the elevation was such that we could not in that altitude completely fill the gasoline tanks on the airplane because of the extra weight. So we flew from Mexico City to El Paso, I believe, and tanked up again. From there, we visited the museum of the County of Los Angeles in California. Back in the United States we went to a museum in Los Angeles, than to another one in Oakland, and then we went to San Francisco. I may have overlooked naming a city or two in which we visited a museum. After that, we went to a museum in Puerto Rico and still later we planned and made a trip to Europe. [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A] [TAPE 1, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]
PAMELA DEAN:
Alright, we are on side two. If you will go on with your European trip.
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
Alright. On the trip to Europe, as elsewhere, we were seeking modern museums. We were not looking for museums like the Louvre nor the Prado. We were looking for the most modern museums which we could find because we were looking for the most sophisticated equipment that we could find to protect the objects of art which would be deposited in the museum which we intended to build.
PAMELA DEAN:
You wanted state of the art.
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
Right. So we flew first to Heathrow Airport in England. We did not visit any museums in England. We went from Heathrow airport to Holland, and from there to Denmark, and from Denmark back down to Berlin. Of course we went to France. We visited museums in all these places. And we went to Athens and other places in Greece and then we headed west again and to Portugal, after visiting some museums in Southern France. At the museum in Portugal I remember being profoundly interested in some of the beautiful silver, of which it was said, had been taken from the Bolsheviks many years before that. This silver was on display there and I think it was in Portugal that we saw the most sophisticated system of protecting objects of art. It was fascinating to see what you can do. Well, of course, we brought home much information in regard to this. Our committee made a report; all our committees made reports. Well, by the time we got back, it seems that a group of people in Raleigh wanted the museum to be placed right down near the capitol. As a matter of fact the first bill that I introduced provided that the museum would be built in that particular area. But after getting into it a bit, and trying to conceive of what would be necessary to build and necessary to accomodate many visitors and provide adequate parking, and that sort of thing, it appeared that we would either have to build a high-rise museum, which was impractical, or one under the ground. And we didn't want to do that. Besides that, if we had purchased the land in and around the capitol sufficient for the museum, the appropriation we had would have gone by the board. We would have had nothing to build with, we would only have had some land and a lot of satisfied people who wanted to not go more than a few hundred yards from their homes to see what they wanted to see. Well, this developed into a very, very ugly political battle. Unfortunately, the press—I'm not talking about the entire press, but the folks that knew most about it or claimed they did, namely the Raleigh News and Observer and its little flunky the Raleigh Times, and its radio station, by whatever name it uses, zeroed in on me as chairman of the building commission and on the chairman of our site selection committee.
PAMELA DEAN:
Who was that?
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
The chairman of our site selection committee was a very able man, Mr. Lewis R. Holding; he was president of the First Citizens Bank and Trust Company. Mr. Holding being a very able man and a man of foresight employed a company whose business it was to give information to people who wanted to select sites and to advise them about the selection of sites. For example, they knew about population trends, they knew about traffic patterns, and things of this sort that made a lot of difference. Well, the first thing I did about it was to have the state provide me with a map of every foot of land that the State of North Carolina owned in Raleigh or its environs. And I turned these maps over to the representatives of this company that we employed to assist us in selecting a site. They spent a lot of time studying the thing and finally came up with the suggestion that we build on the site where it is now located, which is about, I don't know how far it is from Raleigh, but it's probably seven or eight or ten miles. But anyway, the site was already owned by the state, which meant that we didn't have to buy a site.
PAMELA DEAN:
So your whole appropriation could go into building instead.
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
The whole appropriation could be used for building the building. North Carolina has a system of allocating land which it owns for the use of various arms of the government, commissions and organizations. Now, part of that site was being occupied by the prison department. It was called Polk Youth Center, named for somebody named Polk, and, according to prison officials, it was obsolete before it was ever occupied for that purpose.
PAMELA DEAN:
That's not unusual, I understand!
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
That didn't make any difference. And its still occupied but we own the land. I say "we," the state still owns the land but its still allocated to the art museum. A little corner of it had been allocated to State College for some reason or other. The first thing that happened that really started the war about the selection of this site was that a young man who had just been elected a member of the House of Representatives and lived in Raleigh introduced a bill to require the State Art Museum Building Commission to build the museum on a site downtown near the capitol. In recounting this, I did not mention the fact that many members of those who had kept the business of an art museum alive in the minds of people wanted it downtown. They were accustomed to having it downtown. But how in the world they figured that we were going to have any programs or other activities at night downtown, I don't know, nor do I know how they figured you could acquire the land necessary without using up your entire appropriation. Of course, there was a special group of very lovely elderly, what I call blue-headed women, you know the kind, who let the hairdresser put a little blue in their hair. Those dear ladies were going to have it downtown, regardless of all opposition. It turned out later that one or two of them owned some of the land that it would have been necessary to acquire for a downtown site. But that was never mentioned in the newspaper articles. [Laughter] And the newspaper said that the chairman of our commission was arrogant; he wouldn't cooperate with the press, which he never had and never will. [Laughter] But that doesn't mean that he condemns the entire press. The chairman of the State Art Museum Building Commission has some very good friend who are in the newspaper business who rise many, many leagues above the caliber of those who were condemning our Commission and its Chairman in their writings. Anyhow, they castigated everybody that disagreed with them and we had hearing after hearing before legislative committees on that bill introduced by this young freshman.
PAMELA DEAN:
Who was that that introduced that bill?
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
He's a real nice boy. I think he's a Republican, I'm not sure. His name is Ward Parrington. Of course, Mr. Parrington wanted his bill passed and it was introduced in the House and we had many hearings before house committees. And then one of the senators from Wake County got into the act and he introduced a bill in the senate to require us to put the building downtown. And we had hearings before his committee. I remember one newspaperman demanding that I turn over to him, for his newspaper, the report of the company that made the recommendation for the site selection. I told him I would not give it to him. "Oh," he said, "you're withholding state property from the public." Well, I didn't tell him that it wasn't state property, I left that for him to find out about a year later. I wasn't under any obligation to give him that information. It belonged to us; it didn't belong to the state. It was not public property at all. But I didn't tell him that it wasn't public property because I wanted him to become as angry as he could. [Laughter] Anyway, there was an old gentleman who was, I think, born and raised in my hometown of Kinston, his name was McDaniel Lewis, and he was a very successful broker up in Greensboro. He'd been there for years. Evidently, he thought he knew something about art and he accorded himself a complete knowledge of building museums and placing them where they ought to be.
PAMELA DEAN:
Which was not where….
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
Which was in downtown Raleigh and a number of miles from the site we had selected. [Laughter] Mr. Lewis engaged in a real personal vendetta toward me which was interesting and amusing, also. In addition to that, he brought a lawsuit against our commission and we employed counsel and we filed an answer. We had a hearing.
PAMELA DEAN:
What was he charging specifically in this suit? Do you recall exactly what the point was?
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
I don't remember. I haven't read that complaint in many years, and I probably never will again, but he complained about everything he could think of, mostly me, I think. He seemed to take some degree of pleasure in castigating me, which was alright with me, it didn't bother me.
PAMELA DEAN:
What did he say about you?
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
I really have forgotten. [Laughter] I really have forgotten what he said. He said whatever the newspapers were saying: that I was arrogant and this, that, and the other. You see at this time, I was chairman of the appropriations committee in the senate, and chairman of the Advisory Budget Commission, and I couldn't even raise a window without being criticized, which didn't bother me. I didn't let it bother me. I couldn't do my job and be bothered with—I don't want to say feisty dogs except that they reminded me of little feisty dogs the way they barked and squirmed and squealed and raised the devil about what I was doing, and I thought I knew what I was doing. The main thing that I knew I was doing was placing that museum at a place where it would be available to all of the people of North Carolina. In that connection there are more people who live west of the site of that museum than live in Raleigh and all of eastern North Carolina put together. But these people that were raising so much sand were members of a little group that had grown up believing that the museum was sacred to them or they were sacred to the museum, I never did find which it was. [Laughter] But they felt that they owned the collection, almost, except the state held title to it, and it should be wherever they wanted it. But I was trying to look at it from the standpoint of the people who owned it, which were the citizens of North Carolina. The Raleigh people, who felt that the art collection was theirs, would stand back and accept all the nickles and dimes that the schoolchildren would contribute to it, you know, but they weren't going to give them any voice in where the Museum Building Commission should select a site. But anyway, one point that some of the Raleigh folks and their newpapers made in the supreme court was that a part of this land was occupied by a prison, and certainly a prison was no suitable neighbor for a museum. To this the supreme court in its opinion, holding with the Building Commission on most points, observed that it certainly wouldn't hurt prisoners to look at the museum. Those who instituted the lawsuit against the Building Commission finally abandoned it, and it was dismissed.
PAMELA DEAN:
I see. So there wasn't an actual ruling on it?
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
Well, the Court ruled in favor of the Building Commission on enough important points that the Commission's adversaries could discern they were not going to be successful.