September 22, 2009

In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Sutherlin Mansion, the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History will present an exhibit that explores the use and adaptive re-use of the Sutherlin Mansion – first as a private residence, then as the temporary residence of the President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis, the attempts to turn it into a Memorial to the Confederacy, its use as the Danville Public Library for many years, and its current transformation into a museum with changing art galleries and a permanent exhibit that addresses Danville’ significant role during the American Civil War.

The Sutherlin Mansion 1859 – 2009: Evolution of a Landmark will be curated by Museum staff as well as local historians Lawrence McFall, Gary Grant and Fred Motley. The underlying and interwoven thread will be the impact on, and by, everyone who was involved in the care and feeding of the house – not only the Sutherlin family, but also the slaves and servants, teacher, librarian or museum curator – as well as a look at the remarkable and innovative Major William T. Sutherlin who built the then avant garde Sutherlin mansion.

Each curator brings not only his special field of knowledge, but also an overall insight into the strong social, cultural and artistic history of Danville. This story will be told not only with historical facts, but by the architecture of the house itself, the William Garl Brown portraits, the Thomas Day wardrobe and other examples of Piedmont furniture-makers, everyday household items and by selected works from the Museum’s art collection. There will be photographs and newspaper articles, and the collection of anecdotes and stories about memories of the Danville Public Library. We will look at the development of the Museum through its art exhibits, changes in local tastes in art, and the inclusion of different ethnic and cultural groups in these exhibits.

While there will be some chronological organization of the exhibit, the emphasis will be on interwoven and underlying themes, the most important of which will be the people who lived or worked in the mansion over time. This includes the slaves who undoubtedly had a hand in digging the basement and footings of the mansion as well as the social influence of William T. Sutherlin as he moved from Wilson Street to “The Grove” on the outskirts of town, where he built the Italian Villa Style mansion. Sutherlin was eventually followed by other prominent families and the eventual creation of Millionaires Row. We will talk about the people who maintained the mansion – the cooks, groundskeepers and drivers. What was Janie Sutherlin’s teacher like? How did the segregated library system work? The library movement in Danville will be explored from antecedents of the public library, the Grasty Library, and the Danville Public Library housed in the Sutherlin Mansion. The Sutherlin Mansion became a symbol and site of the struggle for equal rights during the 1960s with its “vertical integration” of taking away the chairs from around the tables so that no one could sit and read. The final questions will be when did the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History first exhibit an African-American artist – when did Danville’s African-American citizens begin to find it acceptable to visit the Museum? How has the Museum and its program grown with its schedule of national traveling exhibits, exhibits featuring emerging and established artists of the southeastern United States, in addition to regional and local artists.

Also celebrating 150 yearsFirst Baptist Church Sesquicentennial will be an exhibit of artifacts from the nearby First Baptist Church. Included will be photographs and short explanations of members of the Church who personally and through the church, gave back to the community in so many ways.