Long-time commenter and blogger, Patrick Young, offers some thoughts about what he sees as the likely effects of the Virginia Flaggers’ actions on the preservation of the Confederate Memorial Chapel on the grounds of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Updated as of 4:39pm [see #2 and #3 below]
I like to visit the different Civil War blogs, but I often feel like a tourist. I live in a world where no one argues about the right to secede or whether slavery was not as bad as it is made out to be. I never meet people with views similar to those of the flaggers and white Protestants make up roughly 6% of the population of my region of 2.8 million people. When I read Civil War blogs, the frames of the discussions take some getting used to. As an ex-girlfriend observed last year “They are white people arguing with white people.” This discussion of the chapel and other discussions of the flaggers have that feel to me sometimes.
Rather than address any broader flag issues, I wanted to take a moment to break out of the frame on “the flag and the chapel” to address what I see as the more important issue of the preservation of the chapel. I want to discuss how this whole argument has lessened the chance that the chapel itself will be preserved in the long term. By long term I do not mean for the duration of the CW 150 or the term of our lives, but rather for the next 150 years or so. Rather than fully lay out my ideas, I’ll put out a few isolated points, and if anyone wants to discuss them, I’ll respond. The frame I will use is that of the survival of any non-profit and the preservation of an allegedly historic structure. For considerations of space, I won’t try to connect my points. Since these are fairly long points, I’ll break them up into smaller bits.
In them, I offer no opinion on when it is proper to fly the CBF, although I have definite thoughts on that topic.
1. The flagger attempt to bully the VMFA lessens the likelihood that the chapel will be preserved long term. You could have a dozen people from VMFA come on this blog and give assurances to the contrary, but they will all be dead or retired in the coming years. As new decision makers come to the fore, the chapel will seem less like a cultural resource and more like an albatross around the neck of what is essentially an art museum.
I went to the homepage of the VMFA. There were links to art exhibits, art classes, and kids programs. No mention of the Confederacy anywhere on the home page. While the current VMFA staff may value the chapel, it clearly does not bring in the visitors who are the bread and butter of the museum’s continued existence. If they thought it was a big draw, it would be prominent on the homepage. It isn’t.
The last thing that anyone interested in preserving the chapel should be doing is alienating the younger staffers and volunteers who one day be the decision makers at the VMFA though negative associations of the chapel with confrontation. My guess is that most of the younger folks at the museum are drawn to work there or support it because of the art. Associate the chapel with fake Confederate uniforms and neo-Confederate rhetoric and you will see them less and less likely to support the chapel’s preservation 30 years from now. They will see the chapel as an embarrassment and will associate it less with Confederate convalescents and more with folks like Tripp Lewis.
2. Nearly all not for profit institutions have felt the impact of the six year long recession. Most have fewer inflation-adjusted dollars available now than they had before the recession. While non-profits originally believed the recession was a momentary economic hiccup, most now are planning for a future of declining revenues. We see museums responding by reducing hours, closing peripheral outbuildings and neglecting upkeep.
Preserving a piece of land related to the Civil War, once it has been taken off the tax rolls and put in public trust, is fairly inexpensive. If maintenance funds drop, the site might suffer neglect, but once funding is restored, a clean-up can bring it back to its historical condition. A structure like the Memorial Chapel is more precarious. It must be protected from vandals and the elements. Once it is lost, it is lost forever. As Elizabeth O’Leary, a former associate curator of the museum, pointed out on this site, the VMFA recently spent 250,000 dollars on a new roof for a chapel for which no admission is charged.
So-called “house museums”, small structures in which the building itself is the primary attraction, are among the most financially precarious museums right now. Visitation is down at these sites, as is the willingness of communities to support them. In addition, their status as “historic sites” ensures that upkeep will be significantly more expensive than that for other museum buildings. The chapel is functionally a “house museum.”
I know of several historic houses in my own area that have been allowed to rot because funding could not be secured for “historically appropriate” restoration. Rather than allow volunteers with cans of latex paint to slather the houses, the buildings may have deteriorated beyond rescue. The fact that it cost a quarter of a million dollars to put a new roof on indicates the high cost of keeping the chapel from deteriorating. The Virginia Flaggers are having a hard time coming up with the cash to put up a non-historically correct giant flag pole, so they are not going to be the people to maintain the chapel for the next 150 years. In the next post, I’ll look at who is going to fund, or not fund, the upkeep long after the last flagger is dead.
3. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts spends $19.6 million per year according to its most recent financial statement available online. Of that, $9.6 million came from the State of Virginia or the Federal government. http://www.vmfa.state.va.us/Visit/About_VMFA/Reports_+_State_Documents.aspx
In other words, the museum, which engages in robust fundraising efforts, relies on taxpayers for a large share of its funding. Let’s look at who Virginia taxpayers are.
At the time of the Civil War Centennial, 79% of Virginians were white. Twenty years ago, 76% of Virginians were non-Hispanic Whites. Now that percentage has fallen to 64%. Nearly 20% are African Americans. Latinos make up more than 8% of the population and that proportion nearly doubled in just the last ten years. 6% are Asian. Half of the babies born in Virginia are non-white and/or Latino.
The flaggers can get out of the streets and into the bedroom, or they can wake up to the emerging political/demographic reality.
Tying the chapel’s image to a flag that is extremely controversial for Virginia’s emerging minority-majority could make financial support from the government a flashpoint for the future. Instead of merely evaluating the site for its artistic or historical value, it will suffer as a symbol of an atavistic and revanchist modern fringe movement.
An excellent case can be made for preservation of the chapel, but it cannot be made on the basis of “honoring our ancestors and what they stood for.”