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Leaving a mark: Bequest will help art museum have lasting influence on Greenville's culture

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June Ficklen

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By Seth Thomas Gulledge
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, December 10, 2017

For many Greenville residents and benefactors, the Museum of Art is a long-cherished bastion of the city’s culture and the museum’s long success has been a promise of that culture’s lasting influence. Now, thanks to one such benefactor, that future is even more secure.

Described by many that knew her as a lifelong supporter of the arts, June Ficklen became involved with the museum soon after she moved to the city, according to Barbour Strickland, the former director of the museum. He said she used to take the time to personally repaint the walls of the museum, saying that she preferred to do it herself, just to help any way she could. 

Her hands-on approach and constant involvement led to her decision in 2003 to create the Greenville Museum of Art endowment to supplement operational expenses. The endowment has allowed the museum to expand its exhibits and programming ever since. When Ficklen died in late 2016, she made one last gift to the museum: a bequest of more than $1 million to the endowment to help ensure the lasting legacy of the Greenville Museum of Art.

“June’s desire was to provide a way, as a result of her gifts as well as future gifts from other donors, to help the GMA be a very positive, self-sustaining resource to provide many generations with meaningful experiences as a result of the arts,” said Melissa Spain, chief executive officer of the Community Foundation of NC East, which manages the endowment.

Most of the museum’s operational funds — in fiscal year 2016-17 it had an operating budget of more than $262,000 — come from membership dues and fundraising activities such as the Fine Arts Ball and other events at the facility. The money from Ficklen’s estate will supplement those sources annually by adding to the stability, size and longevity of the the GMA Endowment, officials said. Additionally, the museum’s board of directors created the June Ficklen Fellowship program, which will recognize future contributions of $1,000 or more to the endowment.

Deep roots

The museum was established in the Flanagan home at 802 Evans St. in 1960, but has history reaching back to 1935, when a gallery was conceptualized at the first Women’s Club Art Festival. Under the guidance and leadership of patron Rachel Maxell Moore and the backing of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, the Federal Art Project’s Gallery was established in a building on the northeast corner of Fifth and Cotanche street, according to the museum.

The gallery moved to space at Sheppard Library with the end of the WPA, but Moore, Dr. Robert Lee Humber and other leaders in 1955 formed the East Carolina Art Society and appointed a committee to locate a building to be used as the Greenville Art Center. The inaugural exhibit at the Flanagan house opened in May 1960, and was a gala affair coordinated by Moore and Humber and featuring works by old masters on loan from galleries in New York City, according to the museum. 

It was in 1960 that June Montague, a native of Winston-Salem, married James Skinner Ficklen Jr. and moved to Greenville. Ficklen’s father was the head of E.B. Ficklen Tobacco Company and a supporter of East Carolina University in addition to other causes. Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium bears his name.

June Ficklen became a supporter and patron of the Art Center and was a founding member of the board that transformed the facility into the Greenville Museum of Art in 1980. In 1986, the facility earned national accreditation from the the American Association of Museums. Ficklen also helped build membership during her tenure on the board and secure speakers and exhibits in addition to establishing the endowment.

Museum Director Ned Puchner said funds from the endowment will support daily operations and including building maintenance and renovations. The financial stability created by the endowment will aid in long-term planning help the museum bring in special guests artists and speakers and support educational programs.

“June Ficklen’s bequest is truly unprecedented. We are thrilled that her gift will help the GMA to realize the growth she envisioned when she originally established the endowment many years ago,” he said. “The gift will have a major effect on the museum’s capacity to improve access to the arts in eastern North Carolina. Her remarkable generosity will enable future generations to enjoy the highest standards of exhibitions and programs and will help make the Museum more visible throughout North Carolina.”

Community impact

A direct result of the endowment will be the June Ficklen Lecture Series, which will bring in a range of visiting artists and speakers. Puchner said that bringing art and perspective to the community is why the museum and people like Ficklen are so vital. The first lecture is scheduled for Feb. 7, and will feature Brooke Anderson, director of the Museum at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The event will be free to the public — something Puchner said is foundational to the museum. 

“It’s expanded access to the arts,” he said. “We try to do a lot of outreach to a larger community, and offering an event for free, like the lecture series, is another step in that direction. You have to understand, if you go to a lot of museums in other cities, there’s a ticket price. You have to pay to see the art, whether it’s a suggested donation or an actual ticket.

“Here it’s free. All of this that we provide is free, so we cannot rely on ticket sales. We’re not a commercial business, we’re a nonprofit, so it’s important for there to be people like June Ficklen or our members, our board members, who support the museum to keep our lights on and bring in programs like these that broaden the perspective of Greenville and Pitt County residents.”

Puchner said one of the most important cultural exports of the museum is educating and inspiring youth in the area. Bethany Haskins, a K-2 art teacher at Wintergreen Primary, said the museum is an invaluable tool for learning about the culture people live in, and for people who are just entering that culture, it is even more important.

“We learn about history through culture’s art. Before there was written language, before people could translate language, we learned about each other through the arts, and that’s how people still do that from city to city, from town to town,” she said during an exhibit at the museum on Thursday. “I have several students that don’t speak English, they’ve immigrated from somewhere, and, you know, to come somewhere like this, where they can see art from all kinds of people from different cultures and backgrounds, that’s a really great thing. If we didn’t have that, what would we have left?”

Culture shared

Haskins also teaches at the museum’s Visual Art Academy. The academy is a program for elementary to middle school students in the local school system held at the museum twice a week. The students are recommended by art teachers throughout the system, and several receive scholarships as necessary for the program. Haskins, other teachers and some students of the academy all credited the academy with instilling confidence in students to pursue their artistic passions.

One of the those teachers, Jane Behan, arts program director for the Pitt County School system, said the class gives the students a place to nurture their artistic desire. She said programs like it would not be possible without the museum, which gives the students access to art from people in their own community to inspire them. She said the ultimate benefit of having a notably well-funded and substantial museum in Greenville is that is encourages future generations to continue shaping the culture of the city.

“To have a museum with the collection that it does have, for a community of this size, is something that doesn't happen very often and unless we have strong benefactors that understand the importance of this,” she said. “This being a generational kind of museum, these children, if we get them excited about it, will want in turn to have their children understand the importance of having this type of venue in their community.”

She said funding that benefactors provide can give the museum more ways to reach out to members of the community and bring them into a culture that celebrates the history, individuality and community of which they are ultimately a product.

“We want people to feel comfortable in arts spaces, because a lot of times unless you have grown up in an arts-rich environment, you feel intimidated by it,” she said. “(The museum) is good because we’re raising a next generation of students that can appreciate what they’re looking at.”

Contact Seth Gulledge at Sgulledge@reflector.com and 329-9579. Follow him on Twitter @GulledgeSeth

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