A! Magazine for the Arts

"Ducks," Alexander Koester, g. Germany 1864-1932, Oil on Canvas, 20"x67," 1899

"Ducks," Alexander Koester, g. Germany 1864-1932, Oil on Canvas, 20"x67," 1899

William King Museum receives major gift

May 29, 2022

A major new partnership and initiative between the Virginia Museum of Animal Art and the William King Museum of Art will bring to Abingdon a significant assemblage of animal art collected by Gene and Anne Worrell.

For more than 30 years, Gene and Anne Worrell nurtured a passion for a range of artworks depicting wildlife, creating a private collection that ranks among the finest devoted to the genre. Housed in the Worrell’s Charlottesville headquarters located on idyllic grounds once owned by Peter and Thomas Jefferson, the collection of two- and three-dimensional art was neither widely known nor seen. In its eventual new home at the William King Museum of Art, the impressive collection will not only be accessible to Southwest Virginia residents and visitors, but also will pay tribute to Gene and Anne Worrell’s roots in the Tri-Cities region.

Betsy White, William King Museum of Art director, says, “When Andrew Dracopoli invited me to visit their collection in Charlottesville last fall, I was immediately stunned by its beauty, scope, and quality. Needless to say, my wheels started turning regarding all the amazing possibilities it offered us that we could in turn offer our audiences. It spoke to such potential for enhancing our museum as a destination and teaching tool, both the campus and within our galleries. We are thrilled and look forward to the coming months of planning.”

Gene Worrell was born and raised in Bristol, where he met Anne Rowell, an alumna of Virginia Intermont College. They lived for many years in Bristol, where they started their newspaper empire with the Virginia Tennessean in 1949, which soon after merged with the Bristol Herald Courier. The Worrells moved to Charlottesville in 1970, continuing their attachment to the Tri-Cities area by restoring a home in Abingdon’s historic district, which they enjoyed as a Southwest Virginia retreat.

The Virginia Museum of Animal Art was created as a private philanthropic foundation. The Worrells’ heirs and foundation board members made the decision to establish a collaborative partnership with the William King Museum of Art to benefit the communities of Southwest Virginia and visitors to the region.

Among the highlights of the Virginia Museum of Animal Art collection are two spectacular paintings by Canadian master artist Robert Bateman “The Wise One,” 1986, and “Tembo,” 1990. Rosa Bonheur, the first woman to receive the “Legion of Honour,” the highest French order of merit, is represented by the imposing “King of the Desert.” Alexander Koester’s “Ducks” was once owned by Louis Comfort Tiffany; its most recent public showing was at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in tandem with a Tiffany-focused exhibition. Multiple paintings by American artist John Schoenherr, well-known for his 1988 Caldecott Medal-winning illustrations for Jane Yolen’s “Owl Moon,” are also included.

Sculpture, too, is part of the Virginia Museum of Animal Art collection and multiple monumental bronzes will grace the grounds of the William King Museum of Art, including work by Bart Walter, Louise Peterson and Walter Matia.

“This is by far the largest and most important gift the museum has received,” said White. “Simply put, it is transformative. The partnership represents an astounding collection that will enable the William King Museum of Art to reach its full potential in service to our region. Coinciding with the renovation of the museum’s 20-acre campus, this gift celebrates the intersection of art and nature, offering endless opportunities for educational programming to reach the broadest audiences. We are honored and grateful.”

“My grandparents grew up immersed in the natural world through outdoor activities,” said Shannon Worrell.

“Gene told many stories about early adventures in the mountains and rivers of Southwest Virginia. His grandparents taught him to enjoy its beauty and resources through fishing, hunting, riding and farming. Anne loved the artistic hub of Abingdon and brought all of us grandchildren here to visit Barter Theatre and The Highlands Festival. I can’t imagine a better home for this collection. I’m particularly excited to watch the visionary staff at William King Museum of Art expand their education programs to foster generational respect for all living things as well as the cultural and natural assets of Appalachia.”

Echoing the heartfelt comments of Shannon Worrell and White, William King Museum of Art Board of Trustees President David Thomas added, “The dynamic and diverse paintings and sculptures collected by Gene and Anne Worrell will create a must-see attraction in Abingdon. Enhanced by the museum’s leading-edge educational programs, animal art exhibitions will draw large audiences to our community and contribute to a heightened understanding and respect for wildlife conservation and the natural world.”