When Bill Martin showed up for work at the Valentine nearly 25 years ago, the right person connected with the right place in a way that brought out the best in each of them.
By this point, it’s almost impossible to imagine one without the other – the museum that focuses on Richmond history, the city in which it thrives, and the man whose energy and creativity have helped them both move forward.
"He’s involved in most of the important things in Richmond, which is what he should be doing," said Elise Wright, trustee emerita of the Valentine. “He has put us in the limelight in ways we weren’t before. It’s the way it should be, because the Valentine is the museum for the city of Richmond – not anyplace else."
William J. Martin became director of the Valentine at a crisis point. He had been hired in the summer of 1994 to do public relations for Valentine Riverside, a massive expansion along the James River that soon proved to be too much and too expensive. Six months later, with the museum in default on its loans, the director resigned and Martin stepped in.
"I didn’t know what I was doing, and I think I still don’t," Martin said with his trademark self-deprecating humor, while perched at a table in the resilient museum’s original location on Clay Street in Court End.
"I haven’t thought about it in a long time," he said of the turbulence in 1995. But in Riverside's aftermath, there were "two things we committed to: (1) We’re not going to go out of business – we are going to see if there's a path out. (2) We're going to commit to the things we do well – our education programs and the care of our collections."
After a steady climb back, the Valentine – chartered in 1892 and now home to 1.6 million pieces of Richmond history, from photographs to textiles to ephemera – has resumed its innovative leadership, in roles that range from exhibitions to tourism-guide training to community engagement.
Making the past relevant to the present has long been a focus of Martin – and so has re-examining long-held narratives about Richmond history. The Valentine experience includes exhibitions with modern sensibilities, but it also extends to seasonal walking tours of historic sites and neighborhoods, to school programs that enrich Standards of Learning goals, to the First Freedom Center in Shockoe Slip, to an annual History Makers celebration and community update, and to Community Conversations on such sensitive issues as ethnicity and monuments.
"Folks need to be in the same room and be asked to think about the same questions," Martin said. "That doesn’t happen very much in public spaces."
As an example, the Valentine’s current exhibition on monuments in Richmond asks two questions: Who should be recognized next (Donald Trump and Barack Obama have both been mentioned), and what do monuments make you feel (disgust and joy have been answers). A follow-up exhibition in February 2019 will feature finalists in a national contest to rethink Monument Avenue.
Martin notes that the exhibition, though small, takes on special meaning in the context of the 1812 Wickham House and the Valentine's core "This is Richmond, Virginia" exhibition.
"Suddenly you have that unique opportunity to see a broader range of the story," said Martin, who notes the growing number of transplants to the region. "If you’re that new person to Richmond and don’t see the rest of the story, and you just have an opinion about monuments, it may at least cause a pause. If you’re a person who’s been here all their lives … you reintroduce yourself to the place you live. …
"Some of the things they dealt with in the 1860s, in the 1960s, are still in the air today. When you see the pallet that the enslaved slept on at the end of Mr. Wickham’s bed" – visitors usually guess it's a dog bed – "and you’ve just come in from having a strong opinion on a monument, maybe that’s had an impact. I would hope that it does."
That ability to gently guide a conversation is one of Martin’s great skills.
"That sort of leadership, and tapping into the community’s emotions and dreams and desires, is something we would all like to be able to do," said Lisa Sims, executive director of Venture Richmond, based on her 20 years of watching Martin. "He’s able to connect the dots and tell stories."
Martin took up the cause of creating the Richmond Liberty Trail, inspired by a ChamberRVA InterCity visit to Boston and its Freedom Trail. Volunteers painted medallions on city streets to link historic sites telling a diverse story of the meaning of liberty – different for Patrick Henry, demanding "Liberty or Death" at St. John’s Church in 1775 before the Revolutionary War, than for enslaved blacksmith Gabriel, calling for "Death or Liberty" in 1800 before a thwarted slave rebellion.
"He’s able to ask the hard questions and not offend anyone," Sims said of Martin. "His manner in dealing with people is disarming. People feel they are able to talk with him about sometimes confidential and intimate things. It enables him to see things and understand things in ways that others don’t."
Such efforts as the Liberty Trail and regular IAmTourism workshops earned tourism awards in 2014 and 2017 for Martin and the Valentine from Richmond Region Tourism.
"We love Bill," said Katherine O’Donnell, executive vice president at Richmond Region Tourism. "He’s been a really great tourism partner for many, many years."
Martin grew up in Brandy Station in Culpeper County, earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Virginia Tech, and was hired to lead the Okefenokee Heritage Center in Waycross, Ga. He then became director of what is now the Museum of Science and History in Jacksonville, Fla., before returning to Virginia as director of tourism and museums in Petersburg.
He now lives in a Church Hill town house that was built in 1809 and is "appropriately falling apart – just like I am," he jokes.
At 64, Martin is beginning to feel the pressure of time. He survived a battle with cancer 15 years ago, which he called transformative. He also knows that his mother has lived to be 94.
"There’s so much more to do," he said. "When you’re at this point, not only do you see the time limit, but you see that you have some abilities because of your seniority. You can take advantage of various experiences to make things happen that take a really long time."
In recent years, Martin has shifted his outside focus to a younger generation of leaders and organizations – such as Enjoli Moon, founder of the Afrikana Film Festival, and Deejay Gray, founding artistic director of TheatreLAB. Martin is on the boards of both organizations, where he noted that he is "the oldest always, and sometimes the only white person, or the only person without a beard."
Gray said it took him awhile to realize that the Bill Martin who attended TheatreLAB performances was the same guy who is "one of the most important people in Richmond.”
"Enjoli has really benefited from Bill in the same way as I have," Gray said. "Nonprofits start and stop, live and die so quickly if you don’t have the right people helping to steer you in the right direction. We are so glad to have Bill in our corner.
"He really cares about the future of Richmond. That’s why he cares so much about these emerging organizations, maybe why he’s gotten himself into history," Gray said. "The past is important, but Bill understands the magnificence of what's to come."