Wilson Museum Presents “20th Century Photographs from the Rugaber Collection,” Feb. 21 – April 28

Rugaber Collection

More than 50 black-and-white works by prominent photographers are featured in the exhibition 20th Century Photographs from the Rugaber Collection, which will be on display Feburary 21 – April 28 in the Main Gallery of the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum at Hollins University.

Loaned to the museum by Walter and Sally Rugaber, the collection includes historic landscape, architectural, and portrait photography from the Farm Security Administration (FSA) program instituted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to promote effective photojournalism. Many of the images have become icons of American photography.

The FSA was created in 1937 as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal and was intended to provide technical assistance to farmers and catalyze sustainable agriculture. The policy employed photographers to visit communities across the country and document the everyday life and deprivation of families and laborers affected by the Great Depression. The program resulted in some of the most influential photographs of the period, sending shock waves throughout the nation. FSA photographers in the exhibit include Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott, and others.

Among the documentary and journalistic photography on view are images of wearied American child laborers at work. These photographs galvanized citizens and politicians alike to strengthen labor laws and pass the Fair Labor Standards Act. There are also images that document citizens in prominent civil rights protests and demonstrations.

Other highlights of the exhibit include photographs of French and British cathedrals and street scenes that capture a glimpse of an urban environment before the onset of modernization. In contrast, the exhibit also showcases landscape photography, much of it Southern-based, including works by Hollins alumna Sally Mann, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Paul Caponigro.

Walter and Sally Rugaber are longtime supporters of the arts in the Roanoke Valley and have lived in southwest Virginia since 1982, during which time Walter Rugaber worked as publisher and president of The Roanoke Times and Landmark Publishing Group. Additionally, he served on the Hollins Board of Trustees from 1993 – 2007, and was interim president of the university in 2001 – 2002. The Rugabers purchased their first photograph from the FSA era on a visit to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and note, “We certainly didn’t intend to become ‘collectors’…somewhere in there we decided we loved those scenes from the 1930s and wanted more of them.”

In conjunction with the exhibit, the Wilson Museum will  present a lecture and reception with Denise Bethel, former chairman of Photographs Americas at Sotheby’s, New York, on Thursday, April 18, at 6 p.m. in the Richard Wetherill Visual Arts Center.

This exhibit is sponsored in part by the City of Roanoke through the Roanoke Arts Commission.

The Eleanor D. Wilson Museum is open Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 5 p.m., and Thursdays, noon – 8 p.m. Admission is always free.


Image: Marion Post Wolcott, Bayou Bourbeaux Plantation, 1940. Gelatin silver print. Collection of Walter and Sally Rugaber. Photo by Kyra Schmidt.