I am going to make Hickory, North Carolina an art center.
— Paul W. Whitener
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75 Years of Creative Innovation

Hickory Museum of Art was established in 1944 when visionary founding Director, Paul Whitener, declared, “I am going to make Hickory, North Carolina an art center.” From that moment forward, the museum has left an indelible imprint on the Western Piedmont region by presenting a long history of exhibitions and programs that bring diverse groups of people together to learn about creativity. An accomplished landscape artist in his own right, Whitener fostered relationships with the National Academy of Design, which brought the very best in American art to his hometown. In celebration of HMA’s 75th Anniversary, the museum is planning a series of exhibitions and events that call back to Paul Whitener’s bold ambition for the cultural life of Catawba County.

 
 
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Paul Austin Wayne Whitener (1911-1959) 

Paul Whitener was born on September 9, 1911 in Lincoln County, and grew up in Hickory, North Carolina. He attended Duke University on a football scholarship. As a journalism student, his artistic endeavors were limited to the occasional cartoon for the university newspaper. When a number of sports-related injuries brought his college career to an end in 1935, Whitener began to more seriously explore his interest in art. After leaving the university, Whitener took a job with a state transportation agency in the mountain resort of Little Switzerland, North Carolina. Here, he met an art student, Mildred “Mickey” McKinney, who became his wife in August 1936. Further encouraged by Mickey, Whitener enrolled in the Ringling Summer School of Art, an art school based in Sarasota, Florida and held annually in Little Switzerland. He studied with artist and instructor Donald Blake, traveling frequently to the mountains of North Carolina to paint. Whitener was also introduced to New York artist Frank Stanley Herring during this time. Herring’s own artistic pursuits had brought him to the mountains of North Carolina, but he agreed to give instruction to Whitener.

 
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Mildred “Mickey” Missouri McKinney Whitener Coe (1915-2008)

Muse. Champion. Wife. Caregiver. Mickey was all of these things and so much more to Paul Whitener. If not for a chance meeting in Little Switzerland, it's safe to say that Hickory Museum of Art would not exist as it's currently known today. Mickey met Paul through an introduction by her cousin when he was working with the planners of the Blue Ridge Parkway near Little Switzerland NC where she lived. She was then taking painting lessons; and he became enchanted both with her and with trying painting. They married in 1936 and moved to Hickory where she encouraged him to pursue his love of painting and further craft his skill with formal art instruction.

She collaborated tirelessly with Paul to get the museum up and running, often traveling with him on museum business. After he developed a brain tumor in the mid-1950’s, she spent two years caring for him before he died. After Paul's death in 1959, Mickey served as HMA's Director until her own retirement in 1996. She kept the museum going through two moves (into the the former office building of Shuford Mills in 1960 and into its current location in the early 1980's), she shepherded the museum's growth in programming and in its collection of art, and she assured HMA's first prestigious national accreditation ranking from the American Association of Museums in 1991 after a meticulous three-year-process.

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