Divergent views on future of Gibson Mansion

By Jim Smith, Woodland Daily Democrat

Two different futures for Woodland’s historic Gibson Mansion emerged during an “open conversation” that showed some want to preserve the city’s treasured piece of history while others want to preserve and expand its offerings.

Held Thursday night at the Community Center and attended by around 125 people, the session was also the first opportunity for the Yolo Arts Council and county staff to present its vision for the future.

Yolo County supervisors called for a “new operational model” for the property on Gibson Avenue last December and have faced continued criticism from members of the Yolo County Historical Museum, which operates out of the Gibson Mansion, as well as members of the Yolo County Historical Society.

Under the model created by the county and Arts Council, the property will be operated as a cultural and historic center for all of Yolo County by the nonprofit YoloArts and the historical collection would be shared among its cities, libraries and at other venues.

The Mansion is located at 512 Gibson Road and was built in 1877 by William Byas and Mary Gibson, a pioneer farming family.

Supervisors took the action to both facilitate art within Woodland, give YoloArts a better location and create income and program support for the building itself, which has struggled in recent years to be self-sufficient. The building is in need of around $750,000 in repairs and still more in ongoing maintenance.

YoloArts now occupies a small building on West Main Street and has outgrown the space. They have searched for a new location for nearly three years.

On Thursday, it quickly became clear that some wanted things to return to the way they were.

Kathy Harryman, president of the Yolo County Historical Society, called for putting the question on the ballot in June or November as to how the Gibson House should be managed.

“I think the people will be heard,” said Harryman, who was wearing a campaign-style button with the image of the Gibson House on her blouse and spoke of a petition being circulated for that purpose.

Still others questioned why the historic Mansion was allowed to deteriorate in the first place.

“I remember the Gibson house as spook house and a scary place to ride by on my bicycle,” said Ed Shelley. “I don’t know what happened between that time and today? I would like to know why the supervisors took care of it and all of a sudden they didn’t … One of the supervisors had a nice video about the dress (once owned by Mary Gibson) and how important the dress was, but it was the time when he was supposed to be taking care of it. I would like to see a time line and how it all progressed. I love the Arts Council, but want to see it downtown.”

Shelley was referring to a video shown on Facebook by Supervisor Matt Rexroad — who has supported management of the museum by YoloArts — which displayed the poor condition of Gibson’s dress that has occurred due to lack of preservation efforts by the Yolo County Historic Museum docents.

Still others called the museum, “our Mount Vernon,” or “our Monticello,” advocating for its continued preservation as a museum.

But some argued the Mansion could serve both interests.

Stephanie Miller, a Woodland Parks and Recreation Commissioner, who expressed her gratitude to the volunteers at the Gibson Mansion for all their work during the years, said that “I’m one of those people who thinks that maybe Woodland should do something first and that it be totally new and totally different.

“I’m not a history major. I’m not an arts major,” she said. “(But) I have spent more hours at the Gibson house than a lot of people my age … I’ve visited historical museums in Europe and we can do this. We should not change around the history of the Gibson museum because quite frankly the history has already been written, it’s not going to change.

“You need to write a new story to allow it to continue,” she added. “With that said, why would I want to drive up town when my kids can take art classes beneath those trees? It’s a new and incredible opportunity and needs to bring more growth.”

Interim Yolo County Curator Iulia Bodeanu, YoloArts Executive Director Alison Flory and Yolo County Historic Museum Executive Director James Glica-Hernandez, presented an entirely different vision for the Mansion’s future.

Bodeanu spoke of an implementation plan that involved an overlapping cultural center with the Gibson House, where Yolo County general services would improve the facility and YoloArts would provide management, administration and programing.

The museum’s collection would also be managed by the Yolo County Archives in cooperation with the Historical Museum and Historical Society.

The three goals, Bodeanu explained, are to increase collection preservation and visibility, main and enhance educational program and increase community participation.

Much of the direction would fall under a full-time curator, she said. She went on dispel some reports of the collection being removed.

“Right now the collection is in disparate pieces,” she said. “So we’re trying to get all the collection together. There’s also the issue of recording and documenting each of the pieces which hasn’t happened for a while.”

Bodeanu said the plan is to renovate the on-site garage by installing heating and air conditioning. This would create a climate-controlled environment that will “save and stabilize the collection” as well as provide greater accessibility.”

“Once we reorganize it, it will be much easier to pull a collection item for display either on-site or elsewhere,” she added. “It’s a huge endeavor and has potential for display.”

Glica-Hernandez said both the museum and historical society would have a primary roles in collaborating with YoloArts on future displays working through the curator.

“Everything in our collection has value and a place,” he said, “and we need to review the materials collected to see which ones actually have value to the history of Yolo County. Those that do not would be removed somehow. It would be a very rigorous process and a committee would review every item and YCHM would have a role in that.”

Glica-Hernandez also said the Historical Museum group has been focused solely on the Gibson Mansion, but the plan provides opportunities to go to other venues with artifacts. That would mean taking the lessons and experiences into the schools countywide as well as sharing the history of the Mansion with organizations and at events.

Bodeanu noted the collection would be displayed in various places which would lead to increased visibility and allow the Gibson Mansion’s history to be shared.

“There are many other stories to be told,” she said, “not just those of the Gibson family which has the physical iteration of the house. So with that flexibility we can expand our scope and our territory.”

Flory said the property would continue to display items from the historic collection and contribute to the historic third-grade program, which is so popular with the Mansion’s docents.

“This is definitely a partnership with the county curator,” Flory added, “so that items on exhibition would rotate through the space.”

But Flory also noted the curator would have the final say and serve as an advocate for the collection when it comes to programs and exhibitions such going to schools or libraries and even expanding “educational opportunities” to other grade levels.

“YoloArts already has a large educational opportunity and we would be tapping into that … to transition into lifelong learning,” she said.

Glica-Hernandez noted the “curatorial role is vital to our collection” and that the relationship between the Historical Museum and the curator would be one of an advisory position.

“We will be an advisory body to the curator,” Glica-Hernandez repeated, “who will have primary responsibility. Exhibits will be determined through a curator and YCHM may do some of the developmental work to make sure the exhibits are professional and based on good solid history.”