Like many long-running partnerships, the Palens’ interests complement one another. Karen has been a docent for 25 years and is currently president of the Council of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. John, an emeritus professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, is drawn to American history and serves as a docent next door at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.
“Art and history are always intertwined,” Karen notes. “Your knowledge of one enriches the other. The recent Terracotta Army exhibition is a perfect example.”
In the decades since their first visit, both have developed a deep appreciation for the museum. John cites the free admission and what he describes as VMFA’s “Y’all come!” approach to visitors. Karen praises the strong relationship between staff and Council volunteers, which benefits the museum as a whole.
The Palens recently included a bequest to VMFA in their estate plan after talking it over with their family.
“Our 10-year-old grandson said it perfectly, ‘That’s a good idea. You really like your museum, Grandma,’” Karen says.
For John, the decision harkened back to a rule he learned as an Eagle Scout—always leave the campsite better than you found it.
“It’s a good philosophy for life,” John says. “The more involved and invested you become in a place, the more you want to do it.”
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