March 9, 2006
By MATTHEW ERIKSON, Courant Staff Writer
If you want to learn more about Hartford
native son and firearms manufacturer Samuel Colt, you will have
to go to Nebraska, Texas, Oklahoma or Washington state.
The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
announced Wednesday that after three years of research and planning,
it was canceling the much-anticipated show, "Samuel Colt: Arms,
Art, and Invention," because of lack of local funding. The
exhibition was scheduled to run in Hartford from May 5 through January
2007. It will still go on a planned national tour to at least four
museums - all west of the Mississippi.
"This was one of the most important
shows we can do. For the first time it provided a real scholarly
attention to understand the complexity of firearms as objects,"
said museum Director Willard Holmes. "It is disappointing that
a full and true story of this Connecticut native's genius will not
be shown here in Hartford, where Colt achieved world success."
The exhibition's star attraction is
the Colt firearms collections, bequeathed to the Atheneum by Colt's
widow, Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt, in 1905. The extensive collections
include rare 17th- and 18th-century pieces, Colt prototypes and
models, which were part of the 1996 Atheneum show "Sam and
Elizabeth: Legend and Legacy of Colt's Empire."
The new show includes rarely seen paintings
by George Catlin, an American artist known for his Native American
portraits, who was commissioned by Samuel Colt in the mid-1850s
to promote his products. The exhibition has a $65, 352-page catalog
published by Yale University Press that features examples of recent
scholarship and 300 digital images.
The Atheneum could not find sufficient
financial sponsorship to pay the $300,000 it costs to mount the
display of 179 objects. On Jan. 29, the Connecticut Humanities Council
shot down an application from the museum for $100,000 because it
considered the show too narrow in scope and too limited in public
interest. Money raised from corporate sponsors fell short.
With the Atheneum burdened with a $1
million deficit announced at its annual board meeting in November,
the museum decided against taking on significant additional expenses.
Holmes said that he was willing to
reduce the show's budget to $250,000, but that any further cost-cutting
would have compromised its quality.
"We had to do this show right,"
he said. "We were better off in not presenting the objects
than in presenting them in a less-than-great way."
The director said that it was important
to do honor to the historical significance of the firearms, as well
as sensitively addressing the "predicament of guns in America."
"At least two potential sponsorships
were direct in the unwillingness of their corporations' supporting
an exhibit of firearms," Holmes said.
Bruce Fraser, executive director of
the Connecticut Humanities Council, said that his group did not
have an image problem with a "gun show." It had a problem
with how the show was presented. .
"The problem with it was that
it was taking one segment of a much larger story. It took the gun
as an evolving piece of technology and made that the focus,"
Fraser presides over a yearly budget
of approximately $2 million and notes that this year was an especially
competitive one for grant requests. Grants are reviewed by a committee
of 10 to 12 people made up of the council's board of directors and
museum professionals from throughout the state.
In 1996, the council gave $150,000
for the first Colt show. In 2004, it donated $10,000 for the initial
planning of this second Colt show when it had a different curator
and the focus was on a semi-permanent installation of the firearms,
not a temporary exhibition that would travel.
"[An exhibition] may be satisfying
for gun enthusiasts but may not be appealing to the general public.
These were worries," Fraser said.
Holmes disagreed. "I'm still convinced
that it was a natural project for them," he said.
Without the support of a large foundation
or government agency such as the humanities council, corporate fundraising
is more difficult, said Holmes. The support of these institutions
is often perceived by corporations and private donors as a seal
Late last year, when a lead sponsor
could not be found for the Atheneum's current exhibition, "Rodin:
A Natural Obsession," a consortium that included members of
the Atheneum's board stepped up to fund the show.
But it didn't happen this time.
In place of the Colt show, Holmes and
his curators have been doing some rearranging of the museum's calendar.
Exhibitions of American photographers George Eastman and Edward
Weston will probably get more prominence.
Without wanting to blame others for
the current predicament, Holmes said that it serves as a reminder
that the museum requires a sizable endowment that could cover a
particular show's shortfall. "To continue being a risk-taker,
we can't depend on the generosity of others," he said.
It might not be popular in its own
hometown, but the Colt show has strong appeal outside of Hartford.
The national tour is scheduled to start in the spring of 2007 and
to continue through at least the end of 2008. Confirmed venues include
the Durham Western Heritage Museum in Omaha, Neb.; the National
Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Okla.; the
Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture in Spokane, Wash.; and the
Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas. The Atheneum
is negotiating for more venues.
"It's proof-positive that
Colt is a national figure," said Holmes. "The legacy of
Samuel Colt is bigger than this show."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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