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Colt's Guns Just Can't Win In The East

March 12, 2006
Commentary By William Hosley

The funding challenge that forced the cancellation of "Samuel Colt: Arms, Art and Invention" at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art is a sobering reminder of the politics of the Colt story.

I ran this gantlet myself 10 years ago as a curator of the 1996 "Colt's Empire" exhibit at the Atheneum. I recall vividly the burden of trying to raise money for an exhibition that included - but was in no way primarily about - guns, at the height of a national media frenzy about gun violence in America.

I won't relay the gory details of the backstairs mugging by a coterie of anti-gun zealots in Washington, or some of the equally disturbing prejudices that we witnessed here in the city the Colts made famous. But the ordeal taught me a valuable lesson about the geopolitical realities of contemporary American culture.

The currently planned exhibit, in the works for three years, won't be staged in Hartford, but it still will go on at museums in at least four states - Nebraska, Texas, Oklahoma and Washington - where its emphasis on Colt's groundbreaking firearms industry won't be so unwelcome.

In 1996, we had outstanding success with our Northeast audience. But the exhibit (which I co-curated with Karen Blanchfield) failed to appeal to the Southern and Western heritage museums that want a show focused on Sam Colt and his guns.

Red-state museums had no interest in the components of the 1996 exhibition that contributed so much to its popularity in Connecticut. "Colt's Empire" embraced the social and historical context behind the guns, the arms industry's impact on technology, Sam Colt's plethora of passions above and beyond gun-making and, best of all, the astonishing, under-reported story of Elizabeth Colt. Her social activism, business leadership, art patronage and philanthropy were largely overlooked by generations of Colt scholars.

The Connecticut Humanities Council rescued the exhibition and was its primary sponsor. Now this foundation, which has been so prolific, generous and steadfast in stimulating cultural-resource development throughout Connecticut (not the least by the many grants awarded the Atheneum) is getting scapegoated for failing to finance a more narrowly drawn art show. The difference matters.

We attracted a lot of people who, frankly, rarely set foot in art museums. The audience was peculiarly diverse, attracting Colonial Dames (Elizabeth Colt was the Connecticut chapter's first president), Pratt & Whitney machinists, Victorian art aficionados, historic preservationists, city residents and boosters, gun collectors and shooters, and boys.

We also addressed concerns about gun violence with a satellite exhibition involving firearms melted down and recast as works of conceptual art. Folding in Elizabeth Colt's life and loves made the exhibition too sprawling to tour. But I am proud that we stuck by her, without whom none of this would be possible.

Elizabeth Colt is one of Hartford's greatest stories. In addition to leaving the Atheneum a building to house Colt family collections - today worth well in excess of $100 million - her gifts to this city are almost too numerous to count. If we ever get around to restoring them to their proper places in the public domain, I suspect the Colt empire will rival, and surely complement, Mark Twain as a magnet for tourism and civic pride.

The Colts' story, however, knows no rival. It's about way more than guns, and there is simply no other place on Earth where it can be experienced than here: It is miraculous that so much content is still intact and in town. The story is deeply interwoven with the development of Hartford - and with Connecticut's tradition of ingenuity.

But, as we found in 1996, the whole of the story proved less appealing out there in red-state America.

Bringing any aspect of the Colt story out for a temporary star turn misses the real opportunity here. The big payoff will only come when we do something permanent. That may soon come.

The National Park Service is studying the national importance of the Colt story. (See www.coltsvillestudy.org.) The Colt Gateway project is breathing new life into the Colt Armory complex. A Coltsville botanical garden project is gaining momentum. Once the Atheneum occupies the Hartford Times building, that should finally open up gallery space for a permanent installation of the Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt collection (ideally within the building that bears her name).

Saturday, State Historian Walter Woodward and I co-hosted, with the Capitol Region Education Council, a seminar for teachers that turned the Atheneum, the Butler-McCook House and Coltsville into classrooms for teaching about American ingenuity.

The more that Connecticut tells their story, the more their spirit of ingenuity will live on in Sam and Elizabeth Colt's home state - and the more visitors will come to learn about them.

William Hosley is author of "Colt: The Making of an American Legend" (University of Massachusetts Press), the companion book to the 1996 Colt exhibit at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, and the former Richard Koopman Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Atheneum.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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