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
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
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
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
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
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.
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