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Plenty Of Bang For Their Bucks

Couple's Gift Of $300,000 Saves Colt Exhibit In City

March 30, 2006
By JESSE LEAVENWORTH, Courant Staff Writer

Melinda and Paul Sullivan were 5,000 miles from home when they learned that the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, blaming a lack of funding, had canceled an exhibit focused on Hartford native son and Connecticut Yankee genius Samuel Colt.

Given Colt's central role in American industry, art and advertising, the Sullivans said they could not believe no one in Hartford had stepped forward to keep the exhibit alive. So after reading newspaper stories about the cancellation e-mailed to them in Hawaii, the West Hartford philanthropists pledged to pay the full cost of the display - $300,000.

"We simply felt that it was unacceptable that Samuel Colt's own city would reject the show and that it would not open in Hartford," Melinda Sullivan said.

Museum officials announced the gift Wednesday and said the reloaded exhibit will open Sept. 20.

"I'm extraordinarily happy and grateful," Atheneum Director Willard Holmes said.

Three weeks ago, Holmes announced that "Samuel Colt: Arms, Art, and Invention" would not be shown in Hartford. A grant request for $100,000 to the Connecticut Humanities Council was denied for the show, which was to open May 5 and run through February. A 2007 national tour of museums in more gun-friendly states in the West was still on, but the city where Colt was born and where he built his gun-making empire would not see the show.

The Sullivans said they reject the rationale of potential sponsors in Connecticut who shunned the exhibit because of its focus on guns.

"This is truly about a lot more than guns," Paul Sullivan said. "It's really about what made America great."

Paul Sullivan, 65, was born in Hartford and grew up in Granby. He is a physician and a University of Connecticut faculty member. Melinda M. Sullivan, 62, is originally from Chicago. She moved to the Hartford area in 1977 and she and Paul were married in 1992.

The Sullivans live in a 12,853-square-foot home with seven bathrooms and eight fireplaces. They are food and wine lovers and collectors of fine art, including early Viennese porcelain called DuPaquier. Over the years, the couple has given millions of dollars to various causes and organizations, including the Atheneum. The Sullivans have a strong attachment to Greater Hartford, and their gifts have included $1 million to the private Renbrook School in West Hartford and $1.5 million to the Mark Twain House.

After that donation, Melinda Sullivan said, people told her they didn't know she was such a big fan of Twain.

"My reply was, `I'm not,' but what I believe is that Mark Twain, his story, his home, are good for Hartford," she said. "We're not truly interested in guns, but we are interested in the fact that Samuel Colt was a native son and that this is good for the image of the city."

The Sullivans said much of the money they donate comes from a family oil business based in Chicago. Besides money, Melinda Sullivan said, she also got a love of art from her mother, Eloise W. Martin, who at 91 is still an active supporter of the arts in Chicago. The Sullivans said they have a deep appreciation of decorative arts, and the guns in the Colt exhibit fit that description.

The main attraction is the Colt firearm collections, bequeathed to the Atheneum by Samuel Colt's widow, Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt, in 1905. The collections include Colt prototypes and models that were part of the 1996 Atheneum show "Sam and Elizabeth: Legend and Legacy of Colt's Empire."

The new exhibit 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.

Holmes said the exhibit will not include displays on gun violence, but the issue will be addressed in educational programs accompanying the show.

"Those discussions absolutely should happen," Holmes said, "but I think they should happen as part of the programs around the exhibition."

The exhibit is to be shown at the Atheneum through the end of next February. It then goes on a national tour that May.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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