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Colt Show Called Off

Atheneum Says It Cannot Find Enough Funding

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 said.

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 of approval.

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