Lincoln artists cry foul

Slater Museum Director Vivian Zoe examines one of the entries for the contest to replace an 1865 portrait of President Abraham Lincoln that was stolen from Norwich City Hall in 1994.
Slater Museum Director Vivian Zoe examines one of the entries for the contest to replace an 1865 portrait of President Abraham Lincoln that was stolen from Norwich City Hall in 1994.

Norwich - Controversy erupted over a contest to replicate a large stolen portrait of President Abraham Lincoln when so many portraits were submitted that Slater Museum Director Vivian Zoe "cut" 33 paintings prior to Monday's official judging.

Zoe's move angered some artists who will be left out of the monthlong contest's exhibit of submitted artwork.

Several artists have expressed their anger through letters and emails to city and art officials. One artist described Zoe's action as "unfair, bait-and-switch, and false advertising" in a blog titled "Museum Reneges on Promise to Exhibit All Lincoln Portraits - What Would Honest Abe Say?"

In a response to artist Maura McGurk, author of the blog, Zoe apologized for the turn of events and explained how the decisions were made. She said she wished she had postponed the entire grant-funded contest, perhaps for years, until the Slater Memorial Museum at Norwich Free Academy reopened following extensive renovations.

Zoe said Monday the release artists signed said the museum reserved the right to reject any painting for any reason.

At issue are the initial contest rules, which stated that the paintings to replicate John Denison Crocker's Lincoln portrait would be juried Monday by Connecticut artists Jeffrey Cooley of Lyme and Leslie Levy of Kent. The portrait was stolen from City Hall in 1994.

All works were to be displayed in an exhibit at the Norwich Arts Center from May 1 to 30, with the $8,000 winner announced during the May 1 opening reception.

Zoe said she realized the NAC gallery could not display all 62 submissions, each measuring 39-by-50 inches, and decided to cut 33 portraits for both space and "quality" reasons.

She informed those artists that their works would not be in the main show but that she and others would try to secure other downtown display space.

"I've seen it many times before with various galleries, but I believed that a nonprofit art museum was above reneging on its promises," McGurk wrote in her blog. "I believed it would honor its word, and support its artists by treating them with respect and professionalism. I was wrong about these things, and this was hard to swallow. I'm still angry that the Museum didn't think the artists they solicited deserved to be treated ethically, fairly, or respectfully."

Mayor Peter Nystrom also received an email from the West Hartford cousin of an artist who submitted a painting in the contest.

"We had planned to attend the event and spend time (and money) in Norwich, now we and many others will not. This does not paint Norwich in a positive light," Robert Biddleman wrote to Nystrom.

Zoe said Monday that jurors did review 24 of the 33 rejected works that were still at the NAC Monday and no changes were made. Nine of the artists already had removed their works.

Nystrom called the controversy "regrettable" but said he supported Zoe's decision as show manager.

"In the end, there can only be one winner," Nystrom said. "I admire all the works and the tremendous amount of work the artists put into them."

As Norwich rallied around presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln in 1860, so the Norwich arts community has rallied around the Lincoln artists.

Elanah Sherman, organizer of many local art shows, has secured space for about 14 of the rejected Lincoln portraits at the Wauregan Gallery, at 200 Main St., in a show called "The Slater Orphans Show: Giving a Home to the Slater Ineligibles." The show will open May 6 with a reception to run from 6 to 9 p.m.

When she learned of the Lincoln contest months ago, Sherman announced an alternate Lincoln show. "Enabled, The Crocker-based Show that Tells Artists: Do What You Want!" asked artists to use the Crocker portrait as a starting point and create something in any medium, any size. The show is also a contest with a $300 "people's choice" award.

Several of the rejected Lincoln contest portraits will be included in this show, Sherman said.

"Enabled" will also open May 6 at the 114 Main Street Gallery owned by local artist Dan Topalis, who submitted a bright, colorful acrylic interpretation for the show.

Additional gallery hours following the opening receptions for both "Enabled" and "The Slater Orphans" will be announced soon.

c.bessette@theday.com

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