CLA President's Message 2002

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Written for the Contemporary Longrifle Association newsletter introducing the Three Centuries of Tradition exhibit and responding to the the disappoint some exhibitors expressed about slow sales at last year's shop.

 

President's Message
Since the Contemporary Longrifle Association is largely about the renaissance in arms making, I think it is appropriate to begin this with an update on Three Centuries of Tradition: The Renaissance of Custom Arms Making in America. This exhibit has been several years in the planning and when it opens at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in July of 2003 it will be first time a major art museum has recognized modern made firearms as art objects. I feel, as many do, that this is an important step in exposing some of the art collecting community to the wonderful art on contemporary firearms.

This groundbreaking exhibit was the brainchild of Evan Maurer, President and Director of the Institute. Evan enlisted John Bivins to flesh out the idea and select the objects. Since John's tragic death, Mark Silver and Wallace Gusler have been guest curators working with Cori Wegener, Research Assistant and Christopher Monkhouse, Curator of Decorative Arts. Mark and Wallace are also writing a well-illustrated catalog of the show. The catalog will include an introduction based on the exhibit prospectus written by John.

The show will include about eighteen antique arms to illustrate, to those unfamiliar with the subject, why the modern movement is considered a renaissance and to show the origin of some of the design elements. Many of the contemporary firearms are longrifles but there are also some classic center-fire rifles as well. A few decorated accoutrements and accessories will round out the eighty-five objects.

The show is scheduled for about three months at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The exhibit will then travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston for a similar period. By the time you read this a third venue on the East coast may have been arranged.

In thinking about what to include in the descriptions in this exhibit there was an interesting discussion of what to say, if anything, about how the piece was made. To many of the visitors looking at a firearm as an art object for the first time it won't matter whether the iron mounts were purchased castings or hand forged or whether the lock parts were cast, machined or forged. Does anyone care if Monet stretched his own canvases? The exhibit label reads "Oil on Canvas" not "Hand blended oil on commercially purchased canvas."

The average art object is judged by esthetic appeal and, in most cases, technical execution. Contemporary gun builders and their clients have added to this an interest in how the rifle was made. This is no doubt true in part because the "How?" question has a big impact on the "How much?" question. But, there are at least two other reasons. Because building contemporary longrifles is a revival of 18th or IQ^-century work, there is an added appreciation for modern work done by the original process. There is also an understanding that more traditional handwork often translates into a more individual, built just for me, finished rifle.

A visitor to last year's show, who claimed he had come with the intention of buying a rifle, asked me why there were such big differences in the prices on some of the rifles. He had no way to know that some were hand made while others were assembled from commercial parts. Likewise, he had no idea of the extra hours that some types of carving, inlay and engraving add to building a rifle. His question made me realize that, by offering memberships at the door, we had opened the show to the public but we had not asked ourselves to put any descriptive labels on our work. If we are going to educate these potential customers we can begin by better describing the arms we displayŚmaybe their period, regional style and a bit about how they were made would be useful.

The many items on display that were not for sale also confused visitors attending their first C.L.A. show. They came expecting it to be like an ordinary modern gun show where almost everything has a price. Somehow we need to educate them on how the custom order process normally works. Maybe some of us need a sign on our table that says, "Although none of these are for sale, I'll be glad to discuss building a rifle for you."

We should not complain about not getting any business from the show if we haven't made an effort to explain and promote our work.