Museum Reneges on Promise to Exhibit All Lincoln Portraits–What Would Honest Abe Say?

John Denison Crocker’s Lincoln

This Abraham Lincoln portrait, painted by Norwich, CT local son John Denison Crocker, was ripped from its frame in City Hall in 1994. The Slater Museum and the City of Norwich sponsored a contest with a purchase prize for the best copy of the original portrait.

Although I’m normally an abstract painter, I thought it would be good for me to stretch outside my comfort zone and copy the painting. It didn’t hurt that there was a purchase prize, but the detail that sealed it for me was that the Call for Entries stated all submissions would be exhibited in a gallery space for a month. There’s no better way to celebrate the completion of a painting than to have it hang in public where it can be appreciated, rather than tucked in the corner of a studio.

Plus, it seemed pretty hilarious to have multiple Abe Lincolns hanging on the wall, looking at each other.

The Slater sent me a CD (which I had to purchase from them for $5.00) with the contest rules and some images. The Submission Rules on the CD said:

“Portraits submitted must be unframed, 39” wide X 50” high, stretched and ready for Framing. All will be displayed at the Norwich Arts Center, from May 1 through May 29, 2011.”

Several newspapers, including The Norwich Bulletin and the Bridgeport Banner, posted articles stating the same, that “all submissions” would be exhibited for a month, and the winner announced at the opening reception on May 1. The articles listed the Director of the Slater as the source. The Director even authored one of the articles personally.

I got more and more excited about the exhibition. I think the promise and excitement of the exhibition was a major incentive for many of the artists. Without it, I wonder how many artists would have invested the time and money to make a portrait to the Slater’s exact specifications, in a style not their own, in an outdated genre that is not readily marketable to other venues?

I bought stretchers and canvas. I painted. I researched, in order to try to determine what was going on in the murkiness of the umbers in the background. I traveled two-and-a-half hours to Norwich (in each direction) to look at other paintings by the same artist.

I went to Sotheby’s to speak to experts in 19th century decorative arts. A big thanks to John Ward for his tremendous help; he even sketched me a gilt-bronze bookcase which is what he determined to be the object hiding in the shadows behind Lincoln.

But the real story doesn’t even begin until the drop-off date, April 15.

I rented a large vehicle to transport the large painting. I drove through downtown Norwich and giggled at the multiple Lincolns I saw being carried into the Norwich Arts Center. It was as surreal in real life as I’d imagined.

But when I got to the drop-off site, it wasn’t funny anymore, because artists were informed–then, at the last possible moment–that not all portraits would be exhibited after all, as originally promised by the Slater.



False advertising.

These phrases (and many more, but this is a family blog) ran through my head. I considered saying something at the time, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to hurt my chances before my work was even considered. I considered taking my work back with me out of principle, but I didn’t. That would defeat all those weeks of planning, researching, painting.

So I waited to see what would happen…

In the rejection email, the Director wrote that rejected artists were free to contact two separate exhibitions, with different missions, to see if they might accept our rejected portraits. No guarantees.

Unfair. Bait-and-switch. False advertising.

I wasn’t the only one who was upset. I heard that some artists threatened to sue, that some contacted the Board of Trustees of the Slater, and that others contacted the press. Good for them–we need to stand up when we’re being taken advantage of, and treated unfairly.

One of the alternative exhibitions, called “Enabled” wasn’t looking for Lincoln copies, it was looking for Lincoln interpretations, so it could only accept a handful of rejected portraits.

I called the organizer, a lovely woman named Elanah Sherman, who understood why there were artists with hurt feelings and a bad taste in their mouths over this experience. I told her that her group would look like heroes if they could find a way to open their show to include all of the portraits, as originally promised by the Slater. She called Dan Topalis (who I believe is a gallery owner in Norwich). They agreed to figure it out and provide space to all portraits.

Now all of our hard work can see the light of day.

[And as an unexpected bonus, Elanah told me, unprompted, how much she enjoyed my gay bullying paintings!]

So yes, I have learned quite a bit through this project. Besides confirming my dislike of canvas (I’m a panel and paper girl), strengthening my skills in value and measurement, reiterating the wisdom of Betty Edwards’ theories on drawing with the right side of your brain, and proving the benefit of trying something new (things I actively discuss with my students every week)…
I, unfortunately, relearned some hard lessons about the art world.

I’ve seen it many times before with various galleries, but I believed that a non-profit art museum was above reneging on its promises. 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.

But I also learned that some people have the desire and heart to cut through BS and make things happen when they want to.

Many thanks, again, to Elanah Sherman and Dan Topalis, for making lemonade with lemons. And congratulations to all the Lincoln portrait artists, whose hard work will be acknowledged with an exhibition.

Maura is an abstract painter whose current work is about anti-gay bullying. You can see those paintings here.

19 thoughts on “Museum Reneges on Promise to Exhibit All Lincoln Portraits–What Would Honest Abe Say?”

    1. Amazing how Jeffrey W. Cooley was one of the judges and Ye Zhang { Christopher} is one of the artists in his gallery 1. I find that a slight conflict of interest or coincidence?
      Cooley shouldn’t’t be a juror if one of his constituents was going to be one of the artists, he should take Zhang’s name off his gallery website

      1. This is interesting. If the jury was to be impartial, they should have culled the jurors from a bit further outside Norwich’s circle of influence, no?

      2. I did some research into this and Zhang Yi and Christopher Zhang are not the same person. The prior at Jeffrey Cooley’s gallery does chinese style paintings of flowers. Christoper Zhang has his own website his work is completely different. His work is in oil and he is an extremely accoplished realist painter. I found his portraits very inspiring. Even though the competition was run in a completely unethical fashion, we should not tarnish the name of the winner, or judges without absolute proof. I have not seen the winning portrait in person yet, but the photo seems quite accomplished and I commend him on what looks to be a fine painting. Let’s stop this before rumors get started!

  1. Thank-You for expressing what ALL of 33 rejected artists must be feeling! Rejected, not by the professional jurors of this show, but by Vivian Zoe and her cohorts!

    My father in law, the artist Gurney Fiske also took this project very seriously, using a linen canvas, and creating a masterful copy portrait, IMO, that deserved to be shown and judged as per the “submission standards” posted for this project.

    Though we appreciate that Elanah and Dan have saved Vivian’s butt, and found a place for All to hang and be shown together, will they be part of the juried show?

    The original pleasure in this project has been totally drained. 300 miles, and bad emotions now spent. I think we just need to be done with this one.

    We expressed our disappointment to Ms. Zoe, and feel strongly this was very deceptive on her part. Was it just incompetence? She knew the space she had to work with. It should have been made clear from the beginning how many could hang. Should have been a juried show, with the jurors picking which would hang, as well as the winner. Simple!

  2. Vivian Zoe and her cohorts should be ashamed of themselves. Bad planning , bad business and bad manners. We were lied to and dismissed. Who did this famous pre-judging? Ms. Zoe? As far as I am concerned there IS enough room at the City Hall for all the paintings. Where is the city manager in all this?? All this bad publicity cannot be good. What would Mr. Lincoln think about these shennanigans? He would not be happy.

  3. I was considering going today ;for the jurying; and standing outside with the painting and a “deceived artist” sign. Too tired though. Maybe on the opening. May 1st.

    1. Ann, Margery, and Laura-

      I’m even more upset now that I realize the jury wasn’t even presented with all portraits! My naive assumption was that of course the jury had made the call, and then we were notified. I had no idea that VZ preselected what the jury would see yesterday. This just gets better and better.

  4. Thank you to all of you for speaking up. Maura you have stated things so clearly. I was astounded when I found out that my painting was not going to be shown and also not even looked at by the judges. I too thought this kind of deception was beyond the scope of a city museum and a seemingly reputable institution. With the promise of showing all of the paintings in the horizon, I put my all into creating this painting. I could win, but if not, at least I will definately show and perhaps still sell the painting. Artists also have bills to pay! That was my thinking all along. If I was told it was a juried show before judging, I never would have spent months of my time on this painting. I definately never would have done this. So like you all I feel deceived and angry. Thank you to Elana for finding a space for our paintings and we need to make sure that the word gets out about our Lincoln portrait show. Would be great if the judges had a look at ours and the public needs to know. I look forward to the article in the Day tomorrow. I do feel that what was done was illegal and we do have grounds to sue. Class action? I know we could contact the volunteer lawyers for the arts. On the other hand, in the lemons to lemonade way of thinking, maybe something will come out of our hard work after all. I do think that we need to be visible and not be swept under the rug. So let’s try to keep a good thought about all of our hard work and keep talking. Also in case you did not hear, channel 8 news did a piece on the competition from Vivian Zoe’s perspective at 6 tonight. I don’t know, but they may have it also at 11 pm. Worth a look if you did not see it. There was no mention about there not being enough room for all of the paintings or that there will be another show of these portraits. Thanks Maura for giving me a chance to express my thoughts on this.

  5. Vivian Zoe made a comment to my 3 year old son as we dropped my “Abe” portrait off. As I was filling out the form, my son was offered a piece of paper and a pen by the young lady behind the table. He began to draw. As Mrs. Zoe walked by, she snarked “Using up our resources.” Classy. I never received a phone call, as the initial rules stated. However, I did get an email stating that the work I submitted would not be in the exhibition. Lame.

  6. I also submitted and was elated when I hadn’t recieved a call on Tuesday. I told everyone first thing on Weds. that I had made the show. I got a call late Weds., no email, that I was out and given a number to call for the alternative show. I was then rejected for the alternative show as my work was interpretive. I have been told that I will be in the “orphans” show. Thanks to Ms Sherman, and Mr. Topalis for their efforts.I am equally upset as I was misled from the very beginning as well. I had inquired if a digital portrait would be considered and Zoe said all entries would be eligible as the most exact replica would be picked. My artistic style is digital oil renedering on canvas so I was excited to be able to compete with actual oil paintings. I was realistic and knew mine would never win but was eager to see my Abe lined up with all the others and compared and commented on. The venue is so small you would have thought they just naturally would have opened up one of the many vacant halls in Norwich. I am sorry all your efforts were in vain. It took me 4 months and hours of research as well. I look forward to meeting you and all the others at the orphans show.

    1. The fact that Elanah Sherman and Dan Topalis accomplished in about 5 minutes what The Slater Museum was unable–and clearly unwilling–to do, says it all. Many thanks to them for securing proper gallery space and cleaning up a mess that they didn’t make. That’s real generosity of spirit.

  7. Former Norwich Resident

    I have read all the comments and agree with those who stated that the “non-winning” portraits SHOULD be displayed somewhere in Norwich as part of an “event” to thank all those artists for contributing so much time, talent, effort and money to accommodate the City of Norwich in it’s cost saving venture. As an artist myself, I initially thought I might want to enter the “contest” but with limited time, I chose not to. Those artists who did enter a painting deserve to have their work shown at an appropriate venue. As in art shows, an artist shows their work in the hope that someone will see their talent and though the viewer may not want that particular piece, they may like the style and commission a different painting by that artist. One of the main reasons an artist does his/her craft is for the recognition it brings to them as painting may be their livelihood and their works reflects their spirit, drive, creativity and expression. Considering what they “contributed” to the City of Norwich to save it a great deal of money, I believe the City should do the right thing and afford these creative folks, a venue to display ALL the paintings, or else no one will ever waste their time for any City project of this type again. Oh yeah, I just had an added thought! It seems that when local governments have to cut programs to save money, the ARTS are always the first to go. Isn’t it ironic that when the local governments want to save more money on a project or item that THEY want….they go to ARTISTS and ask for freebies to satisfy THEIR desire to have a PIECE OF ART on the cheap. There is a lesson to be learned here that depriving young people the opportunity to express themselves in the fields of art and music will eventually dry up the pool of talent so that the world of the future will be a very dull place…to be sure.

  8. The fact that there were this many misleading rules, statements, etc. proves to me that this event was poorly thought out. I spoke with three different people in the month of February. I called the Slater Museum (which is under construction) and asked about specifications in the rules that seemed unclear to me. They returned my call after speaking with “someone” and gave me the information that I needed. However, I am not so sure that my questions even rendered any research or received a legitimate response from these people. As a local artist, I took on this challenge for fun. Rejection is part of being a studio artist. There should have been a better system as to how artists were notified and dealt with. I agree with you “former Norwich resident,” there is much irony within this self-proclaimed “Call to Artists.”

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