BRATTLEBORO — To present the new exhibit "Up in Arms: Taking Stock of Guns," the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center spent almost two years planning everything from the selection of drawings, sculpture and photography to the weapons-depicting publicity postcard bulk-mailed to the public just before and delivered just after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
"We didn't have a crystal ball on that one," museum director Danny Lichtenfeld says of the ad. "Someone told me they got it as they heard about Orlando. Viscerally, they said it was too much."
The postcard and the show it promotes weren't intended to enrage or exploit. Instead, they aim, according to museum publicity, "to provide a platform for reasoned discussion."
"That the exhibit is slated to open so soon after the horrific shooting in Orlando is a devastating reminder of our society's fraught relationship with guns," Lichtenfeld says. "Our job is not to provide answers, but to ask questions and to do what we can to stimulate helpful conversation."
The museum has a history of exploring current events, be it through a 2008 show of portraits of injured Iraq war veterans by nationally renowned cameraman Timothy Greenfield-Sanders or last year's "Shedding Light on the Working Forest" exhibit of paintings by Vermont artist Kathleen Kolb and poems by colleague Verandah Porche.
"Up in Arms," which opens Saturday, doesn't offer a singular political stance, but instead presents a variety of views.
"A vital tool to some, a public safety hazard to others, guns exert tremendous physical, psychological, and symbolic power over us," the exhibit's introductory statement begins. "As presenters of contemporary art, we occasionally find ourselves in a position to facilitate constructive dialogue around vexing social issues. Dialogue cannot take place, however, when one party or another considers the conversation rigged against them from the start."
That's why one wall will be devoted to the work of documentary photographer Kyle Cassidy, who traveled the country taking portraits of gun owners at home with their weapons while asking why they own them.
Another area will feature artist Linda Bond's gunpowder-and-graphite drawings of the assault weapons used in the mass shootings at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School, South Carolina's Charleston Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and Colorado's Aurora Cinemark theater and Columbine High School.
Seven other artists have crafted such works as a gun-shaped mobile, two dozen weapons (firing pins removed) wrapped in such materials as flags, condoms and candle wax, and, as pictured on the publicity postcard, a photograph of Chinese artist Liu Bolin covered by a wall of high-powered rifles.
Porcelain guns that will be on display during the "Up in Arms: Taking Stock of Guns" exhibit at the Brattleboro Museum and Arts Center.
Porcelain guns that will be on display during the "Up in Arms: Taking Stock of Guns" exhibit at the Brattleboro Museum and Arts Center. (Kristopher Radder Reformer Staff)
"This is a pretty provocative image," Lichtenfeld says of the latter work. "We sincerely hope the timing of the exhibit does not cause anyone any additional pain. But what day of the year could we mail this postcard without risk? We're living in an age where these shootings happen a lot."
The show, set to run through Oct. 23, will feature a series of talks, including Keene State College professor Mark Timney's "Off Target: What Hollywood, Journalists, and Shooters Get Wrong About Guns" on Sept. 1; historian Carrie Brown's "The First Arsenal of Democracy: 'High-Tech' in the Connecticut Valley, 1795-1900" on Sept. 8; an "Artists & Guns" panel discussion on Sept. 21; "Guns in Our Community" panel discussion on Oct. 6; and Cassidy's "Armed America: Portraits of Gun Owners in Their Homes" project on Oct. 20.
In a related event Sept. 23 and 24, Vermont Performance Lab will present the So Percussion ensemble work "A Gun Show," inspired by the Sandy Hook shootings, at Brattleboro's New England Youth Theatre, with more information available at 802-257-0124 or www.brattleboromuseum.org.
Because the museum typically doesn't schedule talks during the summer, people will have to wait until fall for the exhibit's discussion events. Organizers believe the pause may benefit everyone.
"The issues we want to address with this show don't require a recent horrific shooting to be relevant, and in some ways it makes it harder to think calmly," Lichtenfeld says. "But we've gotten feedback from people saying 'thank you' and 'what could be more valuable than taking on this topic at this time?'"