Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center – part 66

Part 66: Qué será, será

As I sat in the Austin airport waiting for my return flight to Minneapolis, I thought about my recent discoveries. There was simply too much information to process at one time and my mind continued to race about future possibilities. I knew that it would take months to go through the 5,000+ photos from the Harry Ransom Center. It had been the only way that I could take the information contained in hundreds of paintings and documents back for study. I knew the extraordinary amount of time I would invest to process information that I had gathered over the course of three days.

But there was something else weighing heavily on my mind. It was my visit to the Austin Scottish Rite that got me thinking again about the future of Scottish Rite scenery. They too were in need of scenery restoration with no real funds to assure the preservation of their drops. As usual, all of the funds were being directed to the restoration of the physical structure of the building and interior spaces after years of deferred maintenance; drop repair was always low on the list and perceived as optional. Once again, I explained the need to look at the scenery as artworks and not simple backings. Plus there was the health hazard of dusting pigment and they produced children’s theatre. Although the scenery was remarkable, would it survive the next decade if left unattended? I doubted it.

There was an upcoming avalanche of Scottish Rite scenery and artifacts getting ready to enter the market. I felt that I was at the base of the mountain, hearing the rumble. Just like the snow breaking away from a peak, it would gather momentum as it raced down the mountainside.

It was no surprise that Masonic membership was declining, as many other fraternal, social, and religious organizations were in the same state. For the Scottish Rite, many of the Valleys were perched on the brink of destruction and already planning the sale of their beloved Masonic edifices – now looking at their once grand buildings as massive money pits. Saving historic backdrops would never be high on the list of priorities. Plus, where would they go and who would take them? I thought back to the auctions at the Scottish Rite in Fort Scott, Kansas, and the most recent one in Evansville, Indiana. Buildings were being liquidated and fraternal artifacts just auctioned off.

Fort Scott Auction in 2014. Contents of entire building was liquidated except the drops. A second auction had originally been planned for the scenery during August 2015 when I entered in negotiations on behalf of the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center as their Curatorial Director.
Picture from newspaper of 2014 Fort Scott auction.

In Evansville, I had contacted both the auction house and the Scottish Rite, hoping to rescue the collection during December 2016. I wanted to know what they had hanging above the stage as one of the Scottish Rite Valleys was interested in acquiring a few more scenes. As there were only partial pictures on the auction site revealed four compositions. I needed to know if the long trip and expense would be worth it.

Online auction of Evansville, Indiana Scottish Rite scenery.

The expense would not be in the purchase, it would be in the safe removal and transportation of the collection; hiring a local rigger and renting a truck. Locating a local help and estimating all of the expenses, I was signed up and ready to bid online. However, I could not go in blind, not knowing what was in the collection.

Enlarged detail from auction image of Evansville Scottish Rite scenery.
Enlarged detail from auction image of Evansville Scottish Rite scenery.
Enlarged detail from auction image of Evansville Scottish Rite scenery.
Enlarged detail from auction image of Evansville Scottish Rite scenery.
Enlarged detail from auction image of Evansville Scottish Rite scenery.
Enlarged detail from auction image of Evansville Scottish Rite scenery.

I could recognize that the collection was from Volland Studios and very similar to the Peoria, Illinois, collection and the Quincy, Illinois, collection.

The Valley secretary refused to return my call, even after I explained that I was representing another Valley who would like to purchase the scenery for degree work. Then I spoke with an auction house representative to inquire about the scenery and the removal. The site noted that all drops had to be removed in one day. I explained that this was simply impossible and dangerous, having done it twice. After our conversation, I would be given a two-week window to remove the Evansville scenery collection. Unfortunately, the auction house could not provide any information about the contents.

I called the Valley back again and once spoke with the female secretary – not the Valley’s executive secretary. I explained that I understood the difficulty and time involved to photograph the scenery for auction. However, did they have a list of the drops, or even the degrees that they used to perform, from that I could take an educated guess of what was there and make a decision? She checked with the executive secretary and I was told “No, we have nothing and have not used the drops for years.” I withdrew from the auction and watched the final results for the sale of the 15 drops – $550.

When bidding closed, the entire drop collection sold for only $550.

In many cases the contents that members treasured for decades are now being discarded, treated like unwanted toys or trash; they are simply abandoned with no attempts to find a new Masonic home.

This is a turning point for the Fraternity and I honestly can’t decide whether I want it to burn to the ground or rise against all odds. I just keep thinking of Doris Day singing, “The future’s not ours to see, qué será, sera.”

Regardless of Freemasonry’s future, there is going to be a flood of Masonic scenery that will continue to increase throughout the next few years. Much will be unsalvageable. Many of the collections are the same age and have never been maintained. Drops all over the country are simply ripping and falling to the floor. Hopefully, no one will be under them when they fall. These drops are often rolled up and tucked away. Many are simply thrown out at that point.

What can I save? Will I even know when the scenery is up for sale? When will I have to standby, feeling absolutely helpless, and watch artifacts get destroyed?

I really just want to drive around the country, collecting abandoned scenery in the back of my truck, and storing it at my studio in Cambridge, Minnesota.

A colleague once told me that I couldn’t save every historical drop. Deep in my heart I know that many collections will find their way to landfills over the course of the next decade, but I can not stand by and watch them disappear. Whether in digital or physical form, I am going to save as many drops as possible.

To be continued…

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