Thomas Clyde Colt (20 February 1905–6 March 1985), museum director, was born in Orange, New Jersey, and was the son of Thomas Clyde Colt, a prominent businessman and owner of the Orange Dispatch, and his second wife, Florence Clery Colt. He attended Blair Academy in Blairstown, Warren County, New Jersey, from 1920 to 1922 and graduated from Dartmouth College with a B.S. in 1926. Colt then attended classes at Columbia University and at King's College, University of Cambridge, and traveled in Europe. After returning to New York City, he wrote book reviews for the New York Times and tried unsuccessfully to publish two novels. From 1927 to 1929 he was associated with the Frank K. M. Rehn Galleries, where he came into contact with noted artists, art dealers, and collectors from around the country.
Thomas C. Colt Jr., as he continued to identify himself even after his father's death, joined the United States Marine Corps Reserve in August 1929. He served on active duty as a naval aviator and in 1930 was commissioned a second lieutenant. By December 1931 he had been placed on inactive duty and had moved to Richmond, where he became director and vice president of Cavalier Air Service. On 17 June 1933 he married Martha Belle Patterson Willingham. They had two sons and one daughter. Active in Richmond's art community, Colt served from 1933 to 1935 as trustee of the Richmond Academy of Arts. He assembled exhibitions for the academy, published articles in the Academy News and the Four Arts, and in 1933 participated in a conference at which Virginia's various art groups unified into a single statewide alliance. He was secretary of the resulting Virginia Art Alliance from 1934 to 1935.
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
In 1932 John Barton Payne, chair of the American Red Cross, presented Virginia with $100,000 for the construction of an art museum, and on 27 March 1934 the General Assembly established the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. A large number of artists and art organizations expected Thomas C. Parker, director of the Richmond Academy of Arts, to become curator of the new institution, but John Garland Pollard, president of the museum board's executive committee and a former governor, wanted Colt. A bitter dispute ensued. Colt's detractors considered him "unsuited and unworthy," but his advocates detected a broad worldview and an adventuresome spirit and also valued the contacts he had cultivated while in New York. On 13 April 1935 the museum's executive committee appointed Colt as curator (a title soon changed to director), and the controversy escalated. In May the Richmond Academy of Arts trustees voted to support the museum's decision, but the membership continued its opposition. Colt was able to pacify several art groups, and shortly thereafter the Virginia Art Alliance pledged full cooperation with the museum, effectively ending the quarrel.
The museum opened on 16 January 1936 with an exhibition that surveyed the major trends of American painting from its beginnings to 1910 and featured about 150 paintings lent by museums and collectors from across the country. Colt arranged for Henry P. Strause's collection of European furniture, Georgian silver, antique clocks, and English paintings to be placed in the museum on long-term loan and also organized a show by the sculptor Paul Manship. He initiated a lecture series and symphony concerts, developed an art library, and organized traveling exhibitions for rural areas. By year's end, attendance averaged more than 5,000 per month, and the value of the art collection had quadrupled.
The next year Colt featured an exhibition of sculpture by Malvina Hoffman, followed in 1938 by a memorial exhibition of paintings by Gari Melchers. Colt continued the annual (later biennial) Virginia Artists' Exhibition, initiated the Virginia Artists Series, and held children's art classes and night openings. The First Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Paintings, which opened on 12 March 1938, showcased 183 paintings by artists at home and abroad. This ambitious project prompted the noted art critic Leila Mechlin to announce that the museum had become one of the region's leading institutions. In 1941 Life magazine praised the museum as the "vitalizing force in Virginia's new art era."
World War II
Colt returned to active duty during World War II and in May 1942 was recommissioned a first lieutenant. Promoted to captain in April 1943, he became officer in charge of the bombardier and gunnery school at the Marine Corps Air Station in El Centro, California. Colt was promoted to major in February 1944 and served that year and in 1945 as a group operations officer in the Marshall Islands and at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He returned to the Virginia Museum late in 1945 determined to acquire works that represented the scope of American art and the important periods in the history of art. Colt established a studio for African American children, a weekly program of lectures, concerts, and discussions, and a weekly radio show. He also arranged two significant bequests, the Lillian Thomas Pratt Collection of jeweled objects by Peter Carl Fabergé and the Thomas Catesby Jones Collection of modern art.
In April 1948 Colt announced his resignation and on 1 July left the museum to become director of the Portland Art Museum in Oregon. His first marriage ended in divorce, and on 4 April 1950 he married Priscilla Crum, a former staff member at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts who had joined him at the Portland museum. They had two daughters and one son. Colt remained in the Marine Corps Reserve, became a lieutenant colonel in 1954, and retired in 1959.
In Portland, Colt continued to pursue his vision and applied the methods that he had embraced in Virginia with great success. His inaugural exhibition of Northwest Coast Indian art signaled his desire to fashion a progressive institution, and he spearheaded the formation of the state's thirty-six art groups into a single alliance. His exhibit of Walter Percy Chrysler's collection drew record crowds and enhanced the museum's prestige. Colt had showcased regional artists and expanded the museum's collections, as well as increasing visitation, staff, and budget, by the time he stepped down in 1956.
Colt became director of the Dayton Art Institute in Ohio on 1 June 1957. During another successful tenure he mounted major exhibitions, increased revenues and the endowment, and expanded an art school. Colt increased the museum's holdings and tripled their value, and in the process he also created one of the country's most important European Baroque collections. He helped organize the Ohio Arts Council in 1965 and served on its executive committee until 1970. In 1972 he received the council's award for excellence in art administration.
Throughout his career Colt contributed to various magazines, including Art Digest, Art News, and Commonwealth, and he was an advisory editor for the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism from 1951 to 1953. His publications included C. S. Price (1874–1950): A Memorial Exhibition Initiated by the Portland Art Museum and the Walker Art Center (1951), Handbook of the Samuel H. Kress Collection: Paintings of the Renaissance (1952), Prehistoric Stone Sculpture of the Pacific Northwest (1952), and Fifty Treasures of the Dayton Art Institute (1969). He was a member of the Association of Art Museum Directors and served as president of the Intermuseum Conservation Association from 1968 to 1970. He retired on 31 August 1975 and spent much of his time gardening and working on his father's memoirs, which he published in 1979. Thomas Clyde Colt died on 6 March 1985 in a Dayton hospital following a heart attack. His remains were cremated.
Autobiographical information, including birth and marriage dates, in Sept. 1945 war service record and in Mar. 1974 résumé in Dartmouth College Alumni Records Office, Dartmouth College Archives; subject vertical files, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond (VMFA); Thomas Clyde Colt Papers (1853–1979), Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; writings include Colt, "The Principles and Work of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts," Four Arts 2 (June 1935): 11, 15, "Old Dominion Biennial," Commonwealth 5 (Mar. 1938): 15, 33, and "'The Calling' of the Artist," Art Digest 27 (1 Mar. 1953): 5; Marriage Register, Richmond City (1933), Bureau of Vital Statistics, Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, Library of Virginia (LVA); VMFA Minutes (1934–1942), Accession 36266, LVA; VMFA, Museum Bulletin (1941–1948); "Virginia Art Sprouts at Richmond's Spring Show," Life 10 (26 May 1941): 66 (second quotation); Dayton Journal Herald, 5 Sept. 1975 (portrait); Richmond Times-Dispatch, 17 Mar. 1985 (first quotation and portrait); obituaries in Dayton Daily News, 6 Mar. 1985, Dayton Journal Herald, Richmond News Leader, and Richmond Times-Dispatch, all 7 Mar. 1985, and New York Times, 9 Mar. 1985.
Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Catherine T. Mishler and Donald W. Gunter.
How to cite this page:
>Catherine T. Mishler and Donald W. Gunter,"Thomas Clyde Colt (1905–1985)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2006 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Colt_Thomas_Clyde, accessed [today's date]).
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