Jean Kolterman

Jean Kolterman of Seward stands next to one of the Thomas Johnson paintings that is currently hanging in the lower level of the Seward Civic Center, on loan from History Nebraska. HN is coming Sept. 6 to replace nine of the existing paintings with different Johnson works.

Short of chaining herself to the Thomas B. Johnson paintings in the Civic Center basement, Jean Kolterman, chair of the Seward Civic Center Commission, is in a battle with History Nebraska (formerly the Nebraska Historical Society).

History Nebraska has decided to take back nine of the Thomas B. Johnson oil paintings that have been hanging in the Seward Civic Center basement for almost three decades, since 1992, on “permanent loan.” 

“The Seward Civic Center has tried everything to keep this Seward County Johnson art collection intact,” Kolterman said. “The commission complied with all of the requirements and requests by History Nebraska. We even offered to buy the paintings to keep them in Seward, but to no avail.”

“We understand this means a lot to the people of Seward, but our mission is to share with the whole state,” Chris Goforth, marketing and communications director for History Nebraska, said. “We hold these in trust for all the state.

“They have been a wonderful partner and caretaker. We want more people to be able to experience what Seward has the last 25 years.”

HN does not provide items on “permanent loan,” he said. Its collection committee reviews its ongoing loan agreements, and the agreement with the Seward Civic Center is considered every two years. That’s standard, Goforth said.

He said this loan came up for review this year, and other locations have expressed an interest in displaying Johnson’s work, specifically these paintings.

“We’ve had specific requests for them by other organizations across the state,” Goforth said.

HN has offered an equal number of Johnson paintings to the Seward Civic Center, even transferring ownership permanently to the civic center.

“Of course they offered to replace our Seward County paintings and actually give us nine other paintings, but they had no connection to Seward County whatsoever. Why do we want a painting of the Great Southwest? We love our collection and want to keep it in Seward,” Kolterman said.

“I even asked my son, Sen. Mark Kolterman, to try and help us reach a compromise, but even our state senator’s request did not change the their minds on taking back the Seward County paintings.”

Paintings arrive

In 1992, the City of Seward celebrated the city’s and state’s quasquicentennial (125th anniversary) and Seward hosted a special showing from the painting/art collection of local artist Thomas B. Johnson. 

The art show was at the Langworthy Gallery in the Seward Civic Center, which already owned three of his paintings for the exhibit and also enjoys a collection of his charcoal drawings. The remainder of the exhibit’s paintings were gathered from around the state by the painting’s owner, the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Most of the paintings in the show had a Seward County or agriculture theme. His wife donated his collection to the NSHS after his death in 1968. This exhibition was successful and important to the residents of Seward County and Johnson’s family, Kolterman said.

After the show, the Seward Civic Center Commission, along with the Seward Arts Council, asked that the paintings remain in Seward and hang on “permanent loan” in the banquet hall, the lower level of the Civic Center. The NSHS was receptive at the time, knowing the paintings had a local connection and agreed to a “permanent loan” of the paintings, Kolterman said.

The NSHS did require the paintings be “locked” to the wall, be displayed in special lighting and have a specific insurance policy to cover the loss or damage of the paintings, all of which the Seward Civic Center complied with immediately.

Periodically, the Seward Civic Center Commission was required to sign a new agreement of care concerning the paintings. 

“Now, over 25 years later under new administration in the NSHS, with not one infraction to the NSHS request, the Seward Civic Center Commission is told that we must return the Thomas Johnson paintings to the new History Nebraska, where they will be placed in storage to “rest’ and then be shared with others to enjoy,” Kolterman said. “History Nebraska has offered to replace these Seward paintings with some of his other paintings, yet they are from other states such as ones from the Southwest or Wyoming and such. They even agreed to give us those Thomas B. Johnson paintings, but we want to just keep our Seward County scenes and agriculture paintings that we now enjoy. We don’t want those of other areas, even if they give them to us. We want to keep these that are currently hanging at the Civic Center, as they are connected to us and have been enjoyed for over two decades by thousands that use our Civic Center.”

Back to HN

Once the paintings are back with History Nebraska, Goforth said, they will be reviewed by the conservators, who will perform any needed repairs or other work. If that’s not done in-house in Lincoln, it will be done in Omaha, he said.

“We want them to be in the best condition possible,” he said. “Our conservation team does some of the best work in the country.”

“Also, concerning the painting’s resting, we complied with all of the History Nebraska’s requests concerning the paintings’ care,” Jean Kolterman said. “It would appear to me that the paintings in the basement level of the Civic Center are indeed at rest and not really being moved or knocked around.”

Kolterman said the Civic Center Commission has requested that the History Nebraska Board of Trustees intervene on the behalf of the commission and the people of Seward and Seward County to keep the current collection of Thomas B. Johnson’s paintings at the Civic Center.

“We are at our wits’ end as to where to turn for help in showing the new History Nebraska administration the common sense request of allowing us to continue to house their Thomas Johnson paintings with the permanent loan agreement,” Kolterman said.

“We do not know where to turn for an appeal and now sought out the help from the History Nebraska’s Board of Trustees, with a request to keep the Thomas Johnson painting in the Seward Civic Center and in Seward, where they belong,” Jean Kolterman said. “We have not scheduled a farewell coffee for the paintings yet.”

Work together

Jean Kolterman is also the president of the Seward County Historical Society and knows how important working together is.

“I know firsthand the importance of working together with our constituents and donors,” she said. “Over the years, Seward County has enjoyed a wonderful relationship with History Nebraska. However this will really ‘undo’ any and all goodwill, as far as I am concerned. It would simply appear to me that History Nebraska would want to keep good faith with their friends and supporters from Seward County, and this action does not reflect that good sense or community goodwill. In fact, any goodwill established by History Nebraska will be lost as they take the Seward County paintings from Seward County and put them in storage.

“We certainly hope that the History Nebraska Board of Trustees can help us, as they are really our last hope unless the History Nebraska folks read this article and see how frustrated we are with them and their preservation group. I may be 89 years old, but I still have some fight in me, and I am happy to stand up for Seward County and all that is important to the preservation of Seward County’s history. I guess time will tell.”

History Nebraska is scheduled to be in Seward Friday, Sept. 6, to take its nine Johnson paintings from the civic center and replace them with nine different ones.

Stephanie Croston contributed to this article.

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