A generous donation of almost 500 guitars, mandolins and banjos, once owned by the late Steven Kern Shaw, will make up a new museum coming to Belmont’s campus near the end of the spring semester.
The museum will replace the computer lab next to the Leu Art Gallery on the first floor of the Lila D. Bunch Library.
George Gruhn, owner of Gruhn Guitars, helped longtime friend and customer Shaw plan his decisions regarding his collection of instruments.
“Steve was very seriously terminally ill and did not have a will. I helped him to write the will,” said Gruhn.
After connecting him with Gruhn’s attorney, they decided the choices were “a museum or to sell off the proceeds to charity,” he said.
While they both agreed sending his collection to a museum would be best, they didn’t initially think of building one, much less consider Belmont a prospective location. After Shaw died about two weeks after he signed the will, it was clear to Gruhn that sending the collection to an out-of-town museum wasn’t the best fit.
“There are plenty of major museums that would take a big donation, but they wouldn’t make a commitment to display or use the instruments, which I didn’t think was fitting,” said Gruhn.
Singer-songwriter and instrumentalist Vince Gill suggested Gruhn, who was familiar with Belmont’s music business and music programs, approach the university. Gill also helped Gruhn reach out to Belmont, as he knew the university’s president, Dr. Robert Fisher.
Obtaining the right to build this museum at Belmont in lieu of sending the collection to an already existing museum wasn’t easy. This change had to be approved by the Tennessee attorney general’s office in order to meet the original intent of the will. It took the collection’s board of advisers, also established through these negotiations, close to a year to negotiate the change.
“Because you can imagine, I mean this is the Tennessee attorney general’s office. They do lots of other things; this isn’t their highest priority. But they also have this responsibility to the state and its citizens to make sure they are honoring the will,” said Provost Dr. Thomas Burns, a board member of the collection.
The board of advisers consists of members of the Belmont community, including Burns and external members Gruhn, Gill and Andy Boose, a Jerome Kern Foundation attorney and collection board member.
This seven-member advisory board evaluates the collection and can trade or sell instruments to augment the collection and attract other donations. The advisory board is empowered to trade or sell instruments based on how many duplicates of an instrument there are – such as the 43 D-28 Martin guitars in the collection.
“We envision diversifying the collection by trading duplicates or those in sub-prime condition for other things that diversify the collection, but also we’re retaining all prime examples for the museum,” Gruhn said.
Many of these instruments hold considerable historical and monetary value, extending into the $200,000-300,000 range. Such instruments include the Gibson F-5 mandolins signed by Gibson acoustic engineer Lloyd Loar which were made from 1922 to 1924. There are six of these mandolins in the collection as well as seven made from 1925 through the mid-1930s. The Loar-signed F-5s as well as the examples of the later 1920s through the 1930s are extremely rare, Gruhn said.
“These are sort of a crowned jewel. They are the finest mandolins ever made by anybody. There are just not that many of them,” said Gruhn.
Other instruments of exceptional merit are the pre-World War II D-45, D-28 and 000-45 Martin guitars which were made in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Shaw also had a Gibson Les Paul Standard 1960 model worth nearly $300,000. The collection consists of instruments made from the early 1900s to present, so they aren’t all vintage, but are still of considerable monetary and historical value, said Gruhn.
Gruhn also understands the possible opportunities he now has since he plays an active role in the museum’s formation.
“It’s not much more than a mile from my store. So, it’s easy for me to come over to participate and give lectures or do consulting with the museum and their board,” he said.
The Belmont community hopes the museum will bring more people and prospective students to campus, as it may be visited free of charge likely any time the library is open. Since the Belmont mansion is on a regular Nashville tour circuit, tourists may also be able to visit the museum.
“That trolley stop is right out by the library, so we’re hoping that people will recognize that they can take the trolley there, stop and visit the mansion and visit this museum and hopefully visit this campus we have too,” said Burns.
Selected instruments from the collection will be available to professionals and music students to play at concerts and in recordings and will be incorporated into academic curricula. This is a primary component to Belmont’s having this museum.
Burns considers that, after more instrument classes are added, they could add more sections to the museum. The board members are also planning to make instruments not currently on display available for students. It is not entirely clear yet which programs will be able to use it, but the board members feel it is vital to make this museum interactive.
“It’s more than just a museum. The idea is that its instruments are to be almost like living entities. They have soul and personality, and they are going to be heard as well as seen. So it’s not going to be like a museum display of dead animals stuffed behind glass – more like a living zoo,” Gruhn said.
This article was written by Max Mason. Photo courtesy of Belmont University.