Not all is ducky at Ward Museum Struggle ahead: Salisbury's unique museum of wildfowl carvings and paintings is facing a clouded future as the hunting culture that spawned it fades.


FIXED FOREVER, in a glass case in a unique museum in Salisbury is one of nature's wildly compelling moments:

Like some avenging fury, a fierce-taloned hawk has swooped to skewer its prey, a gorgeous pheasant whose every feature contorts with panicked attempts to avoid its fate.

One tail feather is in the hawk's grip. Another millisecond and the anguished fowl, it seems, must explode in a flurry of feathers and blood.

To me the tableau, one of a gallery-full of masterful wood sculptures at the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, is a favorite, recalling poet Gary Snyder's terse, ecological line:

"The hawk, the swoop and the hare -- all are one."

Beauty and blood, death and vitality; all are so linked it is pointless to discuss prey or predator separately.

My friend Dorothy intensely dislikes the piece, hating the thought of that pheasant, consigned to teeter for all eternity on the brink of its worst nightmare.

We agree, though, that this is art of the level that provokes such discussion and emotion, and it is typical of the quality here.

The striking new (1993) museum building, with views of live geese feeding and ospreys nesting on an adjacent pond, displays a quarter-century of the best works in the evolution of duck decoy carving into fine art.

In one exhibit a sculpted woodcock descends through a steel and bronze alder thicket, wrought so meticulously that if you took away the bird, it would still be a work of art; even the shadows cast by the leaves are part of the piece and not from the museum lighting.

From a great slab of polished walnut, an arctic tern pursued by a gyrfalcon sweeps so powerfully and organically that judges at one world carving championship were forced to create a new, "interpretive" category just to give the piece its due.

For pure whimsy you have to love an exquisitely carved and polished, and somewhat concave pheasant, across which the artist, a world champion, striped a bold, yellow highway center line, dubbing the work, simply "Roadkill."

This is all just a part of one of the galleries. There are paintings, rooms that trace the evolution of hunting and decoy making, and one devoted to the museum's namesake Ward brothers of Crisfield.

The late brothers, Lem and Steve, were barbers, painters, poets, singers, storytellers and waterfowl carvers of a caliber that made them the prototypes of today's decorative artists. They never finished grade school, but were geniuses as authentic as any produced in Maryland.

Yet for all it has to offer, the Ward Museum has struggled almost since opening, beset by financial problems, changing directors four times in three years.

The last one to leave, William F. Brooks, a former local banker and folk art specialist, resigned last fall after only a month, saying the museum's board was not leveling with people about the scope of the problems.

That is denied by the current leadership; but certainly the Ward Museum's future, while never so dire as the pheasant in its exhibit, has nonetheless seemed stuck in ambivalence -- too fine to imagine closing, yet unable to spread its wings.

Some say the roots of the problems lie in a "field of dreams" mentality on the part of the original board of old duck hunters who conceived the museum. They would settle for nothing less than a state-of-the-art, $5 million to $6 million facility when they moved its collections from Salisbury State University.

That entailed huge mortgage payments and other debt, as opposed to the dollar-a-year lease at the university, but the new place was, everyone acknowledged, magnificent.

And the popularity of everything to do with ducks and geese seemed boundless.

So build it, the thinking went. Make it world class -- and they will come; never mind that Salisbury is a place most people pass through on U.S. 50 and 13, headed to other destinations.

Nowadays the view is more pragmatic.

Says Fulton Jeffers, the 52-year-old Salisbury lawyer who now gives half his weeks to putting the museum on its feet:

"Hunters are among the most active conservationists, but the sad reality is if we appeal only to the group that grew up hunting as I did, they'll be mostly gone in another 20 years."

Even adding the decorative art and decoy-collecting community, it is still far too small a pool of support, says Mr. Jeffers, though he maintains "we have resolved our financial problems to the point the future is assured."

But to realize its potential, the museum must expand its appeal as the hunting culture that spawned it fades.

Dan Brown, the museum's curator, says the place is actively pursuing links with schools, and with environmental groups, to align itself with broader themes like the preservation of wetlands and Chesapeake Bay.

He also says, for my friend Dorothy: "Most likely that pheasant's tail feather pulled loose, and it got away."

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