By SEAN O' LEARY, Hartford Business Journal Staff Writer
January 14, 2008
After sacking two previous expansion projects, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art officials are hoping that three times will be a charm as they embark upon yet another project within six years. The state is greenlighting the museum’s third plan, reallocating a $15 million grant initially approved for its two previous proposals.
First awarded to the museum in 2002 to construct an expanded $80 million facility, the state reallocated the money a few years later when museum officials scrapped that ambitious construction project and instead decided to renovate and restore the former Hartford Times Building.
But when the cost of the Times project came in at about $20 million, museum officials again downsized their plans, now aiming to renovate and restore the 166-year-old landmark building on Main Street.
Wadsworth officials again approached the Connecticut Bond Commission, which approved their request in December to reallocate the $15 million grant for renovation and restoration of its Main Street facilities.
Notably, this project will not garner additional space for the museum. However, museum officials maintain that the proposed improvements will enable them to better utilize its current space for storage and exhibition.
While this is the third major project proposed by Wadsworth officials during the past six years, Coleman Casey, the museum’s acting executive director, is confident that this renovation project will see a conclusion, thanks to its more modest price tag.
In October, museum officials announced that it would be exiting the 99-year-lease agreement it struck with the state and city in 2004 to restore and reuse the former Hartford Times building, located across the street from the museum’s five-building campus.
At the time, museum executive director Willard Holmes said the Hartford Times 55,000-square-foot building would meet the museum’s storage, office and exhibition expansion needs. State officials welcomed the proposal, excited that the museum would anchor its Prospect Street gateway to the Front Street development.
However, Casey maintains the museum should have pursued its current renovation plan from the beginning.
The more ambitious plans were not “very fiscally sound,” he said. “We talk about the cost of the projects, but [the other facilities] would have also cost a lot more to run and maintain. … What we’re doing now is moving forward as it should have been from the start,” he said.
In looking back at the museum’s two false starts, Casey described himself as “grateful” that neither project reached a conclusion.
“I’m glad that we didn’t do the $80 million expansion or the Hartford Times building for $20 million,” he said. “These delays and frustrations have actually been good for the museum — that we didn’t move forward with something we would have regretted.”
In the past five years, Casey said other museums have found that the exorbitant cost of constructing new, iconographic facilities simply did not pay off.
Currently, the museum is facing an operating deficit of $733, 354, according to its annual report.
“The state has been very, very helpful to us, and we couldn’t do this without the governor and the bond commission allowing us to do this,” said Casey. “We’re now in the position where can start the renovation because before, we couldn’t spend money we didn’t have yet.”
Rich Harris, a spokesman for the Governor, said that Rell is committed to the arts and cultural sites like the Wadsworth.
“They are real economic drivers that get undervalued,” he said. “People think first of only the casino, but there are a lot of tourists that come to Connecticut for these cultural attractions.”
Coleman said that the 166-year-old Wadsworth is in obvious need of repair and renovation to remain a viable structure in the 21st century. Repairing the roof and leaks in the basement, replacing windows and skylights, renovating the façade, and upgrading the elevators are listed among the museum’s most needed improvements.
Currently, museum officials, headed by the museum’s former building committee and now its facilities committee, is meeting with the state Department of Economic and Community Development to establish a plan and timeline.