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Hard Times at the Atheneum

Hartford's venerable Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, the oldest in the nation, is struggling to remain relevant in a changed city

July 12, 2007
By DANIEL D'AMBROSIO, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer

At the corner of Gold and Prospect streets downtown, two large street-level windows in the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art display a work installed in 1988 titled "Analemma."

Analemma, a plaque explains, is a sign of infinity, referring to "the continuum of time and to the annual passage of the sun in relation to earth."

"The artists' intent is to juxtapose dual notions of time in this work," the plaque continues.

Wow. Heady stuff. And not only that, but this artwork moves. Wheels spin, spheres dissolve, pendulums swing. All I had to do was press the brass button. Except when I did, nothing happened.

There may not be a better metaphor than "Analemma" for what some believe is the dysfunctional state of affairs over the last decade at the Wadsworth, America's oldest art museum founded in 1842 — unless it's incorporating a revolving door into a planned renovation of the museum. The Wadsworth has had three directors in the past 10 years.

There were also two embarrassing episodes recently that further compromised the museum. First, a $120 million capital campaign to fund a major renovation based on a design by renowned architect Ben Van Berkel of UNStudio in Amsterdam was dumped by the last incoming director, Willard Holmes, soon after he took over in March 2003.

The lines of the radical design incorporating a modernistic entry and lobby on the Gold Street side of the museum were likened to a Dustbuster by detractors. For his part, Holmes said he didn't come to Hartford to preside over a closed museum. The Van Berkel plan required the Atheneum to shut down for two years. Unfortunately, in anticipation of that closing, many of the museum's best works were sent out on extended tours of other museums, leaving local patrons without their favorite pieces.

The design debacle also likely cost the Wadsworth the support of United Technologies Corporation Chairman and Chief Executive Officer George David, who backed the Van Berkel plan. David abruptly quit the Board of Trustees in December 2002, taking five more board members with him, including three with New York connections, over what he reportedly considered to be the lukewarm support for the Dutch design. He had personally donated $5 million to the museum over the years.

The second embarrassing episode was a personal humiliation for Holmes. In March 2006 he was forced to cancel a show of Samuel Colt firearms — Colt manufactured his firearms in Hartford after all — because he couldn't raise the $300,000 required to mount the exhibit. Although a supporter stepped up at the last minute to underwrite the show, Holmes, a former deputy director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, called the Colt show one of the "great miscalculations" of his career in a story in the Hartford Courant.

Holmes has since left the museum, and it is currently being run by senior staff. But the place is pretty quiet.


The cumulative effect of the museum's missteps has left some of its biggest fans worried about the future. Andy Buck, a fine art photographer from Farmington, says he has been going to the Atheneum for more than 30 years.

But lately he has found himself asking lots of questions about why so many people have left, why no interim director was appointed following Holmes' departure in February, and why there is still no search on for a new architect for the museum's renovation.

"In short, why does the museum seem to be in such a continual state of confusion with no clear direction?" wrote Buck in a letter to the Advocate.

Answers to Buck's questions are not forthcoming from former director Holmes. When he announced his resignation in February, Holmes didn't say much about why he was leaving. Neither did he return calls for comments for this story.

But according to Nick Ruocco, the Wadsworth's deputy director for curatorial and programming, Holmes left to once again work "more directly with artists." Ruocco said Holmes did not want to spend the next five years overseeing the construction of a new museum annex in the Hartford Times building across Prospect Street, followed by the renovation of the museum's campus of five interconnected buildings on Main Street.

"[Holmes] really wanted to move his career in a new direction," said Ruocco.

If so, one has to wonder whether the job Holmes recently accepted at The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston fits the bill. As the museum's new associate director for administration, Holmes will "supervise and manage the administrative areas of the museum's operations and will be the owner's representative for institutional capital projects," according to a press release from the Houston museum.

When Holmes begins his new job some time this month, he will "serve as the staff liaison to trustee committees including the buildings and grounds committee."



As for Buck's concern about an interim director, Ruocco says he and other senior staff members, along with Board President Coleman Casey, are guiding the museum on a day-to-day basis until a new director is hired.

The fact that a new architect for the renovation of the main museum has yet to be chosen is not a cause for concern either, according to Ruocco, because work on the Hartford Times building needs to be completed first.

Bruner/Cott & Associates of Cambridge, Mass., which revamped the 19th century Sprague Electric Company building in North Adams for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 1999, has been selected to transform the Hartford Times building for the Wadsworth.

Jack Davis, former publisher of the Hartford Courant and a member of the Wadsworth's Board of Trustees until last November, said the board always planned to complete the Hartford Times building before moving on to the main museum campus.

"The plan was to move some of the offices and other facilities into the Times building, then start renovating galleries and other space in the existing buildings," said Davis.

He said Bruner/Cott's design for the Times building is "excellent and responsible."

"As soon as that can get off the ground that's the first step toward the master plan," Davis said.

But it's not off the ground yet. Ruocco said the museum is in negotiations with the state concerning how the revamped Times building will fit into the bigger picture of Adriaen's Landing, the massive makeover of downtown Hartford that includes the new convention center and Marriott Hotel. The area near the Times building is slated for retail stores and restaurants.

"We have a signed lease, what we're doing is really negotiating exactly how the building should be used for the best advantage for us and the state and Hartford," Ruocco said.


Ken Kahn, executive director of the Greater Hartford Arts Council, says he has "5,357,900 questions about what's going on" at the Wadsworth, because that's how many dollars the council has donated to the museum since 1972 — the most received by any cultural institution or program in Hartford.

"It does need direction and leadership," said Kahn of the museum.

In fact, he said the Wadsworth probably needs two strong leaders at the top — one with a practical bent to keep the building program moving forward, and the other with a visionary bent to keep the engaging shows and the donors coming.

Kahn said he has heard the museum is interviewing candidates to replace Holmes. Ruocco confirmed the Board of Trustees is "actively seeking candidates," and "is in fact looking through applications as we speak."

"The Atheneum still has an international and strong national reputation," said Ruocco. "Many people out there see this as a great opportunity to make it even better."

Overall, Kahn is taking the long view on the Wadsworth's travails, pointing out that any institution that has been around for 165 years is going to have ups and downs.

"I think the museum has done fabulous things over the years," Kahn said. "The latest period of five years is a blip on the history since 1842. I'm sure there have been fallow periods before."

Ruocco acknowledges the museum has lost money for at least the past five years. The operating loss for the 2006 fiscal year was about $250,000. But Ruocco believes the Wadsworth is poised to go "back into an upswing," after a recent fundraising campaign that brought in nearly $1 million. He said he expects the museum to break even for the 2008 fiscal year.

And then there's the blockbuster show, Impressionists by the Sea, opening in February in conjunction with the Royal Academy of Arts in London and The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

"It will have all the impressionists, Monet, Renoir, you name it," said Ruocco. The remainder of 2008 will be filled with shows from the Wadsworth's own impressive collection, which everyone agrees is among the top 10 art collections in the country.

Before he left, Holmes had argued for possibly going away from blockbuster shows to rely solely on the museum's collection, but Ruocco said the Wadsworth is "trying to do both so the schedule is exciting, creating a great draw for people to come to Hartford."

And therein lies the rub.


With its tired signage, wall of diesel-spewing buses out front, and foreboding castle-like façade, the Wadsworth isn't exactly an irresistible magnet for passers-by.

Will K. Wilkins, the director of Real Art Ways, a non-collecting museum, cinema and performing arts center on Arbor Street, said the castle could go from foreboding to inviting with the right lighting.

"I would use colored lights," Wilkins said.

Kahn calls for revamping the entire Main Street landscape in front of the building, upgrading it to draw people in, and moving the bus stop, which Davis refers to as the "O'Hare Airport of the Hartford bus system."

But the bigger challenge is making the locals want to walk in the front door, even with an inviting streetscape. Although it has made some impressive gains in the past couple of years, attendance at the Wadsworth is still far below its peak in 2001 of nearly 230,000. By 2005, attendance had dropped to a historic low of about 108,000, but rebounded to 145,000 in 2006.

Wilkins said Real Art Ways, with annual attendance of about 40,000, has been working hard to tap into Hartford's diverse population, featuring, for example, shows of Puerto Rican artists. A monthly cocktail party with art and artists at the museum targets city residents, drawing up to 700 people and averaging about 400, who pay $10 each to attend.

"I don't have a prescription [for the Atheneum] but the only way to thrive is to take advantage of what Harford has," said Wilkins.

In fact the Atheneum has launched its own monthly party, First Thursdays, that draws several hundred people, according to Ruocco. But Ruocco acknowledges the museum is isolated.

"We're in a downtown neighborhood with very little residency around us," said Ruocco. "The vast majority of our audience has to drive in and there are a lot of people in the Greater Hartford area who are not always comfortable driving in."

Davis is less diplomatic in linking the fate of the Wadsworth to the fate of Hartford itself.

"One of the problems is affluent people all around Hartford don't appreciate the city or the Atheneum," said Davis. "They ought to go there. I can't blame the Atheneum for that. It's neglected by the region. Instead it should be appreciated."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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