Susan Lubowsky Talbott doesn't know Hartford yet, but she does know how to listen.
She was hired Thursday as director of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, the nation's oldest public art museum, and she wasted no time getting a feel for the region she will call home.
As she nabbed a taxi out of Bradley International Airport on Thursday morning, Talbott paid attention as the cab driver made conversation.
He knew Hartford had a museum but couldn't remember its name. He said he went there once, on a school trip, but all he could remember was a mummy.
If Talbott has her way, all that will change.
"We need to reach that cab driver," she said. "This needs to be a place where every cab driver can come in and be absolutely comfortable."
Talbott, 59, comes to the Atheneum from the Smithsonian Institution, where since 2005 she was director of Smithsonian Arts, a position that gave her input into programs, policy and planning for nine museums under the Smithsonian umbrella.
Before that, she was director and CEO of the Des Moines Art Center from 1998 to 2005.
She will be the Atheneum's fifth director in 11 years. Her first day is expected to be May 1.
"The search committee spent an incredible amount of time deciding what we needed," co-chairwoman and Atheneum trustee Susan Rottner said. "We needed help with artistic vision and fundraising; there were about nine categories, and Susan was a 'wow' in each of those categories."
Talbott is aware of the challenges she will face.
The Atheneum, founded in 1842, has a national reputation but has been dogged by unrealized initiatives and financial concerns in the past 10 years.
In October, the museum backed out of a planned expansion into the nearby Hartford Times building because of rising costs.
The project was originally expected to cost about $15 million, but the price had ballooned to $20 million by 2007. Operating costs were also expected to be greater than initially estimated.
Without the expansion, Wadsworth officials expect the museum to have a balanced budget for the fiscal year ending in 2008.
Talbott said the board's decision to cancel the expansion plan was a good one.
"That was why I was interested in the job," Talbott said. "Some directors want to build new buildings, and sometimes they find out they can't afford them. I'm much more interested in making changes through art."
One of Talbott's challenges will be to reinvent the Atheneum's existing space, but she has experience in such matters.
While at the Smithsonian, Talbott played a key role in the renovation of the Patent Office Building in Washington, D.C., which has been transformed into the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.
An equally important challenge will be to change a perception of the Atheneum as an institution cut off from the community.
In Des Moines, Talbott tapped into a growing Mexican population to double museum attendance in her first two years.
Talbott said she asked community organizers there what the museum was lacking, and she kept them involved in the creation of a Day of the Dead celebration.
"We said, 'We will make this happen, but you have to tell us what it should be,'" Talbott said. "It became theirs. They owned it."
Talbott said it will take time to achieve similar results in Hartford, but she is committed to this approach.
She said her first year will be devoted to figuring out the audiences the museum is missing and figuring out ways to make them feel as if the Atheneum is their museum.
One of the stories she told with pride Thursday was about a farmer in Iowa who was walking through the museum with his son and stopped the boy in front of one painting.
"That's our Picasso," he said.
Perhaps more than anything else, Talbott said she senses Hartford doesn't quite know what it has in the Atheneum.
"I really am feeling like the most privileged person right now," Talbott said. "It's really a dream to work with such a storied institution and such a remarkable collection.
"To have that within a small American city, to make Hartford realize what it has, is a wonderful challenge."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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