By MATT EAGAN and JEFFREY COHEN, Courant Staff Writers
October 03, 2007
The more the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art studied a plan to expand into the old Hartford Times building the more unrealistic it began to look.
As detailed estimates showed the project would cost close to $20 million, instead of the $15 million originally forecast, museum officials began to think about negotiating with the state for a way out.
The exit came Tuesday, as the museum and the state terminated the lease on the Times building and agreed to give back the $2.5 million the Wadsworth paid to secure that 99-year lease.
The state also amended its agreement with Front Street developer Bradley Nitkin to include the Times building in the eventual second phase of that project, said Michael Cicchetti, deputy director of the state Office of Policy and Management.
"The project is just plain too expensive for the Wadsworth," said the museum's acting director, Coleman Casey. "We are not made of money. When we started this we knew it was contingent on a number of things and as we went along it just became economically unfeasible."
In addition to the nearly $5 million increase in initial costs, operating expenses were expected to be more than anticipated.
In November 2006, museum Director Willard Holmes said operating expenses were expected to run between $200,000 and $300,000 annually. Holmes resigned in April.
Casey said rising heating costs, among other things, had driven up those estimates and made it unlikely that the new building would be revenue-neutral, which was a goal set by Holmes.
The Wadsworth was to use the Times building as active and flexible public space and for badly needed administrative office space.
"There is a sense of regret, of course," Casey said. "And on the staff, of course, there are people who wish they had a new office or a new store but they are also realists and they realize you don't do something you can't pay for."
Casey said the Wadsworth has no immediate plans to seek other expansion options.
"Eventually yes, but not now," he said. "Expansions of any kind are expensive and we don't have the resources and we aren't going to use the resources we do have in that way."
The Times project was itself part of a scaled-down plan.
In 2002, the museum considered a $100 million project to redesign its campus radically. The plan would have shut the museum down for three to four years, but was rejected as too costly.
In the aftermath, the idea of purchasing the Times building emerged.
The termination of the lease comes as the museum attempts to rebound from lean financial years that were marked by poor attendance in the early part of this decade.
Although attendance has increased in each of the past two years, the museum reported a deficit of $284,062 for the fiscal year ending in June 2006, the most recent figures available.
The chance to oversee the expansion plan was seen as a potential draw in the search for a director to replace Holmes.
"We're about to find out what impact this has," Casey said. "I'd like to think that the right person coming here would see the wisdom of this path.
"You don't take on projects you don't have the money to manage. This gives us a chance to focus on our artistic mission. We don't have to take care of the vacation house now. We can take care of our own house now."
Casey said nearly all the gifts the museum received for the expansion plan were unrestricted and the original campaign was to fund operating and capital expenses as well as the museum's endowment.
He said money has been spent in all three areas and that the museum contacted donors in writing if there was a question whether a gift could be used for those purposes.
"We have been assiduous in that regard," Casey said. "We made absolutely certain we did not make a mistake or make a donor unhappy."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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