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Things Have Been Quiet At The Wadsworth Atheneum, But The Museum Says That Attendance Is Up And A Planned Makeover Is Finally Going To Move Forward.

October 19, 2006
By MEIR RINDE, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer

Willard Holmes was returning from a trip to New York and chatting with us on a recent afternoon when we mentioned that the latest developer of Front Street had finally come to an agreement with the state.

Holmes, director of the adjoining Wadsworth Atheneum, said he wakes up every morning and scans the newspaper for developments in the long-stymied retail and residential project, which is next door to the old Hartford Times building that the museum has leased and is planning to renovate.

“You’re giving me very, very good news,” Holmes said over a crackling cell phone. “We’ve had to program and design the project without knowing what will go immediately behind it and beside it.”

Development deals for Front Street have fallen through in the past, but Holmes said the new agreement appears to be one of several bits of good news for the 114-year-old art museum.

In the last few years, the Atheneum has struggled with deficits, an abandoned construction project, lagging attendance, and most recently, difficulty finding funding for an exhibit of Colt weaponry. In 2002, George David, the CEO of United Technologies and president of the museum’s board, abruptly quit after other trustees criticized him for monopolizing power and not sharing information. Five other board members left as well.

But almost four years after those donors left the fold, the Atheneum still has its supporters. In March, a wealthy couple came through with $300,000 for the Colt show, which has proven popular with the public.

Other variables have improved as well. In the fiscal year that ended in June, museum attendance hit a three-year high of almost 146,000, thanks in part to good attendance at the Dalí, Picasso, and the Surrealist Vision exhibit, Holmes said. The annual operating loss fell slightly to $284,062, out of an $9.09 million budget. Donations for operating expenses came to $1.4 million, the highest figure in several years. And the value of the museum’s investments has risen.

At a board meeting next month, Holmes will publicly present plans to build offices, community-art exhibit space, and the store and restaurant in the Hartford Times building, which will free up about 25,000 square feet for displays in the main Atheneum building. The famous exterior will also have new, as yet undisclosed, features to draw the eye, he said. The plan is to open the new building to visitors in 2008.

“We’ve still got a great deal of work to do,” Holmes said. “But I think the signs are very positive.”

Holmes attributed the museum’s success in the last year to the return of artworks that were on tour. The museum has been able to put on exhibits showcasing its permanent collection, such as the Dali show and American Splendor , an exhibit of Hudson River School paintings by Thomas Cole and others.

Three new shows coming in the next few months are Soul Food , depictions of African-American food and cooking; Picasso to Pop: Aspects of Modern Art , a survey some of the museum’s lesser-known works; and Faith & Fortune: Five Centuries of European Art , a display of paintings along with domestic objects, scientific instruments, and objects from the natural world.

If Faith & Fortune were an import from, say Vienna, it would be described as a “blockbuster,” a crowd-pleaser expected to draw streams of visitors and earn big profits, Holmes said.

But that exhibit and many of the Atheneum’s recent and future programs are notable for depending on the permanent collection rather than imported favorites. The one genuine blockbuster on the 2008 schedule is a show of beach scenes by the French Impressionists, sponsored by the Atheneum and two other museums Holmes said.

Such big shows have contributed to the massive success of art museums in the last 20 years, but the blockbuster has its drawbacks, said Chris Steiner, director of museum studies at Connecticut College.

“On the one hand it brings people into museums, and it certainly is a lure to get them in, and if they go beyond the blockbuster show to see something else, that’s great,” Steiner said.

“On the other hand, speaking as an art historian, I think the blockbuster is less desirable because they tend to be so predictable and so unchallenging, and artists who may not bring the public in in droves may not get exhibited instead of, gee, another Impressionist show.

“That’s the big debate right now, between the museum as a shopping mall versus the museum as a university, basically,” he said.

The Wadsworth appears to be trending away from imported blockbuster shows, while still trying to expand its popular appeal via the new facilities in the Hartford Times building and continuing community outreach. There will be no charge for exhibits in the new building, which may include shows of works by public school students and contemporary local artists.

Holmes said those are winning strategies for the museum, but it’s unclear how they will affect the museum’s bottom line. The upcoming Modernism show, for example, could be a hit, but the prospect of more Picasso and Dali so soon could keep viewers away. Expanding the museum will allow more art to go on display, satisfying a wider variety of visitors, but this isn’t New York or Washington; Hartford’s relatively sparse museum-going public might not appreciate the accumulation of obscure works.

And then there’s the quite separate issue of keeping the real sources of museum funding happy — the millionaire donors who serve on the board, and the government agencies and grant-making institutions that can determine if a show goes on or, as almost happened in the case of the Colt exhibit, is crossed off the schedule.

“There’s no magic formula,” said Steiner, who was interim director of New London’s Lyman Allyn Art Museum in 2003 and 2004. “It’s a combination of cultivating relationships with donors and corporations that can support the museum, and ways of figuring out ways to do exhibits for less money.”

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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