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The Two Susans

Could it be the dawning of a new era for the Wadsworth Atheneum?

Daniel D'Ambrosio

December 04, 2008

Last year I wrote a cover story about the Wadsworth Atheneum Art Museum on Main Street in downtown Hartford that was pretty gloomy. I used words like "dysfunctional" and "debacle."

I recounted how a $120-million capital campaign to fund a major makeover of the museum by a famous Dutch architect had gone down in flames, taking the support of United Technologies Corporation Chairman and Chief Executive Officer George David with it. David apparently was fond of the design and abruptly quit the museum's Board of Trustees after it was rejected, taking five more wealthy board members with him.

I pointed out the museum had gone through three directors in 10 years; that many of the museum's best works were sent away on extended tours to clear the way for the renovation that now wasn't going to happen, leaving locals without their favorite paintings; that the last director had been forced to cancel a show of Colt firearms for lack of support until a donor stepped in to save the day with $300,000.

When the story ran in July 2007, the Wadsworth didn't have a permanent director. It was being run by senior staff, and Board President Coleman Casey. Plans to move offices and storage into the nearby Hartford Times building were themselves stalled. Since then, the Wadsworth has backed out of buying the Times building, realizing it would be a drain on the bottom line the museum could not sustain. There's more. But you get the picture.

Well, now the two Susans have arrived Susan Rottner, the new board president, and Susan Lubowsky Talbott, the new director of the museum, bringing with them a new sense of optimism among long-time Wadsworth watchers.

"I think the two Susans make a great team to lead the board and the staff and volunteer efforts there," said Ken Kahn of the Greater Hartford Arts Council. "They have complementary skills and perspectives."

Rottner is the former president of Bank of America in Connecticut, spending 35 years in the finance industry. Talbott most recently served as director of Smithsonian Arts in Washington, D.C., which comprises the nine arts organizations under the Smithsonian umbrella, including the National Portrait Gallery and the Hirshhorn Museum.

Before that she ran the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa, and the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, N.C. She was also high up in the National Endowment for the Arts.

During her interview process for the Wadsworth job, Talbott showed up anonymously at the front desk of the museum, digging through her purse for the Association of Art Museum Directors card that would get her in free.

"I showed my little card and the woman at the front desk was very, very rude," said Talbott.

The prospective director came back a second time, dressed casually, and started chatting up different staff who were "very, very curt." Next she checked with a rich friend who lives in Connecticut and runs a "big famous foundation" that gives lots of money to museums. He told her he was typically treated the same way.

Once Talbott was hired, the fate of the staff with whom she had secretly interacted was sealed.

"We really shook it up and now we have friendly people downstairs," said Talbott.

Talbott said her "biggest and most interesting challenge" is to regain the trust and interest of the community. Step number one has been to hold a series of "chatback" sessions with eight constituencies identified by staff: downtown neighbors, educators, social service groups, artists, African Americans, Latinos, young professionals, and suburban neighbors.

Talbott and her staff have already held five of the eight sessions, which she describes as a cross between a focus group and a town hall meeting "not as scientific as a focus group or as big as a town hall meeting." Only African Americans, young professionals and suburban neighbors remain.

"We want to listen, we want to hear what we're doing right, but also what we're doing wrong," said Talbott.

At the recently completed Latino chatback, one man said the Wadsworth changed his life, pushing him into a creative field because of his visits to the museum as a kid. Another said the Wadsworth was his safe haven.

"If he just wanted to get away, he would come here, walk through the galleries and look at art," said Talbott.

But not everything Talbott heard was so uplifting.

"People said, 'We don't come to this museum because we don't feel welcome,'" she said.

Friendlier folks at the front desk should help with that. But Talbott will also be looking to roll out a modest slate of new programs that will show the community the Wadsworth is serious about welcoming them through its doors, and playing a larger role in city life. There may be ethnic festivals. The wall labels in the museum might be revamped, and printed in Spanish as well as English. The museum will reach out to the city's poor kids with new programs done jointly with organizations like Children in Need. There's also low-cost parking available now in the Front Street garage during the week.

To build excitement around museum shows, Talbott said she's planning to bring in "small groupings of major masterpieces" from museums around the world in the coming year, but she wasn't yet ready to give any details.

The Wadsworth is a collection of five buildings dating from the 1840s to the 1960s, juxtaposed in an incongruous jumble. Talbott acknowledges the castle front intimidates some people, and she's determined to soften it up.

"There was a big ugly sign that one of my predecessors called the sermon sign," said Talbott. "Oh, yeah, that's gone. It was dirty and ugly and wrong, and it's gone."

Talbott also saw to it that muddy and bare spots around the museum were planted this spring and that weeds are pulled.

More ambitious plans are in the works, partially funded by the $15 million in state money the Wadsworth won't be spending on the Hartford Times building. Rottner said the building exteriors will be addressed, and the leaky roofs in the Goodwin and Morgan buildings will be fixed.

Talbott would like to project images of works of art onto the outside of the Wadsworth as she did at the Hirshhorn. She wants to make the galleries inside "dazzling," with new lighting and carpets.

"Some of our carpeting is not only ripped but ugly very old and outdated," said Talbott. "Gorgeous Morgan Hall needs to be painted, desperately. It hasn't been painted in at least a decade."

Talbott will need to raise about $200,000 to address these immediate renovations to the galleries. She said she has already applied to a local foundation for funds for the interior work while the state-funded exterior work is going on.

Will K. Wilkins, executive director of Real Art Ways, has known Talbott since 1990, when she was with the NEA, and said he was "pleasantly surprised" to learn she would be coming to Hartford to run the Wadsworth.

"She's a very accomplished professional in the field," he said.

Talbott said the reason for her move to Hartford is simple.

"It was this amazing collection of the highest quality that attracted me to come here," she said.

And therein lies the challenge for the Wadsworth, which Rottner believes Talbott is well on her way to addressing.

"The museum has a wonderful reputation nationally and internationally, yet in our own community, for whatever reason, we simply were not as illustrious as we ought to be, not as outreaching as we need to be," Rottner said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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