Museums are a bit like ocean liners, said Willard Holmes about halfway through his tenure as the ninth director of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford. "They take a long time to turn, to change direction."
Mr. Holmes, who will step down from his job when a replacement is found, has managed not only to right the ship but to reset its course toward a sunny future.
When the director took over in March 2003, the nation's oldest public art museum was bobbing on stormy seas. Its previous director had resigned in haste. Soon afterward, George David, the chairman of the museum's board, a trustee for 19 years, quit. Five of his fellow board members followed. A planned $120 million renovation evaporated with those departures.
As Mr. Holmes prepares to change his personal direction, construction is about to begin on a $15.5 million renovation of the former Hartford Times building across from the museum. The Prospect Street landmark with its imposing facade will house Atheneum offices, freeing the main building for more exhibition space. As a cornerstone of the Front Street development, the expanded museum will welcome the community with gallery space, a function room, retail, a restaurant and an arts education studio.
This was a practical and reasoned approach to the museum's need for more space and a desire to broaden its audience. The solution is far less radical and less expensive than the previous proposal, which would have caused the museum to close for two years. And it meshes with Hartford's overall development plan.
Instead of investing in a fancy new building, Mr. Holmes played to the Atheneum's strengths - its history and its collections. He stressed fiscal prudence, recognizing that protecting and building the museum's endowment was the best strategy if it was to afford the risks for which it is known.
Attendance was up 34 percent last year, a tribute to Mr. Holmes' leadership. He is credited with enhancing the Atheneum's profile internationally with the European showing of its Hudson River School paintings.
Willard Holmes was the right captain at just the right time. He put this cultural treasure back on an even keel. We wish him pleasant sailing as he pursues his desire to get involved in something professionally that brings him closer to his first love, the art.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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