When the fences and scrims went up outside the iconic façade of the nation's oldest public art museum this spring, you might have thought it was a conceptual piece, a covering by onetime-Matrix artist Christo.
In the same way, the huge crane alongside Morgan Hall might have been seen as sculptural one-upmanship next to the 50-foot bright-red Calder Stegosaurus in Burr Mall.
But the additions around the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in downtown Hartford are instead signs of the $16 million renovation project, one that will last far longer than a temporary exhibit.
In the midst of the construction, the new, colorful scrims replacing the white fabric along the fences now fairly scream "WADSWORTH: OPEN." Once inside, however, the journey through the galleries and hallways connecting its five buildings is more of a maze than ever, with dead ends, cut-offs and closed staircases.
But there are also surprises at every corner.
Although just 1,000 elements of the museum's 55,000-piece collection are on display, they are reconfigured in several galleries with new paint and rugs, bringing new sheen to the museum's unsurpassed Hudson River holdings and European collection.
Contemporary art — including the favorite super-realist 1971 sculpture by Duane Hanson, "Sunbather," and the more recently acquired toothpick cube by Tara Donovan, "Untitled" — is in a newly installed corner of the third floor of Avery. In a gallery around the corner, the historic paintings of John Trumbull and others stand in a direct line and seem larger than ever.
That means that the museum's most iconic space, the Morgan Great Hall, is emptied of those paintings for now as the roof and its overhead skylight window are repaired, even as the hall's striking wall color — royal red — prepares to get a different, yet undisclosed, hue.
Even the original Wadsworth castle building, which seems to be the only structure not getting extensive renovation, will see an eventual change with refurbished doors, new steps and maybe a new look. Talks are also under way with two contemporary artists to soften or alter the imposing front entrance on a semi-permanent basis, Director Susan L. Talbott says.
All of this activity comes in place of a much-ballyhooed expansion by the acclaimed Amsterdam-based UN Studio design team (chosen in 2001), which would have demolished the most recent of the five buildings in the complex — the Goodwin building, erected in 1969 — and installed a sleek glass connective that never survived its derisive nickname Dustbuster. Its construction also would have closed the museum for at least two years.
Instead, the museum did not close, and vowing to take care of an unchecked leakage problem that closed galleries and threatened storage space, museum officials decided to use a $15 million grant from the state Department of Economic and Community Development for the renovation. Another $900,000 came from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Together, the money will be used for the waterproofing on the facade and roof of the 1910 Morgan building, the 1934 Avery building and Goodwin building.
But smaller grants and donations have allowed other improvements. Much of a $183,000 grant from the Mortensen Foundation helped create a new home for the Hudson River School. Talbott recalls that these galleries, just off the main entrance, "had pink and blue ripped carpeting and pink and blue walls to match."
Current renovations of the office area are through a grant from the Cheryl Chase and Stuart Bear Family Foundation. Renovation of the conference room came from the Darling family, for whom the room is named.
Talbott came to the Wadsworth in February 2008 after the hubbub over the proposed UN Studio project came and went. But she notes that it, and an alternate plan incorporating the Hartford Times building, would have added only 11,000 square feet in gallery space, while the current renovation will add 7,000 square feet. And it's renovation work that was needed anyway.
"These are 125 year old buildings, in some cases," she says.
Shortly before she arrived, the ceiling fell in a second-floor gallery in the Morgan Building.
"No [art]work was damaged," she says. "But we wanted to get this work done before a crisis occurred."
Fully one-third of the galleries are closed during the renovation, but those paying $10 to get in haven't complained, because of the freshened main floor spaces with Hudson River and European treasures, and a series of what Talbott called "important, small, focused exhibits" that have brought in audiences.
Among them have been a collection of Rembrandt portraits that ran from October to January, and the current exhibit "Reunited Masterpieces," which opened in February and continues through May 30.
Upcoming shows include a Sol LeWitt retrospective June 12-Aug. 15 and, from Oct. 2 to Jan. 2, a show of masterworks on paper from the collection that currently is touring nationally. Next year brings a show built around Monet's Water Lilies paintings Feb. 2-June 11 and a show built around the museum's Andrew Wyeth painting "Chambered Nautilus" Oct. 7, 2011- Jan. 9, 2012.
At the same time, a series of shows by contemporary artists in the museum's Matrix series will continue, with shows by Justin Lowe June 2-Sept. 5, Kim Schoenstat Oct. 7- Jan. 9 and Rashaad Newsome Feb. 3-May 1, 2011.
"We have very, very strong exhibitions scheduled," Talbott says, and attendance is on track to be about the same as last year's, nearly 100,000.
Money is being raised for a second phase of the project, which will address storage issues, after basement waterproofing is complete in October, 2011. This will allow galleries now used for storage to be reopened for exhibits.
The grand reopening of the museum in 2012 will allow the museum not only to show more of its collection and stage bigger shows, but also to allow curators to display art in different ways and in different contexts in order to expand and diversify audiences.
To help direct them, new signs and use of space will be employed, Talbott says.
For now, director of facilities Alan Barton, who is managing the project, says replacing both a 30-year old roof and the original one beneath it on the Morgan Building is tough work.
But doing them will allow the museum to reuse the skylights in many galleries. In addition to bringing a controlled natural light into the upper galleries, the renovation work will bring a new glow to the city quite literally: during night events, light will shine from the museum into the downtown sky.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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