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Wadsworth Atheneum Renovations: Firming Up Foundations For The Future


June 16, 2012

In numerous galleries at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 18th-century French statuary, 19th-century furniture and other artworks sit next to crates, vacuum cleaners, tightly wrapped gallery accessories and other mundane tools of the museum trade. These galleries are closed to the public and the lights are off because the lighting fixtures are so old they're dangerous.

Still, the outlook is brighter than two years ago.

"We used to call this tour the leak tour," jokes Susan Talbott, director of the Hartford museum. "Now we call it the horror tour, because the leaks are gone, but there are still holes in the ceiling."

The Atheneum, the nation's oldest public art museum, has spent the last few years getting back to basics, shoring up its foundations. The intent is to restore every square foot of gallery space in the 1842 museum, which recently received $2 million from the state bond commission to kick-start phase two of a two-part renovation now focusing on storage. It's not headline-grabbing, but museum officials are fine with that.

"Old buildings wear out," Talbott says. "The most important thing for us is to do the renovations while at the same time staying open to the public."

That wasn't always the plan.

A decade ago, in June 2002, the Hartford museum was riding a wave, as were many museums and arts organizations across the country. It was a heady time, with booming attendance and record donations, buoyed by a strong economy that opened corporate and personal checkbooks. It planned an ambitious $120 million renovation and expansion project that called for shutting down the museum for several years and then reopen with more of everything – gallery space, public space, restaurant seating, outdoor terraces, and futuristic design that included a pair of double-helix-like, slowly spiraling stairways. It never happened and neither did even less ambitious expansion plans announced a few years later at the former Hartford Times building.

Instead, as museum attendance continued its decline and the economy hit the skids, the museum's leadership turned its focus inward to preserve and perservere.

Today, there are no meetings with international design firms or dramatic unveilings. The museum's executive director and its director of facilities focus on plumbing, lighting and the logistics of shifting priceless art work around various dormant galleries during renovation work. Lately, the talk has been about the basement and readying a few galleries for a few months so that a show can be mounted in the autumn and another in the spring.

"We can't renovate the galleries and open them again until we have a place to store all the things that are in the galleries," Talbott says.

The two-phase renovation project began with repairs to the museum's exterior. The first phase patched up numerous leaks — "we went from being a leaky building to being a dry building," Talbott says — and included new granite front steps and a new exterior Main Street entrance, and improved the roofing and the skylights in Morgan Great Hall. When phase one was finished, the nearly 100-year-old Morgan Great Hall reopened with great fanfare in spring 2011. The walls were returned to gray from deep crimson, closer in hue to its original shade when dedicated by J. Pierpont Morgan as a tribute to his father, Junius Spencer Morgan.

On a parallel track, the musuem has had to tailor its exhibits to live with the reality of the renovations that have shuttered about half of its gallery space. Instead of megashows — like the "Impressionists at Argenteuil" in the peak-attendance year of 2001, the double-whammy of Caravaggio andGeorgia O'Keeffein 1999, another high-attendance year, and Salvador Dalμ in 2000 — Talbott and her staff have focused on gems from the 50,000-piece collection and on what's doable.

Attendance Down

Attendance at the Atheneum is at a 15-year low in 2012, expected to be 95,500 when the fiscal year ends on June 30. This is a drop of more than 6,000 from 2011, which lured in 101,766 people with the help of a blockbuster show focusing on Monet's water lilies. That year was an anomaly in a downward trend, which saw attendance at 95,772 in 2009 and 95,512 in 2010.

That trend coincides with Talbott's arrival after two years without a director. "I came at the end of 2008. Prior to my arrival there was no director, so there were no new shows on the books," she said. "And throughout 2008 and 2009, until we actually started the renovations in 2010, I was closing galleries on an almost daily basis because of leaks. The gallery space for exhibitions was getting smaller and smaller."

Talbott attributes the low numbers for this year on the fact that the galleries have been closed for the renovation, and the comparatively low numbers since 2008 to the economic decline and its effect on the Atheneum's budget. "You expect a decline in attendance when you have less to offer," she said, adding that a wide fluctuation in attendance year-to-year often indicates the attendance generated by one blockbuster show, such as last year's exhibit focusing on Monet's water lilies.

The Wadsworth's downward attendance has been reflected nationally. A 2009 report by the National Endowment for the Arts, in conjunction with the Census Bureau, found that the number of American adults attending arts and cultural events has sunk to its lowest level since 1982, which was when the NEA began conducting the poll.

The NEA study blamed the economy as well as a de-emphasis on arts education, at least in part, for the decline. It found that the share of adults who attended at least one arts event was 34.6 percent, down from 39.4 percent in 2002, which was the last time the survey was conducted. And, those who did attend arts events did so less frequently.

Phase Two

The second phase will focus on interior improvements. So far, the museum has the $2 million in state money, and donations from foundations and individuals: two anonymous gifts totaling $1.9 million, $325,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities, $132,500 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and $50,000 from the Amelia Peabody Charitable Foundation.

But that initial $4.5 million — $2.5 million of which is specifically earmarked for storage improvements — is nowhere near what the museum needs to finish all the work that must be done.

"The second phase, ideally, should cost $14 million. But that number is evolving," says Talbott. "Once you get the engineers involved, they fine-tune the numbers. But until you have the money to hire the engineers, you're just estimating."

Alan Barton, the museum's director of facilities, says that $14 million estimate can be broken down roughly into about $10 million in absolutely necessary improvements, and about $4 million in improvements that will make the museum more comfortable and accessible but which are not absolutely necessary, including restrooms on the second floor, which the museum has never had, and new carpeting in some galleries where it is torn or stained.

David Dangremond of Old Lyme, a professor of art history at Trinity College and the chairman of the board of trustees at the Atheneum, says phase two funding drives are in a "quiet stage.

"We're approaching donors, foundations, other state and national sources of support," Dangremond says. He is confident that the museum will raise all the money it needs, and points to the national grants it already has received. "At the national level, we are being reviewed by our peers and judged to be worthy."

What's Next

There are 54 galleries across five buildings in the Atheneum. Total gallery space is 57,948 square feet. Of that, 32 galleries totaling 23,137 square feet are currently closed. The smallest of the closed galleries are 224 square feet each. The largest is 1,850 square feet.

Talbott said the next big ta-da moment, opening up gallery space for permanent public use, will happen at the end of June, when five small conjoined galleries on the south side of Morgan Great Hall will open for good, with an exhibit, "The Museum Collects." The exhibit, Talbott says, will be about "context," with artworks as well as artworks that might have inspired those artworks. It will run June 30 to Sept. 9.

"We have a chest made by a slave, Willie Howard, and a chest by a craftsman that Willie Howard would have been looking at when he made his chest," Talbott says. "Items like that."

Seven second-floor galleries above Morgan Great Hall, which have been closed to the public for years, will be reopened temporarily for two shows featuring artists with time-honored audience appeal, "Medieval to Monet," from October to January, and a show of Caravaggio and his followers opening in March. Then those galleries will close to the public again until the second phase is done in late 2014.

"We'll do a rudimentary renovation of enough gallery space so that we can open the shows," Talbott says. "Then we will close them to do the real renovation. There's just not enough time, from now until October, to do it all."

Other galleries will open gradually over time, including the Austin Gallery, where the American history paintings hang. Two-thirds of that gallery is blocked off by temporary walls. Artworks are stored behind.

Other second phase goals include improved interior signage to make navigating the museum easier, new exterior signage and new lighting. Especially new lighting. Barton points out the track lighting in the Helen and Harry Gray Court -- 96 units of lighting 48 feet above the floor. "It costs $20,000 just to get up there and change the light bulbs," he says. "We have to hire the riggers, rent the lift, ship it here, get it inside, use it, get it outside, ship it back. The whole process takes several days. We could buy our own lift, but that would cost $85,000."

Barton is hoping for lighting fixtures that could be lowered to ground level, to make their use more cost-efficient. At $20,000, the bulbs are changed only once every three years. "If a bulb burns out in the middle of those three years, it stays burned out," Talbott says.

The director says the money will be spent on phase two projects as it comes in, based on urgency of need. She says if fund-raising for the rest of the project is successful and all the needed work is done, "that should be it for a while in terms of renovation."

One thing that will not be fixed are the cracked terrazzo floors. "You go to any museum in the world, and they have terrazzo floors, and they're cracked," Talbott says. "That's not a problem."

Phase One

The first phase of the project cost $16 million. It was primarily financed by a $15 million state grant that had been set aside to expand the museum into the old Hartford Times building in 2007. That plan was scuttled, freeing up the money to be spent on the existing building.

Barton, who has been at the Atheneum for 40 years, says "the money was supposed to be used for this, and then it was supposed to be used for that, but it wound up being used for what I always thought it should be used for."

That funding was supplemented by a $900,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and an $183,000 grant from the Mortensen Foundation.

During a recent walking tour of the basement, Barton says among other improvements, the first phase solved urgent problems involving water seepage into the basement storage areas.

"You should have seen this place a couple of years ago. There were troughs set along the walls that were collecting dripping water," Barton says. "You could see the damage to the walls all the way up to here," indicating a spot about 2.5 feet off the ground.

The Atheneum's water-infiltration problem is caused by the clay soil around the museum. "Water can't get through the clay, so it takes the path of least resistance, going between the foundation and the clay," he says. "Water in the footing of the building can percolate, rising up the walls.

"The storage areas were unusable and we had to move the art upstairs," he says. "Now they're high and dry. They just need to be retrofitted, get new shelving and climate control and ventilation."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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