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Atheneum's American Art Curator Going to the Met

Elizabeth Kornhauser Promoted the Museum's Fine Collection

Roger Catlin

August 22, 2010

When Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser first came to the Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art more than a quarter of a century ago in her first curatorial job there, some of the greatest holdings of the nation's oldest public museum were in storage.

The Wadsworth did not have a curator of American art and its considerable holdings "had not been on view," she says. "But to the museum's credit, they didn't de-accession it either, which many institutions did."

Through scholarship, enthusiasm, moxie and a few key museum purchases, Kornhauser helped restore the Atheneum's American art, especially the first-rate Hudson River School collection, to international prominence through a number of well-received books and art shows locally and internationally.

"American art has come of age," Kornhauser, 60, said Thursday, on her last day as the Atheneum's chief curator and the Krieble Curator of American Painting and Sculpture. After 25 years in Hartford she will become senior curator of American painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sept. 1.

"No one has to ask why I'd take a job at the Met," Kornhauser said cheerfully. "It's like a dream job for any museum person."

Atheneum Director Susan L. Talbott called it "one of the prize curatorships in the country."

"Although this is bittersweet for all of us who have so respected Betsy over her almost 26-year tenure at the museum, we also understand this is a position she simply could not refuse," Talbott told her staff in June.

As she continued to greet well-wishers in her office this week, Kornhauser said it won't be long until she sees everyone again. Indeed, she'll be back in a month to open the fall's major exhibit, "American Moderns Masterworks on Paper from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 1910-1960," which has been touring this year nationwide, exhibiting at the Amon Carter Museum in Forth Worth February through May and now showing at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine through Sept. 12.

She'll retain a hand in the community as well; her husband, Stephen Kornhauser, will continue as chief Conservator at the Atheneum and the two will maintain their home in West Hartford, where they raised two children, now 21 and 24 and out of the house.

But "American Moderns" is likely to be the last of a number of striking shows Kornhauser has presented at the Atheneum over the past 2 1/2 decades, accompanied by scholarship and handsome books. More than just being a boon to local art patrons, she's managed to shine a light on the museum's collection internationally and restore the Hudson River collection to its previous prominence.

Exhibits of Hudson River School paintings in Australia, German and Italy directly led to graduate school classes on the subject in each of those countries, she says. So it's no boast when she says, "I put our Hudson River School paintings on the map."

It was the Atheneum's plan to revive its Hudson River collection that led to the hiring of Kornhauser in 1983, she said. "Daniel Wadsworth started the museum because he believed American art was as important as art from anywhere else, and he opened the museum in 1844 with what was then cutting-edge contemporary American art, from Frederic Church and Thomas Cole."

The art had fallen out of favor by the 20th century, though, and was virtually unseen during the modern art splash by then-director Philip "Chick" Austin.

Kornhauser grew up in South Kent to New Yorkers who longed for a simpler life after World War II, but still worked in the city. "Both my parents had great interest in collecting art," she said.

Her father loved the painter Marsden Hartley and "introduced me to him when I was little." She'd go on to mount a major Hartley show in 2003 (one that also was seen in Washington and Kansas City), purchasing a Maine-era Hartley for the museum in the process.

Her mother became an accomplished antiques dealer. "I had a Federal period chest of drawers in my closet, and one day it just disappeared. My mother had sold it," Kornhauser recalls.

But the connections with the art and collecting world helped give her a direction as curator, studying in a museum program at Boston University, doing post-graduate work at the Yale Art Gallery and returning for her doctorate at B.U. in 1988. Her dissertation was on Ralph Earl, the little-known American artist whom she helped put in the spotlight with a major exhibition on him that opened first at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., before it came to Hartford.

It was a natural interest to her, Kornhauser said. "I grew up in an 18th century house in Litchfield County, where Ralph Earl did some of his greatest paintings."

His portrait of Elijah Boardman of 1789 connected her to the Met years ago. "They consider it their finest American painting," she said.

Earl also was the subject of one a book she published while in Hartford that began with the major overview "200 Years of American Painting from the Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum" in 1989 and also included "Hudson River School Masterworks from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art" in 2003, the same year as the "Marsden Hartley" catalog.

In the middle of all of this scholarship, Kornhauser was called in as acting director of the museum 2000 and deputy director from 1996-1999 and 2001-2004. Although times were changing for museums, and the corporate money of the '90s began to dry up, she mounted three blockbuster exhibits during her tenure, featuring Impressionists, Picasso and Calder. "My biggest problem was crowd control that year," she said.

One of the most colorful and covered activities during her curatorial reign at the Atheneum concerned a John Frederick Kensett painting, "Niagara Falls," that had been discovered, long neglected, over a photocopier at Eno Memorial Hall in Simsbury. The local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution had lent it to the town, but allowed the museum clean it and research its background. When Simsbury said it wanted to sell the painting at auction to pay for a school project, a tussle emerged over who owned the painting.

As a result, the Atheneum purchased it "at a fair price," Kornhauser says, with money going toward maintenance of the Eno Memorial Hall in Simsbury. In addition, the Atheneum still holds an annual Simsbury Day in which town residents are admitted free. "It was one of the rare occasions where there was a happy ending for everyone," Kornhauser says.

Her immediate task when she gets to the Met next month will be reinstalling the American Painting wing that's been closed for three years and is set to reopen in January 2012. But she imagines that her job will be completely different than the one she's had in Hartford. Because a majority of the annual attendance of more than 5 million visitors at the Met are from other countries, her task will be to introduce foreign audiences to American art.

Kornhauser says her Atheneum departure opens the door for younger curators on her staff. They include Erin Monroe, acting curator of American paintings and sculpture, and Alyce Perry Englund, curatorial fellow of American decorative arts.

"I've worked happily with this collection for 25 years," she says. "It's time for fresh eyes to take over. I'm excited about that."

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.
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