We hear incessantly about the future of Hartford, from the question of who will be mayor (yawn) to the pointless scheming to bring back NHL hockey.
But much too quietly the Wadsworth Atheneum - a national treasure that annually lures thousands to Hartford - struggles along, searching for a director at one of the most critical moments in its 165-year history.
"This institution's reputation has been injured by a variety of things that have happened to it that have nothing to do with the strengths of its collection and curators," said Coleman H. Casey, president of the board of trustees. "That makes it hard to recruit a new director."
If ever America's oldest continuously operated public art museum needed bold and charismatic leadership, it is now. Declining attendance, an indifferent suburban clientele, deficit spending and a director's office with a revolving door haven't helped. Five years after the bitter departure of former board of trustees President George David, the chairman of UTC, finances remain uneven.
"We need the greatest leader we can find," said Casey, who is interim leader after the abrupt exodus of Willard Holmes - the fourth director in 11 years.
It won't be easy. Across the country, two dozen leading museums are looking for directors. After a disappointing first effort, the Wadsworth recently re-opened its search.
The museum is emerging from a tough stretch, with its $9 million budget balanced for the first time in years. A blockbuster Impressionist exhibit will arrive in early 2008, while a show of contemporary art opens this weekend.
"There are many, many people of all stripes and colors coming through here," Casey said. "Hartford is in a turnaround situation."
There are successful new programs, including the recurring "Art After Hours" featuring music, food and drinks. A recent free Saturday at the museum drew huge crowds. The Amistad Center for Art and Culture has forged new relationships.
Critics say the Wadsworth hasn't spent enough time worrying about its own backyard. The Main Street entrance remains foreboding and without parking. Suburban patrons aren't cultivated. Art activists say the city's rich ethnic diversity is often ignored.
The sober view is the Wadsworth needs a prolific fundraiser and a status-quo administrator, somebody who balances budgets, fixes old buildings and navigates fragile museum politics. Meanwhile, rumors remain about the viability of the museum's scaled-down $15.5 million expansion plans for the neighboring Hartford Times building.
More than one art world insider told me no one in their right mind would take the Hartford job because of the trustees, who are said to be overly involved in day-to-day museum management. Casey acknowledged this was once a problem, but that has changed.
As it considers the usual safe suspects, the Wadsworth should look to 1927, when the museum took a legendary gamble and hired an adventurous 26-year-old impresario.
A. Everett "Chick" Austin shoved the Wadsworth into the modernist era and turned this city into a vibrant, pulsing center of cutting-edge culture. His Scarborough Street villa, his artistic risk-taking and savvy showmanship are still talked about. In an ironic coincidence, the Hartford Stage next month will produce "Chick, the Great Osram," reminding all of what the Wadsworth could be.
"We want to find the next Chick Austin," Casey told me, optimistically. "Frankly, it is going to be a difficult task."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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