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The Atheneum's Next Stage

Editorial By Courant

October 07, 2007

How disappointing that the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art has backed out of plans to expand to the adjacent Hartford Times building. But given its present financial woes and lack of permanent leadership, cancellation of the museum's lease agreement with the state makes long-term sense.

Acting Director Coleman Casey is realistic in recognizing that tackling a project the institution can't afford would be a huge mistake. Ask the folks at the Mark Twain museum who went ahead with an $18 million visitors center when it didn't have all the money in hand. To pay for the building, the Twain House amassed an $11 million debt before getting a $3.5 million boost from the state and refinancing.

The Atheneum is starting to rebound from a board upheaval and a period of low attendance. It was operating in the red until recently. It has had four directors in the past 11 years. It needs to attract a director who can breathe new life into a venerable institution that has failed to change with the community.

That is a big enough job for now. Expansion can wait.

It may have fallen on hard times, but the museum still has the strong collections and curators that make it a jewel among public museums. It needs parking and a more inviting front entrance. It could use someone with the panache of A. Everett "Chick" Austin, the legendary young visionary who was hired to direct the Atheneum in 1927 and set the institution and Hartford on fire. Under his still-talked-about regime, the museum became an arts center of international scope.

As it happens, Chick Austin is the subject of the next Hartford Stage Company production, opening Oct. 13. "Chick, The Great Osram" by David Grimm was commissioned by the theater company and will be directed by its artistic director, Michael Wilson.

Mr. Austin is an apt subject for a play because he famously included the theatrical arts in his vision for the museum, with avant-garde productions. In a collaboration that ought to become a habit, Atheneum members will get discounts for the play. Stage subscribers will get discounts for an Atheneum exhibit "Magic Fašade: The Austin House," the landmark home of the imaginative director.

This alliance has good karma. There's no better current example of the power of leadership than the Hartford Stage. Under Mr. Wilson for the past decade, it has polished its reputation as one of the premiere regional theaters in the country. As it enters its 44th season, the company, after years of deficits, is financially stable. Its recent production of "Our Town" was among the best-attended shows ever.

Hartford Stage Company's fortunes should be an inspiration to the Atheneum board and all who wish to see the nation's oldest public art museum invigorated. It opted for renovations to its Church Street theater and added to its endowment rather than undertake an expensive expansion. Good management is more important than a new building.

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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