Can the re-creation on stage of the Wadsworth Atheneum's glorious past inspire the museum to new greatness, or will it serve as a sad realization of the limits of its present?
Just as Hartford Stage is presenting "Chick, the Great Osram," about the museum's expansive era under its dynamic director A. Everett "Chick" Austin, the nation's oldest public museum is in fortress mode.
Earlier this month, museum leaders nixed plans to expand into the former Hartford Times building as too costly. That project - announced with great fanfare at last November's annual meeting - was already a downsized expansion. Former board president George David wanted the museum to dream - and fund-raise - big, with a $100 million-plus project that would unite and expand the Atheneum's multiple buildings into a new architecturally blockbuster whole. But that was five years ago, and that plan blew up when David left the board.
Currently, the museum has no director. Coleman Casey, the board president, is filling in until a new director - its fifth in 10 years - is named. Who and what type of new leader will be chosen for this era of diminished expectations is a mystery.
Stagnant, status quo, secretive: These are words that now come to mind when thinking about the museum.
But the nature of its troubles also is sending ripples of doubt beyond the museum walls.
It was widely assumed by arts leaders that the real "money" board was at the Atheneum, but with this latest retrenchment, one must wonder if there is real money out there anywhere, and what this means to other arts groups soliciting for private support. Are the depths of pockets shallow? Is philanthropic giving fundamentally changed? Is Hartford seen as a smart investment?
It might not be fair to compare the excitement created by Austin during his tenure from 1927 to 1945 and the transformative change he had on the museum - not to mention Hartford and the American art scene, "when the insurance capitol of the world became the greatest risk taker in the country," as Eugene R. Gaddis writes in his biography, "Magician of the Modern: Chick Austin and the Transformation of the Arts in America."
It may also be romantic to see Austin's era as ideal and without serious challenge. After all, Austin faced a largely conservative board that often resisted change and saw the museum as its private club. "Mr. Austin, do you think it wise to have the general public rampaging through our museum," one trustee said.
The museums leaders were also not particularly enthralled with his modern art purchases. For every contemporary piece, Austin had to buy many more "old world" classics.
And while many in the community embraced Austin's activities, the feeling was far from unanimous.
Gaddis suggests the fundamental steady-habits strata below the surface when he quotes former Gov.Jonathan Trumbull to his son: "You appear to forget, sir, that Connecticut is not Athens."
One of the most jaw-dropping anecdotes of provincialism in Gaddis' stunning biography comes when the charismatic director brought choreographer George Balanchine to America from Russia to start a ballet company at the museum. The idea of a museum as a center for all arts - dance, film, theater, music, as well as visual - was one that Austin feverishly promoted. A group of local private dance instructors paraded to the museum to object that this immigrant and his proposed dance school would cut into their business.
"There's never been anyone like Chick," says Gaddis, who says Austin was the right person at the right time for the museum.
On the museum side, Austin benefited from a new mother lode of financial gifts to the Atheneum, which permitted massive purchases and an expansion that allowed his vision of a multi-disciplinary arts center possible.
Then there was the larger world, too, that made Austin's reign golden. The time between the world wars "was probably the most culturally revolutionary period," says Gaddis, pointing to the emergence of film, radio and early television, to radical experiments on stage, music, dance and art, to a wave of artist immigrants eager to create in their new world, to innovations in travel, communications and industry. "Modernism was changing by the month. There's never been a time like that."
"The world is very different now from the one Chick Austin lived," says Gaddis. "If Chick were alive today, he'd have different expectations about working for an art museum."
Museums, indeed, have changed; boards, too. The resistance to modern art has largely subsided, and sophisticated tastes and outreach have become the norm. But other issues, such as that of governance, remain, and the image of privilege and privacy still persists.
And as for directors, they now have to be accountants as well as connoisseurs, business executives as well as art scholars, fundraisers as well as cultural impresarios. ( Austin was a marvel at finding the funds to pay for his many arts initiatives.)
"The museum is united in wanting a director who can build in what we've done and to do new and exciting things," says Gaddis. " But sometimes you have to shift gears."
It would be folly to look for another Austin, but it would also be a mistake not to forget how a person's artful passion can make such a difference.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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