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Filling In The Future

As It Looks For A New Director, The Atheneum Contemplates Its Mission

By MATT EAGAN, Courant Staff Writer

November 11, 2007

As the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art prepares for its annual meeting Thursday, it once again finds itself in transition.

Willard Holmes resigned as director in April, and the search for a new director the fifth in 10 years is expected to continue into next year. The new director will face serious challenges.

A proposed expansion into the old Hartford Times building was called off in September because it was too costly. And that expansion already was a scaled-down version of a proposed $100 million expansion contemplated in 2002.

The museum has shown operating losses for most of this decade, and while attendance has stabilized, it's down sharply from the record crowds that gathered in the late 1990s. Operating hours have shrunk, as has the curatorial staff (although many of these positions will be filled by a new director), making it difficult for working people to visit.

The same pressures gripping museums across the nation are felt at the Wadsworth, which also must grapple with Hartford's unique development struggles.

The Wadsworth's traditional patrons are aging rapidly, and the generations after them are not natural museum-goers. The population flight in the last half of the 20th century to the suburbs makes rebuilding such an audience difficult. This is especially true in Hartford, where public transportation is an afterthought, and the natural foot traffic along the Wadsworth's stretch of Main Street is usually limited to those looking to catch a bus.

The hope of the Marriott Hartford Downtown and the Connecticut Convention Center, which deliver visitors to the city, is mitigated by the awkward, if short, walk from the hotel to the museum.

Hotel guests are required to cross Front Street, then navigate a narrow and unpleasant-looking street with fencing on each side to arrive at the back of the museum. From there, they must walk around to the Main Street entrance.

It's not a marathon, but neither is it a pleasant stroll. Finding a back door might be a good place for a new director to start. The desire to hook hotel guests was one of the reasons the Wadsworth was looking to expand into the Times building but now it must find another solution.

A final problem is nostalgia.

The Wadsworth recently collaborated with the Hartford Stage on a production that centered around former director Chick Austin and his legacy. Such collaborations are great for the Hartford arts community.

But the unfortunate side effect of the production was to make people long for the days when Hartford was a bustling, pulsing, thriving city that hosted some of the more popular entertainers and artists of its time.

This yearning for an old Hartford is not unique to Austin's heyday in the '30s.

Consider that the Hartford Times building is still named after a newspaper that stopped publishing 31 years ago. Consider those who bang the drums every few years in hopes we can bring back the Hartford Whalers.

Such misty watercolor memories may let you daydream away a few minutes waiting for coffee but they have no place in the real world.

Certainly not in the search for a new director.

The Wadsworth as it existed under Austin is never coming back because Hartford as it existed when Austin was here is never coming back.

Efforts can be made to turn the city and the museum into something new. Something that is vital and alive but it won't be what it was when, as has been breathlessly recounted, Gertrude Stein was hanging out with Chick.

Any search for a new director must reject the notion that the solution is to be found in the past.

The hope is in the future.

The museum is on more stable financial ground than it has been in recent years and with a major show of ever-popular Impressionist work arriving in February attendance should leap forward in the new year.

Morale is also starting to rebound.

When Holmes announced his resignation, he was praised for lending stability to an organization that had been bouncing from one director to the next. But there was a price to that stability.

Many of those who worked at the museum during Holmes' tenure found him an insular man who alienated employees and others in the Hartford arts scene.

Lifelong staffers suddenly found themselves outside the loop, wondering what was happening at the institution they loved. Some fled, while others were forced to keep their heads down and muddle through.

The disconnect was felt in the Hartford arts community. But in recent months, there have signs that the times are changing.

A show of contemporary Connecticut artists that debuted last year attempted to reach out to the community by allowing artists to select other artists' work to be displayed.

The museum went a step further by acquiring a work from the show by Peter Waite.

More recently, the Wadsworth held a public opening for "again: serial practices in contemporary art," an exhibition of works from the collection of Mickey Cartin.

For the first time in years, Cartin visited the museum. He wasn't alone. Carol LeWitt also attended, the first time in years she had been to the museum.

The museum also reached out to children's author Walter Wick in an effort to appeal to children. Wick created a mystery of visual clues hidden in the museum's collection of masterworks.

Any new director will need to build on this fresh start by becoming a visible force in the Hartford arts community.

But the new director must be more than a cheerleader. The demands of the position are great.

For starters, a new director must have a grasp of how to manage a physical plant that is in need of restructuring. This was going to be a key skill when the expansion was part of the mix and it's even more important now.

The ability to reorganize the Wadsworth, to find additional office space for a cramped staff and reinvent the exhibition space, will be more difficult without the safety net of additional space the Times building would have provided.

Perhaps more important, the new director will be able to hire three curators, potentially shaping the artistic direction of the museum for this all-important decade.

The board has been accused of secrecy during the search for a new director. Others have wondered what is taking so long.

The desire to keep their search out of the spotlight is understandable, presuming potential candidates already have museum jobs and would prefer their own employers not know they are looking for other work.

And complaints about the length of the search won't matter at all if, but only if the new director turns out to be the right person for the job.

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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