November 16, 2006
By FRANK RIZZO, Courant Staff Writer
After four years of leadership regrouping, mission revising and real estate dealing, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art is about to turn its long-sought expansion into a physical reality.
Construction will begin in the spring on the $15.5 million renovation of the former Hartford Times Building on Prospect Street, a literal cornerstone of the Front Street development in Adriaen's Landing. The museum's new building - which is being leased from the state for 99 years - will open in the fall of 2008.
The refitted 55,000-square-foot structure will have a more versatile public profile than originally envisioned, with a cafe/restaurant, retail store and a large education arts studio off its airy street-level entrance. A 7,500-square-foot open space on the second floor will be home to multiple uses, including gallery shows, performances and programs, and banquets that can seat 450 people.
The grand portico of the former newspaper building - which acted as a photo-friendly backdrop for visits by Presidents Kennedy, Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson and Truman during campaign stops in Hartford - will remain a centerpiece of the facade. The concrete wall on Prospect Street blocking the first floor from the public will be removed, opening up the building from the street level. The design of the back of the building will be determined once the look of the Front Street development is decided.
The top two floors of the four-story building will house administrative offices and meeting rooms, and the basement will be used primarily for storage.
The first phase of the museum's expansion plans was announced at the annual meeting of the board of trustees Wednesday evening.
"I see the first two floors of the new building as a community cultural center and a destination place," said museum director Willard Holmes, in an interview before the board meeting. "All the spaces in the new building are being integrated and will operate as close to 24/7 as possible."
Holmes announced plans for a new endowment drive to stabilize finances, not only for the new building but for the entire museum complex. The campaign, which will be targeted exclusively for operating expenses, is expected to be started next spring or summer. Holmes said that if he were to estimate the museum's needs, he would project a $40 million campaign, which would spin off $2 million annually in perpetuity. But he said that the campaign goal will have to be fixed once the Atheneum determines how much can be raised.
The museum is already off to a spectacular start. Holmes announced a $5 million anonymous gift, the largest single lump sum from a living donor in decades.
"This is a great vote of confidence," said Holmes of the gift from the person "who knows the museum, knows what the museum has been through and what the museum is doing right now."
The new building and the new fund-raising drive are expected to refocus the museum.
The museum's previous drive collapsed amid board conflicts in 2002 over the campaign and United Technologies Chairman George David's resignation as head of the museum board. That $100 million-plus comprehensive campaign included a massive renovation of the Atheneum at 600 Main St., a new building, endowment and programming. And it would have shut down the Atheneum for at least three years. Since the end of that drive, as the museum adjusted to new leadership and restated its goals, it accumulated $73.5 million in money and pledges, including $15 million from the state.
But that figure is misleading, Holmes said, because much of the money has been spent on preservation projects, the existing endowment and creating a multimillion-dollar reserve that has reduced annual deficits over the past few years. The $73.5 million includes about $20 million collected from annual giving donations.
Holmes said that the museum has the money to pay for the $15 million in costs for the Times Building renovation, but that additional money is needed to ensure the museum's financial future.
Although the museum has a separate $87 million endowment, only one-third of it is targeted for operating expenses. The rest is tied to specific purposes, such as education and acquisitions.
The museum's budget has remained steady for the past four years at $9 million annually, but expenses - including soaring utility costs - have risen. Despite an increase in the annual fund and a major rise in attendance of 34 percent in the past year, the museum faces a deficit of $284,062 for the fiscal year ended June 30, even with the help of $1.5 million from a strategic reserve. Another $1.5 million remains in the reserve.
"The sooner we get the endowment raised, the sooner these holes can be plugged," Holmes said. "It is only endowment that is going to stabilize this institution."
Holmes said that the new building will increase operating expenses by an estimated $250,000 to $300,000 annually, but that it will be offset by operational savings from the main complex and increased revenue streams from the new building, such as rentals for many of its private and public spaces. "Our goal is to make this a budget-neutral building," Holmes said.
As employees and materials transfer from the Main Street complex of buildings to the new Prospect Street building, the Atheneum will gain about 15 percent to 20 percent in exhibit space in the main complex, and about 15 percent in storage space. The Atheneum will continue to operate as it gradually creates the new gallery spaces. The museum gift shop will remain in the main building. There will be food service, but it will be set up differently from the current restaurant.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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