Back From the Brink
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At what point can it be said that the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford touched bottom? What event, during the troubles that plagued this venerable institution’s past decade, can one point to and say, “It couldn’t get any worse than this”?
More importantly, how could such turmoil nearly swallow the estimable 168-year-old landmark, the largest art museum in the state and oldest public art museum in the nation?
Here’s a brief synopsis of the museum’s recent travails: Since 1996, it has had four directors, three acting directors and a revolving door on its board of trustees. George David, the CEO of United Technologies Corp. (UTC) and board of trustees president known for his personal generosity (donating $5 million of his own money to the Wadsworth and directing UTC to underwrite exhibits and programs), was much embroiled in spats with other board members; he finally resigned from the board in December 2002, a time when the museum badly needed stability. David was, by all accounts, much admired by the staff, from the curators and the administrators to the security guards, but his aggressive leadership rubbed some of his fellow trustees the wrong way. His abrupt resignation led, like falling dominoes, to the departures of five of “his” board members, including such luminaries as Carol LeWitt, artist Sol LeWitt’s wife; Agnes Gund, president emeritus of the Museum of Modern Art; and Jill G. Kraus, a wealthy arts patron.
On her way out the door, New Yorker Kraus took potshots at both the other trustees of the Wadsworth and at Hartford itself, telling tales to The Hartford Courant about “small-town petty bickering” and remarking that “I don’t think Hartford is ever going to be able to regain its position.” In her resignation letter, Kraus further sniped that the Wadsworth was “dying a slow death at the hands of hostage takers.” The “hostage takers” were evidently some of the other trustees, whom she depicted as gossipy, provincial and shortsighted.
While all this was going on in the back rooms, a much-anticipated transformation and modernization of the Wadsworth’s physical plant that would shutter the museum for two years was foundering. The $120 million project, whose controversial design had been championed by David, had to be abandoned in 2003, after David had left and incoming director Willard Holmes let it be known, according to the Hartford Advocate, that he “hadn’t come to Hartford to preside over a closed museum.” (Holmes, for his part, did not last long at the Wadsworth either, resigning two years later—the staff hearing the news, just as it had learned about David’s resignation, from the local media.)
The Atheneum remained open, but some observers began to fear it actually might not survive all the ego clashes and uncertainty. Visitation to the museum faded dramatically, from peaks of 230,000 in 2001 and 181,746 in 2002 down to 108,000 in 2005. The future looked bleak. The bottom had at last been touched.
When current Director Susan Lobowsky Talbott talks about the “bad” years—which she doesn’t enjoy doing—it is almost with a sense of disbelief. She came to Hartford from Washington’s Smithsonian Institution in May 2008, by which time the Atheneum had begun to right itself, albeit very gradually. Lobowsky arrived with her eyes wide open.
“Of course I had heard the stories, but I really felt I needed to come see for myself,” she says, recalling that the public’s perception of the troubles and the reality on the ground that greeted her were miles apart. “I saw that the Wadsworth was on the mend already and that the trustees were serious about moving forward. It was a challenged institution for many years, and part of my job was attending to relationships on all levels. The ship has righted itself much more quickly than I expected. We finished the last two years on budget.”
Talbott first got busy on some museum basics. She cites a number of new grants and initiatives that have improved relations within the local community and region. “Community perception in the past was that we were somewhat elitist,” she says. “We were not surprised to learn this. Elitism is resonant of exclusion, and we’re working toward inclusion. Every museum is engaged with the community or it’s not a viable museum.”
Talbott is also proud that public programs have been well attended and visitor feedback has been positive. Not only has museum attendance risen, but programs like Free Saturday (the last Saturday of each month) and Phoenix Art After Hours (the first Thursday of each month) have taken off.
“Art After Hours is now the event every first Thursday in the entire area,” she says proudly. “The line to get in is out the door and around the block.”
Prior to working at the Smithsonian, Talbott was at the National Endowment of the Arts during the “culture wars.” She never forgot how the Wadsworth back then quite bravely took a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit that the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, D.C., had turned down for fear of the wrath of culture warriors like then Rep. Newt Gingrich and Sen. Jesse Helms.
“It was a smash success,” she says of the Wadsworth’s Mapplethorpe show, yet another item she considered when it came time to decide whether to pull up stakes and come to Hartford.