Back From the Brink
(page 2 of 3)
Above and beyond any other considerations, though, the Wadsworth’s world-class collections were what attracted Talbott. Among its 50,000-item holdings are priceless collections of porcelain, Early American furniture and decorative arts, an unrivaled assemblage of Hudson River School paintings, French and American Impressionist works, much-coveted paintings by Salvador Dalí and other surrealists like de Chirico, Max Ernst, René Magritte and Joseph Cornell, and modernists like Sol LeWitt and Ellsworth Kelly, and 4,000 works of European art from the Middle Ages to the present.
“It’s not just the collections either, but the exhibition history of the Wadsworth, all the great world-class shows that have been installed here,” Talbott says. “This institution is important—the size, scope, depth and quality of the collections. Everyone knows the Wadsworth. When I go to Europe, they treat me like I’m the head of the Metropolitan, because of our incredible European art holdings.”
Her attachment to the collections extends to her office, where she is constantly hanging neglected art. Here, you find a revolving, self-selected display of works that are not needed for current exhibits but warrant being brought out of storage. Currently on her walls are two Yves Tanguy landscapes and “Kiss in the Night,” an unusual Max Ernst work from 1927.
“My office is a holding pen,” she says, waving delightedly at the treasures. “This is about the sixth time I’ve changed the art since I’ve been here. I can’t live happily solely as an administrator, which is what I was at the Smithsonian. I started as a curator and always want to be curating.”
Though Wadsworth officials are understandably averse to dwelling on the past, their travails make a good cautionary tale for other arts venues, just as their current comeback has demonstrated the importance of institutional resilience.
Before hitting rough times, the Wadsworth was one of the most respected art institutions in the nation, one with a stellar international reputation for its collection and the generosity with which items were loaned to other museums. With two successive extraordinary director-scholars at the helm, Aussie Patrick McCaughey (1987-1996) and Connecticut native Peter C. Sutton (1996-2000), the museum hosted stunning shows like Caravaggio and his Followers, Salvador Dalí’s Optical Illusions, Andy Warhol: About Face, and the blockbuster Impressionists at Argenteuil, which drew 97,000 visitors—a Wadsworth record.
As these major shows were mounted, however, the inadequacy of gallery space was becoming painfully obvious. Only 4 percent of the museum’s collection could be displayed at any given time. The rest had to be stored off-site, necessitating the extra expense of separate safe and secure facilities (whose whereabouts are guarded secrets).
When it was announced in 2000 that the Wadsworth would undergo the most extensive renovation and expansion in its history, one that would necessitate closing for two years, it did not cause much of a stir. Indeed, it seemed like the natural progression of things, like the Museum of Modern Art moving to Queens for three years while the Manhattan mothership got a $650 million face-lift or Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts’ never-endi g construction project .
The goal at the Wadsworth was daunting, however: to unite five buildings built between the years 1842 and 1969 under one massive roof. One of the buildings (the leaky-roofed Goodwin, the most recently built) was to be razed and replaced with a new building that held 14,700 square feet of gallery space, augmenting the expansions elsewhere that would, in total, increase gallery space by 35 percent. Even the state government, which had money back then, kicked in for the project. Fred Carstensen, the director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis at the University of Connecticut, estimated that the improved Wadsworth would bring in $1.3 million in new tax revenue and $2.5 million in new personal income per year, as well as create 216 jobs. For every $1 the state spent on expansion, it would get back $42 in tax revenue, according to Carstensen.
So, what in the world happened?
Well, the cutting-edge design created by the Dutch architectural firm UNStudio probably didn’t help much. Looking now at the original architectural model for the proposed expansion, it’s a wonder the project got as far along as it did—perhaps a tribute to the persuasiveness of George David. Modernism may wow them in Amsterdam, but not so much in Hartford, the Insurance City, the heart of the Land of Steady Habits.
Beyond the über-hip design, the depictions of a golden future for the Wadsworth sounded a little too good to be true, especially in an economically challenged city like Hartford, from which most white-collar workers head back to suburban homes at the end of the day. Despite these warning signs, the new design was unveiled and trumpeted far and wide. The icing on this magnificent cake was to be architect Maya Lin, who had reportedly signed on to design the surrounding landscape. The project was set to begin in 2004 and take 24 to 30 months to complete, with a projected 2006 reopening.
If anyone could be said to embody the high-wire act that the Wadsworth had become, it was Kate M. Sellers, who was named director in November 2000 after Peter Sutton had been ousted by the David-controlled board of trustees. Of her decision to take the Wadsworth job, Sellers told the Waterbury Republican-American, “There were certainly sexier parts of the country . . . but certainly not more alluring institutions.”
A strikingly tall, athletic and articulate woman, Sellers was blessed with prodigious energy, had hiked the Grand Canyon six times and was fluent in French. Following in the wake of the erudite McCaughey and Sutton, she seemed the perfect person to pull off the museum’s grand plans. Though she had never organized an art exhibit or authored an exhibit catalog and was not, by her own admission, an art scholar, she was renowned for her fundraising prowess. And money was what the Wadsworth needed to implement its transformation.