Back From the Brink
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Like George David, Sellers was fond of the language of hyperbole when describing the Wadsworth’s shining future. As thepress releases and news stories began flying, she and David were like Johnny Cash and June Carter, exchanging song lines in praise of the blindingly bright future. Sellers told ArtNews in October 2001 that the new Wadsworth “has to have the buzz that you really have to see this thing.” She said that she wanted people passing by on Interstates 91 and 84 to be able to see it and, presumably, be fascinated enough to come check it out. David echoed these sentiments, saying the renovation would “carry us for a century or longer” and would put the Wadsworth “at the front rank of public museums and public buildings on a world stage.”
In hindsight, it’s clear the brain trust at the Wadsworth overreached its grasp. They moved too fast for the old institution to keep up, one might say, perhaps in an effort to match the frenetic pace set by other venerable art institutions around the country. In any event, Sellers proved strangely ill-prepared for her new role. In October 2002, with half the money raised for the new plans, she quit, saying her decision had been “influenced by the trauma of Sept. 11,” from which she claimed to be “shell-shocked.” Although she did not resign until more than a year later, Sellers had indeed been in New York City on the day of the attacks and clearly had been jolted by the experience. She did, however, rankle some when she added—in the middle of the biggest fundraising campaign in the institution’s history—that “this is the right moment” for her to resign.
When new Director Willard Holmes, the Canadian former deputy director of the Whitney Museum of Art in New York, arrived in Hartford, his first act was to put the kibosh on the expansion and try to focus on shows that displayed what the Wadsworth had on hand. Though this seemed a commonsensical temporary fix, Holmes’ tenure was fraught with lingering fiscal problems and his inability to connect with the staff. Few were unhappy when he left for the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.
If there is a hero in this saga—someone who all along put the interests of the institution over personal ambition—it is Elizabeth Mankin “Betsy” Kornhauser, the Wadsworth’s chief curator and deputy director, who took over as acting director after Sutton was ousted, and then again after Sellers left.
Kornhauser was long thought to be a favorite to succeed Sutton but was passed over for Sellers. As it happened, though, her return to her role as chief curator was the best thing that could have happened for the Wadsworth in the long run. A self-described “project-oriented Type A personality,” she has never looked back. Indeed, she, like Talbott, seems genuinely baffled that anyone would want to speak of past troubles.
“We did extraordinary things during that time, but the media wasn’t focused on the artistic. The media was just not paying attention,” she says. “The Samuel Colt show was a big success with a local twist that went on a successful national tour. And in fairness to the big expansion plans, gaining more gallery space was not a bizarre idea. We would have been crazy not to consider it. But we’re in a different time. This concept of unlimited growth has been shown to be unsustainable, and we came to terms with that quickly.”
Kornhauser came to the Wadsworth in 1982. Prior to that, she worked as a curator at the Brooklyn Museum while her husband, Stephen Kornhauser, worked as a conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And when he was hired as chief conservator at the Wadsworth, she took a position as a curator.
“I was absolutely bowled over by the collection, much of which had never been seen in publication or was not widely published. I have maintained that we have the most important history of any museum in the U.S. We were showing contemporary art when it was contemporary at the time, but not known as that. No other museum in the U.S. can make that claim. We have the greatest Hudson River School collection in the world. After their extensive tour of Europe, we have now reinstalled the Hudson River School paintings in the Colt Gallery just inside the front door, where they belong.”
That said, it also helped that the genial Kornhauser does not possess the sort of bristling personality that makes enemies.
“You have to be diplomatic,” she says. “People come and go. I realized within the first year I was here that this was one of the great collections of any museum in the world. And that it deserved international recognition, and that it already had it. I could not allow this other stuff to slow me down.”
She and Talbott seem ready to take on whatever challenges loom in the future. Indeed, as she moves forward, Talbott has set for herself an especially formidable challenge.
“Many of the members that were part of George David’s clique were friends and colleagues of mine,” she says. “I know I will have really succeeded when I bring those people back into the fold.”