What’s that buzz in New Britain? It’s the New Britain Museum of American Art and its erudite, energetic, thoroughly enjoyable director, Douglas Hyland.
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When Douglas Hyland tells the story of how the famous Thomas Hart Benton murals made their way to the New Britain Museum of American Art, his voice takes on the grave, conspiratorial whisper of someone about to let you in on a juicy piece of gossip. Hyland, who has been the museum’s executive director since 1999, has a mellifluous voice—a baritone with the pedigreed inflection and cadence of a boarding-school background. It is the voice of someone bigger and beefier—he is boyish of frame, meticulous and dapper—but it lends him a gravitas and a kind of sherry-sipping clubbiness that has helped the 60-year-old Bay State native raise more than $27 million for a formerly admirable-but-neglected museum that has become one of the state’s jewels.
Since 2003, when it added the 43,000-square-foot Chase Family Building, named for the Hartford area family that has been one of the museum’s most generous supporters, the New Britain Museum of American Art has more than doubled in size. It has also more than doubled its annual number of visitors to nearly 90,000, including 19,000 visitors to its American Art Gallery at Theaterworks in Hartford, an outreach Hyland spearheaded to give the main campus more visibility.
In an economy roiled by recession, causing draconian cutbacks at many museums and the closing of others, the New Britain Museum of American Art boasts an income, $3.1 million, that is higher than last year’s $2.7 million. In the 10 years since his arrival, Hyland has doubled its collection to 10,000 objects. He has also doubled its full-time staff, from 12 to 24, doubled the number of docents, to 100, and more than doubled museum membership, from 1,200 to 3,500. Consider, in contrast, the nearby, much larger Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, which in the last 10 years has seen five directors, three acting directors and much internal turmoil while its annual visitors have dropped by more than 50 percent during that time.
Prior to Hyland’s arrival, Cheryl A. Chase, executive vice president and general counsel of Hartford-based Chase Enterprises, was only dimly aware of the New Britain museum. She and her mother, Rhoda, are now among its top boosters. “He has put the New Britain museum where it rightly belongs—on the map,” she says.
If the New Britain museum was known for anything when Hyland arrived in 1999 from the San Antonio Museum, where he was director, it was for its glorious Thomas Hart Benton murals—five celebratory anthems to the American spirit painted at the height of the Depression with the artist’s trademark elongation and distortion. As Hyland tells it, Benton was a painting and drinking buddy of Sanford B. D. Low, the museum’s first director. Benton and Low were among the raucous but talented circle (James Cagney was another) who spent summers in Hart Haven, a swath of Martha’s Vineyard owned by William H. Hart (no relation to Benton), the president of New Britain’s Stanley Works. Low was married to Hart’s daughter.
“Well, Benton and Low had painted together on the Vineyard,” Hyland begins. “Low was a half-Hawaiian, half-preacher’s son artist—very charismatic.” Hyland folds his arms over his chest and stares thoughtfully toward Walnut Hill Park, the Frederick Law Olmsted showpiece that sits virtually in the museum’s back yard.