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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In 1949, Manhattan’s Whitney Museum, which then owned Benton’s “The Arts of Life in America” murals, was planning a move uptown in Manhattan. The Bentons by that time were already passé—figurative works in an age of nonobjective art. Rumors began to spread in the art community that the Whitney was willing to dump them for cheap. Benton had always been a truculent, irascible bully who believed he had been gypped out of his proper fee for the murals because he was drunk when he sold them to the Whitney’s formidable director, Juliana Force.
“So when the Whitney decided it would get rid of the murals, Mr. Stanley—Alix Stanley—provided the $500,” Hyland continues, referring to a scion of New Britain’s pre-eminent hardware family. “Sandy Low admired Benton, thought he was a terrific artist, and got [Stanley and the museum] to buy the works.” Hyland leans in, his rich onyx eyebrows knitting over his cornflower blue eyes, his voice dipping confidentially. “Do you know it cost more to hire a crane and transport it than it cost to buy the paintings?”
The story is vintage art-history marginalia, but it is a telling one for Hyland. Curatorial coups, like the acquisition of the Bentons, are born out of a mixture of discernment, tenacity, persuasion, money—and friendships. With his debonair manner and delectable flair for storytelling, Hyland builds his brand every day, even as he maneuvers deftly from patrician to plebian, paying equal attention to the champagne flutes and the rest-room faucets.
“You cannot fall asleep when you’re listening to Douglas,” says Cheryl Chase. “There’s definitely his prep-school brand that comes through—in a good way.”
“Douglas is an expert hand-shaker,” says Dr. Timothy P. McLaughlin, one of the museum’s longtime supporters and former chairman of its board of trustees. “He’s charismatic and able to infect others with his enthusiasm. He engages you by making you feel that you’re smarter than you really are.”
Museum directors come in all flavors. There’s the European hauteur of former Metropolitan Museum Director Philippe de Montebello, who upon departing told an interviewer, “I am the Met, and the Met is me”; the striking and donnish Peter Sutton, currently of the Bruce Museum and formerly of the Wadsworth; and the raffish Patrick McCaughey, former director of the Yale Center for British Art as well as the Wadsworth. Hyland is neither as baronial as Montebello, as patrician as Sutton nor as droll as McCaughey.
A fervent exerciser, clocking miles on his treadmill before dawn or swimming laps at the New Britain YMCA, Hyland is an avid gardener and discriminating diner, and is married to professor Tita Hyland, who teaches the history of Asian art at Trinity College. The Hylands are keen travelers, but in spite of his elevated tastes Hyland’s personal style is decidedly down-to-earth.
“You could do me a favor here,” he says, strolling out into the museum’s lobby in seersucker pants and a chalk-blue oxford with turquoise and teal pinstripes, cinched by a royal blue-and-gold bow tie. “Are those paintings too low?” His black Gucci loafers slap on the museum’s hardwood floors. “Do you think so? Yes, I think they are.”