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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Hyland has been known to pick up stray, nearly microscopic dust particles on the floor, spy an otherwise indiscernible smudge on the glass of a picture frame, even grab a vacuum and hose away while an exhibit is being installed. He does all this in his impeccable-but-whimsical wardrobe, which tilts toward vibrant colors, exquisite fabrics (his older brother runs Christopher Hyland Inc., a high-end textile firm) and fanciful cuff links.
The son of a sculptress mother and attorney father, Hyland was working as a Delaware banker in the 1970s before the mind-numbing sterility of the job began to dampen his enthusiasm. “It could not have been more boring,” he says, sitting on the terrace of the museum, which overlooks the park. “There was no originality. There was no yearning for a better world, or even a dream for a humanist idea toward the betterment of mankind. It was devoid of all spiritual value.”
On a whim, he took a class in American decorative arts at a local university and was hooked. Within the space of a few years, he earned his Ph.D at the University of Delaware, where his dissertation concerned 19th-century American sculptural representations of George Washington, whom Hyland calls “the greatest American who ever lived.” For Hyland, New Britain, and its devotion to American art, was a perfect fit.
“Here we have everything you would ever need to get an A-plus in American history,” he says. Moreover, the museum has benefited from increasing critical interest in and respect for American art. “In a way, this museum is like a microcosm of American society. You had these industrialists here in town and what did they study? Greek, Latin, ethics and man’s relationship with nature. They wanted to do good works because God had shined on them. So they created this institute.”
When Hyland came to the museum, its board of trustees knew the place needed more space if it ever hoped to gain an audience. In many ways, the expansion was 70 years in the making. Chartered in 1853, the museum began as the New Britain Institute, an umbrella educational and artistic organization for the betterment of the city’s citizens, particularly its growing immigrant population. In 1903, John Butler Alcott left the institute $25,000 to buy “original modern oil paintings either by native or foreign artists.”
Advised by Bryson Burroughs, then curator of paintings at the Metropolitan Museum, that their money would go further if they bought American art, the thrifty and philanthropic institute members did just that, rarely spending more than $1,000 for works of art that are now worth millions.
In the mid 1920s, the wealthy widow Grace Judd Landers was ready to give the institute an enormous donation to create a new gallery. But she lost her fortune in the 1929 stock market crash and the best she could do was to bequeath her house as a museum, which she did in 1934.
“The Landers house was probably a lovely home,” Rhoda Chase, mother of Cheryl, concedes diplomatically, but “it was not a mansion—it was just a nice house.”
To build a grander, more suitable home many years later, the board of trustees settled on Hyland, the director at the San Antonio Museum of Art who had earlier spearheaded a $35 million renovation of the Birmingham Museum. “Before he came, the New Britain Museum was the best-kept secret in the state,” says Rhoda Chase. “A museum cannot be a secret. He’s brought life into it.”
Hyland insists it’s a simple formula. “The collection is worthy of national attention,” he says flatly. “If you keep that in mind always, you realize there are people out there who want it to be better.” One of the tricks is asking outside of New Britain—places like the Walton Family Foundation, the Fidelity Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation and the Lehman Foundation, all previously untapped. “I am convinced that if you have a worthy, compelling case, people will support you.”
“He is such a master of understanding how to bring people together,” says Maura O’Shea, deputy director at the museum. “Every day, there were people in the museum—there for breakfast, lunch and dinner, every day—turning over every rock looking for donors.” Eventually, Hyland came up with 1,000 contributors, enough for the renovation, which came in on time and on budget.
“Every now and then you get a prophecy, right?” Hyland asks, his blue eyes flashing. “We started out by saying, ‘If we had a larger building, we could double our attendance’—we have done that. We said we wanted to show more of our collection—we have done that. It’s like a compact. If you say, ‘We will have a great permanent collection, changing exhibits that are worthy of your attention, an attractive building, one of the country’s finest Olmsted parks, free, safe and abundant parking,’ then people are going to support you. It’s credibility.”