Discovering Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington requires luck, a deliberate effort, or both. Yet it is home to some of the best Impressionist art in the world — masterpieces by Monet, Manet, Degas and others, experienced within an architecturally significant 1901 manse designed by groundbreaking female architect Theodate Pope Riddle. Art historian Anna Swinbourne, named executive director two years ago, is on a mission to finally shed the museum’s “hidden” gem status. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
How would you describe Hill-Stead Museum to the uninitiated?
A little-known marvel at the center of Connecticut. I appreciate it as a trifecta of masterpieces: the extraordinary fine and decorative arts inside the historic house; the gorgeous natural oasis of gardens, meadows, trails and pastures that surround it; and the skin that separates these two, a breakthrough piece of architecture designed by the museum’s founder, Theodate Pope Riddle, back in 1901, when women were not even permitted to be architects.
Tell us a bit about your journey and your vision for the future.
I am a Mainer who arrived in Farmington in 2008 via Paris and New York. I trained at the Ecole du Louvre and NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, and worked previously at Sotheby’s and MoMA. Every morning of my first weeks after arriving at the Hill-Stead two summers ago, I had the same thoughts: Wow, is this place beautiful — and boy, does it have tremendous potential. My vision is helping the museum realize that. I see a fun and dynamic educational and cultural hub with offerings matching the magnificence of the museum’s historic importance.
You once said the museum’s Monet grain stack paintings are better than one that sold for something like $100 million.
The two grain stack paintings at Hill-Stead are both superior to that record-breaking auction item. And to be one of three museums in the country to own two grain stacks [the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Art Institute of Chicago are the others], that’s heady stuff. Those paintings often eclipse the other treasures, such as two other Monets, an important Manet, and a group of works by Edgar Degas. We are immensely fortunate to own fine examples of each of his major subjects: jockeys, dancers and nudes. My favorite, his pastel of a woman bathing entitled The Tub, exhibited in the last Impressionist exhibition in 1886, is unquestionably among the best Degas nudes in existence, and I never tire of looking at it. I see something new every time I do. To me, that is the mark of a true artistic masterpiece — it never stops giving.
What’s the story behind the collection?
Funny you should ask. That is the topic of the inaugural exhibition for our new art gallery — against the odds, during the pandemic we converted the carriage barns into a space to present exhibitions. In 2022, we will present the complete Pope family collection to celebrate Hill-Stead’s 75th anniversary. Our founder’s father, Alfred Altmore Pope, was the force behind this collection. He bought his first major painting, an arresting view of the Mediterranean by Monet, months after it was finished in 1888. Intent on focusing on what was then contemporary, he went on to build an incredible collection of Impressionist greats. He bought, sold and traded freely, constantly pruning the works to keep only what spoke to him most powerfully. For this show, we will reunite the artworks of the collection for the first time, and publish the first biographical sketch of this largely unknown collector. Alfred is often overshadowed in the story of Hill-Stead — Theodate usually gets all the cred — but the truth is he is equally instrumental in creating the institution we now enjoy.
Theodate Pope Riddle designed Westover School, and buildings at Avon Old Farms School, but most have probably never heard of her.
Theodate was a real firecracker. Refusing to let her life be dictated by the circumstances of her family or the conventions of her age, she tirelessly worked and fought to design a life she loved — to create, to educate, to help others less fortunate. She found her path and profession as an architect as a young woman, and practiced for decades, both before and after she was officially licensed. She just refused to cower before any limiting force, whether in founding a school or surviving a sinking ship [the Lusitania in 1915]. Extraordinary. On all fronts. I will confess that countless times during the past 18 months I have silently shored myself up with the thought, “If Theodate accomplished what she did, when she did, I can do this.” I see a major part of my job to be getting her, and her beloved Hill-Stead, better known.
The museum’s Sunken Garden Poetry Festival is well known, but the pandemic hit arts organizations hard. How did you manage?
In May 2020, we decided to be brave and forge ahead by creating an outdoor multicultural performing arts series called From the Porch. We turned the veranda into a makeshift theater and the lawn into safely distanced seating. We could have organized and hosted the entire thing, pocketing all of the much-needed revenue it would generate, but we invited our arts colleagues to collaborate. Hill-Stead hosted 30 events in 2020 [with 102 performers and 12 collaborators, from Real Art Ways to Hartford Stage] and nearly all sold out. My favorite moment came after the screening of Raoul Peck’s film, I Am Not Your Negro, when a woman walked across the lawn in the darkness to grab me by the shoulders and thank me; we had “made her feel alive again.”
Was this success a pandemic one-off?
The mini-Tanglewood we created, happening again now, is a preview of what is to come now that we finally have a facility to host rotating programming year-round. For exhibitions in this new gallery, we’re also planning a dialogue between Theodate’s wardrobe and contemporary fashion designers inspired by period pieces; an exploration of the impact of Japanese art and culture on modern Western artists in Paris and beyond; and a series entitled Strong Women, with an inaugural show honoring Theodate and featuring an array of like-minded pioneers also born in 1867. And it won’t just be exhibitions; sprinkled in between will be performances of all sorts, lectures, panels, screenings … we will be limited only by our programmatic imaginations.
What about the sheep? Not something you find at most house museums or art museums, but then again, you have 152-acres with a lot to experience.
Yes, to represent the working farm the Pope family created and ran, there are sheep at the museum. Owned by a neighboring farm, Clatter Ridge, the sheep graze our pastures and live in what was originally a horse barn. They are a special element of our programming, whether as the subject for student field-trippers during lambing season in spring, or the stars of events like the one that initiated me as director: Meet the Sheep. It was a Sunday afternoon, the day after Halloween, guests brought their used pumpkins to smash on the road and launch piece by piece into the pasture; apparently sheep love to eat pumpkin. We had cider and doughnuts, hayrides around the property, sheep shots [getting your picture taken with a sheep or two], and a spot to pet the animals — all good, clean fun, which a whopping 1,000-plus visitors enjoyed giddily. They showed us how much they value family-friendly programming, and that has become a top priority for us.
35 Mountain Road, Farmington
Hours: Wed.–Sun. 10 a.m.–4 p.m.
Admission: Adults $18, children 6–12 $10