Home again

Back to blogging after time off to complete a painting. That done…

First, a disclaimer. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, is where so much of my knowledge of museums began. As a Connecticut boy by birth, the Atheneum was the first art museum I ever set foot in. As an adult, I volunteered there, helping out with paperwork in the curatorial department. This put me in the right place at the right time: when Sol LeWitt’s wall drawing #1131, Whirls and Twirls (Wadsworth) was in preparation, I was able to hear about it in advance and apply to work on the project. Because the museum staff knew I could write I was approached by contemporary art curator Joanna Marsh and PR person Susan Hood to keep diary of the process, with an eye to getting it published. I was happy to tell them that I had already started a diary for my own purposes and would gladly share it with them. That diary, expertly edited by Cathy Leibowitz of Art in America, appeared in the October, 2005 issue of that magazine. The response to the article was sufficient to get me a job offer from the museum’s then-director, Willard Holmes. Though it has been years since I worked there, sooner or later everything museum-related comes back to the Atheneum for me.

To put all that more briefly: I am biased. Have your grain of salt ready – but I don’t think you’ll need it. I have seen both the good and the bad of museum operations, from the Board of Trustees on down. Today’s entry is about physical matters, so skeletons will remain firmly in closets.

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The Morgan Great Hall at the Wadsworth Atheneum as it now looks.

I went to the Atheneum yesterday, a long-overdue trip to see the museum after it’s long, deeply necessary, renovations. As an employee, I saw where the water was leaking through the roof and damaging gallery walls and ceilings; I even took notes during a tour wherein Trustees were shown each bit of damage was occurring. It took years of meetings, planning, fundraising, and work to fix everything, but now things are as they should be, and she ugly duckling museum has achieved the gloss and grace of a swan.

New flooring, repainted galleries, and a general polishing-up of everything is not enough to make a museum shine. Yes, the new signs are good and useful, but the architecture is secondary to most all museum visitors. In the ten years or so since I worked there the curatorial staff has almost completely changed over, and a new Director as well. bringing new eyes to the collections. The reinstallation has given prominence to recent acquisitions, especially in terms of contemporary art. I was particularly interested in Allison Schulnik’s stop-motion animated video entitled Eager, from 2014. The video gallery is tucked back in a corner of the contemporary installation: turn left at the Nick Cave sound suit, and right at the Kiki Smith sculpture.

The Morgan Great Hall, the most impressive space in the museum’s eclectic array of architecture, has been rehung salon-style (see above) with a collection of mostly European paintings, though a few Americans have crept in, especially high on the wall. For a long time the Great Hall was home to John Trumbull’s paintings of the Revolutionary War, and one of them is still lurking up high; following that the Great Hall was home to some of the Modern and Contemporary collection, which is now elsewhere. Whatever you put in it, it’s a great space, and even the paintings near the top are reasonably easy to see. The marble stair just outside the Great Hall is where the Sol LeWitt wall drawing I worked on lives, and it was great to see its colors as vibrant and dramatic as when they were painted.

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This is an old photo of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawing #1131. The image as a whole is slightly yellow; you can see the red color that the Morgan Great Hall used to have through the arch.

One brilliant change benefits the European Decorative Arts collection. Much of it used to be housed in a small, underlit gallery, plagued by water leakage and isolated from the rest of the collection. Now that gallery has been opened up and absorbed into the European paintings galleries around it, allowing the decorative arts to spill out and mingle with the paintings, providing contrasts and conversations between the two disciplines. The galleries are awash with gorgeous objects, and the paintings, even those very familiar to visitors, benefit from the change.

Change has its downside, though. The museum’s Director, Thomas J. Loughman, formerly with the Clark Art Institute, raised the price of admission by 50% soon after taking charge. On the one hand, this is not a terribly bad thing: the price for adults went from $10 to $15, still well below what many other museums charge. However, a Director ought to have a honeymoon year, a time to review the museum’s challenges and prepare to introduce them. Raising admissions fees is not the way to have a honeymoon. There are also ethical questions surrounding a forthcoming exhibition, The Human Touch: Selections from the RBC Wealth Management Art Collection, which opens in June. Highlighting a corporate art collection is the royal road to conflicts of interest, especially when the corporation itself is a major funder of the show. At least the Atheneum’s current curator of contemporary art, Patricia Hickson, is selecting the works – that mitigates things a bit. The jury is still out on those matters, but at least the Wadsworth Atheneum has a facility it can be unreservedly proud of.

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