Don’t sell The Wadsworth Atheneum short

The departure of another Wadsworth Atheneum director couldn’t be more disquieting.

I moved to Hartford 41 years ago to join the staff there as a curator and exhibition developer. I stayed for 17 years. I was a 25-year-old newly minted graduate student given a chance to realize a dream — working with one of the finest collections of early American art and cultural material in the country. Before the end of my first year, I proposed mounting a major exhibition on the arts of the Connecticut Valley on the 350th anniversary of its settlement. It was endorsed by the late Charles Tracy Atkinson, an outstanding director. His charismatic, visionary successor, Patrick McCaughey, supported my work developing the “Colt’s Empire” exhibition, which helped to spawn the Coltsville National Historic Site.

In 1988, I happily volunteered to serve on the search committee that recruited the late Barbara Hudson to oversee the Amistad Center for Art & Culture at the Atheneum. The Atheneum was one of the first art museums in the country to build and staff an African American collection and curatorial department, which has evolved into a superb teaching instrument on the subject of race and racism.

The Atheneums MATRIX Gallery — devoted to contemporary art — has shown dozens of female and minority artists over the years.

The Wadworth’s Education Department has done somersaults reaching out to city and suburban residents, including many of the thousands of students from Hartford’s schools.

The outgoing director was the first to suspend the always needed admission fees for city residents.

Cities two and three times the size of Hartford would be thrilled to have what we have here.

Is it perfect? Of course not. If I were to share one critique, it is that the Atheneum is too stuck on its image as a pioneering beacon of Modernism; too stuck on its global reputation; and neither sufficiently proud of nor engaged with Connecticut’s own remarkable artistic achievements. No museum even twice its size has patronage stories like the Atheneum’s. Daniel Wadsworth, Elizabeth Colt, J. Pierpont Morgan, Chick Austin, Wallace Nutting, Samuel P. Avery, R.L. Simpson — these are epic personalities whose stuff and stories have endless points of entry for interpretation and programming.

Of course, having almost no on-site parking on a historic but neglected Main Street is a serious obstacle to the Atheneum’s success. It is also a problem that Hartford has never had an adult conversation about how to kick-start tourism to a city with more than a billion dollars invested in cultural assets. The Atheneum’s complex of buildings, including the Gothic Revival “castle,” is from another age — and that’s part of its charm. It’s not just another art museum. It is something older, bigger and — in my view — better.

The implication that the museum has ignored Hartford residents and is insufficiently woke is insulting and hardly belongs on the short list of issues the next administration should grapple with.

Yes, the city has changed over the past 20 years. So, too, has the museum — its collection and programs.

“A little too historic and not very present,” says the chairman of the board of trustees? I would say the opposite: The Atheneum’s extraordinary history is its strongest asset, and presentism — the tendency to see everything through the prism of now — is a disease for which education and the time travel that great collections inspire are cures.

Twenty-plus years ago, the Hartford Public Library reinvented itself more dramatically than any local cultural organization in our time, effectively becoming a dispensary of social services as well as a repository for books. Should the Atheneum emulate that?

A vigorous discussion on how the Atheneum can reinvent itself would be timely if it is effectively convened. Among other things, the Atheneum should be working collaboratively with the city’s and region’s other cultural attractions to grapple with their collective role, not just in Hartford, but in the state, the Northeast and beyond.

We are sitting on a cultural gold mine that is bigger than the sum of its parts. More can and should be done to engage multiple audiences. It’s the hardest job in show business. A more diverse audience and a larger one for our culturals would be transformative for the entire metro area. Let’s talk.

William Hosley lives in Enfield.

Angelia S. Rico

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