an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

“Overwhelmed by Art”: My WSJ Article on Wadsworth Atheneum’s Dazzling Transformation

More on this here.

Can the Wadsworth Atheneum regain its former reputation as a midsized museum with outsized importance? My article for tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal (online now)—At the Wadsworth Atheneum, an Old Building Gets New Life—details the sweeping physical and conceptual transformation that could help it return to its former glory, when legendary director A. Everett “Chick” Austin Jr. oversaw the country’s first exhibitions of Italian Baroque paintings and Surrealism, and its first Picasso retrospective.

Wadsworth Atheneum's restored and reinstalled Great Hall with chairs for opening day concert Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Wadsworth Atheneum’s restored and reinstalled Great Hall (chairs set up for opening day concert)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Beset by white flight and economic hard times, Hartford, Connecticut’s capital, is overdue for a comeback. There’s no question that its venerable art museum, which has recently endured head-spinning turnovers in its directorship and an attendance decline from 228,842 in fiscal 2001 to 92,038 in fiscal 2015 (when some galleries were closed for a re-do), is poised to rebound, after the sweeping renovation and reinstallation of its five-building facility.

After false starts under previous directors towards more costly (but ultimately unaffordable) expansions, this glorious but more thrifty renovation was accomplished largely because of a $25-million infusion of state funding, with private philanthropy playing a relatively minor role ($8 million).

My justifiably house-proud guides on the day before the Sept. 19 public opening (which I also attended) were Linda Roth, senior curator of decorative arts, and Oliver Tostmann, European art curator, who are of comparable professional, if not physical, stature:

Linda Roth, senior curator of decorative arts, and Oliver Tostmann, European art curator, in the Great Hall Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Linda Roth and Oliver Tostmann in the Great Hall
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As I wrote in my WSJ piece, Tostmann told me that “the basic idea” of the Great Hall installation, was “to allow yourself to be overwhelmed by art and to become stimulated and curious about certain works.”

Behind the curators in the above photo is the inspiration for the Great Hall’s “more is more” approach:

Giovanni Paolo Panini, “The Picture Gallery of Cardinal Silvio Valenti Gonzaga,” 1749 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Giovanni Paolo Panini, “The Picture Gallery of Cardinal Silvio Valenti Gonzaga,” 1749
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

“All the paintings that you see here were part of the collection of the Cardinal” (in the red robes at the center), Tostmann told me. “And they’re all identifiable. The whole architectural setting is completely imaginary. I thought this is such a stunning painting that tells us so much about collectors, and also about painting practices and how people engage in the arts.”

A later copy of one of the “identifiable paintings” is hanging in the Great Hall, albeit a considerable distance from its depiction in the Cardinal’s picture gallery.

Here’s the Wadsworth’s late 19th-century copy of Raphael‘s “Madonna della Sedia:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

And here’s a rendering of a full-length version, being shown off by Cardinal Gonzaga in Panini’s painting:

WadsGonzDt

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As you stand before the Wadsworth’s somewhat clumsy Raphael copy, a more delicately tender and convincing Madonna-and-Child portrayal is visible through the opening to its left that leads to the side galleries ringing the Great Hall:

Donatello and Workshop, "Mother and Child," terracotta relief Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Donatello and Workshop, “Mother and Child,” terracotta relief
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

All kinds of evocative relationships can be discovered in the Great Hall’s seemingly chaotic arrangements, if you take time to tease them out. “This is not meant to be didactic,” Tostmann said. “I want people to draw their own conclusions, to make their own discoveries.”

Those who allow themselves to be over-awed by the agglomeration may miss small gems that are easy to overlook. I almost walked by a pensive portrait that transfixed me—Jusepe de Ribera’s 1637 depiction of the Greek philosopher Protagoras, deep in thought while clutching a well-worn book:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I hope to say more on the Wadsworth’s “New Life” (as the WSJ headline calls it), including a look at some of the other galleries, in a future post.

an ArtsJournal blog