All right. Let’s just say it up front and get it over with: The Wadsworth Atheneum is irrelevant.
Last week I wrote an essay in response to the news that the Atheneum’s board intends for Hartford’s locally and nationally revered art museum to move boldly into the 21st century, to become more in tune with Hartford life and times today, instead of continuing to live in the 19th century. The Atheneum faces a difficult challenge: how to continue being what it is while also becoming what it needs to be in modern, multi-cultural New England.
In fact, the challenge the Atheneum is accepting may be more than difficult, it may be impossible. It isn’t easy to be all things to all people.
The more important point about the Atheneum discussion, the point I was reluctant to acknowledge, is that the Atheneum is irrelevant in today’s Hartford.
I realized I had ducked the issue when I read William Hosley’s commentary about the Atheneum’s new direction in Sunday’s Courant. https://www.courant.com/opinion/op-ed/hc-op-cherish-the-museum-hartford-20210419-b25ntixrcbds5eemu2cbgempme-story.html At first I was cheering as I read it, because Hosley had the courage to say what I did not: There’s great old stuff at the Atheneum, a lot of it, important stuff. We should celebrate it rather than feel it’s necessary to apologize for it or change it.
But as I kept reading, I got to this: “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.” Well, sure, it isn’t good to see everything “through the prism of now,” but, the prism of now is a better way to examine race and culture, diversity and discrimination than the prism provided by historic white supremacist European and American culture. The movement to address, finally, racism in America is not a “disease,” and we certainly do not need to “cure” the movement by reference to our white supremacist cultural history. Our world is changing, and it’s time that our institutions, institutions like the Atheneum, got on board.
No, Mr. Hosley, the Atheneum is not the cure to the problems of modern day Hartford. The Atheneum is irrelevant. Okay, sure, the Atheneum is relevant to museum afficionados like Mr. Hosley and Brian Allen, who blasted the Atheneum’s move in the National Review (https://www.nationalreview.com/2021/04/americas-oldest-city-museum-goes-woke/) but really, they’re irrelevant, too. They’re dinosaurs. Some of my best friends are museum lovers, but their children aren’t.
The future of greater Hartford does not depend on the Wadsworth Atheneum. The truth is that the future of the Wadsworth Atheneum depends on greater Hartford, and that is why accepting the challenge to become relevant in 21st century Hartford is the only choice the Atheneum had. Hartford must move forward, and the Atheneum must move with it or be left behind.
Irrelevant is harsh, I know, but I’ve been saying harsh things about Hartford for a couple of years now. If we can’t be honest and direct about what’s troubling Hartford, what’s the point? To be honest, the success of the Yardgoats and Dunkin Donuts Park are probably more important to the future of Hartford than the success of the Atheneum.
Take a look at the photograph the Courant chose to print with Hosley’s piece: A 120-year-old statue of a famous man from 240 years ago in front of a 170-year-old copy of 400-year-old architecture, with the 100-year-old Travelers tower peaking out from behind. It’s a picture of the past, and the past is what the Atheneum has been selling to Hartford for decades. Valued as the Atheneum and the Travelers may be, they are the past. If they are the future of Hartford, Hartford’s in trouble.
The future of greater Hartford depends almost entirely on the reemergence of a vibrant, dynamic, and growing 21st century economy. Greater Hartford needs new and growing employers. Greater Hartford needs more jobs across all compensation levels. Greater Hartford needs to be a place where insurance companies and other employers want to be, rather than a place they want to leave. A healthy economy can support the Atheneum; as we have seen for the past 30 years, a moribund economy cannot.
Greater Hartford needs aggressive, energetic, creative problem solving. We need a growing, inclusive culture that helps lead the country to a new future, not that steadfastly preserves the past. Greater Hartford needs new and better governance. Greater Hartford needs new and better highways. If we don’t get to work on becoming the future, greater Hartford will be what the Atheneum has become: irrelevant.
The Wadsworth Atheneum will never be a significant contributor to the kind of economic growth that greater Hartford needs. If Hartford once again becomes a significant regional economic hub, the Atheneum can be a great community amenity, a unique asset among cities our size, an asset the city can afford to support. To its credit, the Atheneum’s board understands that to be a relevant part of that new, reenergized urban environment, the Atheneum needs to get in step with the modern American multi-cultural world.
No, the Atheneum is not and will not be the cure to our problems, but at least the Atheneum is seeking to become relevant in our community. Kudos.