I applaud the Wadsworth Atheneum for the Board’s decision to, to, well, I’m not sure what it is they have decided to do.
The Hartford Courant reported Sunday that the Atheneum wants to move out of the past, to catch up with the City of Hartford as it’s changed over the past twenty years. https://www.courant.com/community/hartford/hc-news-prem-hartford-wadsworth-atheneum-diversity-inclusion-20210409-hfcla2f44zeinpjp6e3xwrv7xq-story.html. That sounds good, but it’s hard to understand what it means.
There’s no doubt that the Atheneum is mired in the past, predominantly the white-European-imperialistic past. Its building and its collection does not reflect the cultural, ethnic, or racial diversity that exists in the City or the region. What’s inside the walls of that castle may be compellingly interesting today only to art students and others interested in a particular cultural history.
However, the Atheneum is a museum. What’s a museum if it isn’t a place where objects of historical and artistic interest are stored and displayed? The Atheneum is a museum with a pretty well-defined mission – it collects and displays objects of historical and artistic significance, primarily objects related to white, European culture. For better or worse, that’s what the Atheneum is.
The Atheneum is fundamentally different from the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo. The Albright-Knox board has upset some people in western New York by selling significant old pieces in its collection so it can acquire newer pieces that reflect the current state of modern art. The Albright-Knox was conceived as, and is dedicated to, being a gallery with an ever-changing inventory of modern art, not a museum that collects old art. The Albright-Knox board believes that important as they are, impressionist paintings from the 19th century sooner or later must give way to what is truly “modern” art. The Albright-Knox is steadfastly dedicated to being a gallery, not a museum.
The Atheneum’s board is doing what it must: considering how to respond to the fact that the culture at the core of its collection, the culture whose objects it preserves and displays, is no longer the only culture of the community in which it is located. It’s a multi-faceted problem.
It’s an ethical problem. How long can the Atheneum promote a culture that is increasingly coming to be seen as a culture flawed with white supremacism and imperialism? What pieces in its collection actually represent and in some ways celebrate those flaws?
It’s a relevance problem. How long can the Atheneum celebrate a culture that, flawed or not, simply isn’t all that interesting to 21st century Americans, particularly those Americans outside the white, western European cultural tradition?
It’s a marketing problem: What must the Atheneum do to be interesting to the greater Hartford community, interesting enough to attract visitors to the museum?
It’s a donor-relations problem: How can the Atheneum change the focus of its activities and its collection and still keep faith with its donors, past and present, who expected and intended that the Atheneum would continue to memorialize the culture reflected in the art they cherished and gave to the Atheneum for safe-keeping?
It is, in fact, a classic existential question: How can the Atheneum be all things to all people and, in the process, be both culturally relevant and financially secure?
A few days ago I was driving west on Farmington Avenue and was struck by the elegance and beauty of the Harriet Beecher Stowe house and the Mark Twain house. I realized that they, too, face the challenges that the Atheneum will try to address. How can Stowe and Twain, two museums dedicated to 19th century American culture, a Euro-centric white supremacist culture, be a relevant and meaningful participant in 21st century greater Hartford, a racially and ethnically diverse culture?
To its credit, the Stowe Center has for years geared programming to issues of slavery, race, and discrimination. Not having participated, I can’t say for sure, but my impression has been that that programming was directed at the white descendants of that 19th century culture, not the racial and ethnic minorities that the Atheneum wants to target. That is, I think the Stowe Center has taken a good shot at some necessary education of white people, but that alone can’t make it relevant to present-day Hartford. I know less about what Twain has done, but I doubt it’s much different.
For me, the answer is that the Atheneum, the Stowe Center and the Twain House can’t be all things to all people, and we shouldn’t expect them to be. They can’t stop being what they are, but they must find a way to be relevant in the community in which they are located. I’m reasonably certain their boards understand this.
Diversity is about being diverse; it’s not one size fits all. The fact that not everyone wants to visit the Wadsworth Atheneum doesn’t mean that the Atheneum must change. Of course, if the Atheneum doesn’t have enough customers to have a viable future, sure, then it may want to reconsider its business model, but in a culturally diverse community multiple venues offer culturally distinct activities. Not every museum, not every theater, not every arena can be expected to offer activities that are attractive to all of the people in the community.
The Atheneum probably is the finest museum of its kind anyplace in New England outside of Boston and New York. It has a worldwide reputation and a collection that is the envy of U.S. museums almost anywhere outside of the major U.S. metropolises. It simply isn’t a practical possibility that the Atheneum also could be an African art museum and an Hispanic art museum of equal caliber. The cost of acquiring culturally distinct art of comparable quality is prohibitive, unless the Atheneum intends to sell off large portions of its current collection in order to have a more culturally diverse collection. That is what the Albright-Knox gallery is doing, but that is consistent with that gallery’s longstanding mission. A large-scale sell-off of the Atheneum’s collection would be contrary to its historic mission and likely would seriously offend a substantial portion of its donor community.
Stowe and Twain are equally challenged. Their primary assets are buildings and furnishings the whole point of which is to preserve a culture that represents the cultural history of only a part of the community. They can’t change their collection.
And yet, the Atheneum, and Stowe and Twain, must do something. The good news is that the Atheneum has begun to respond in the way that we need all of our institutions to respond. The Atheneum board apparently now recognizes that the Atheneum must operate with a new awareness of the social realities of a multi-cultural world. What can the Atheneum do? I don’t know; the board is much closer to the issues than I, but I have at least a few suggestions:
- Listen. That’s where we all have to start. Listen to the people who visit the Atheneum, and listen to the people who don’t. Listen to them when they tell you what they like and what they don’t like. Listen to them when they tell you what they want to see inside the walls of that spectacular building.
- Partner. Open your doors to culturally distinct and diverse museums and galleries throughout New England, share your exhibit space with them, and exhibit your collection at their venues. Partner with major culturally distinct museums and galleries around the country to create meaningful exhibitions in Hartford and elsewhere.
- Take a walk down Main Street and talk to the folks at the Hartford Public Library. They’ve made engaging the community a way of life. You can learn a lot from them, and you can co-program with the Library, too. They’ve been mounting small, grass-roots art exhibits for years; perhaps a bit too avant garde for your tastes, but that’s okay – you need to get out on the street a bit.
- Look for opportunities to change the direction of your acquisition program. There’s plenty of art out there, and some of it could be meaningfully juxtaposed with items in your current collection. Look for donors who are interested in supporting efforts to diversify your collection culturally. And, yes, look for the occasional opportunity to sell a piece in order to facilitate a broadening of the cultural base of the Atheneum’s collection.
- By all means, become more relevant in the community, but don’t try to become what you are not. Blockbuster couldn’t become Netflix, Sears couldn’t become Walmart, the Wadsworth Atheneum shouldn’t expect to become the Albright-Knox. You are a great Hartford and New England museum with great old European art. You help make Hartford unique. Hartford needs the Wadsworth Atheneum, we just need it to get down to the business of staying in step with the City and its people.
Thanks for starting down this path, and good luck!