The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, America’s oldest public art museum, has been undergoing a top-to-bottom renovation and expansion of gallery space since 2010; the $33-million project, which has added 17 new galleries totaling nearly 16,000 square of exhibition space to the existing footprint, is slated for completion in September.
Major exhibitions will open and refurbished collection galleries, with new interpretive content and interactive technology, will be unveiled throughout the year. That process has begun with Coney Island: Visions of An American Dreamland, 1867-2008 and the reappointed Postwar and Contemporary Art Galleries, which opened on Jan. 31.
The museum describes Coney Island as “the first major exhibition to use visual art as a lens to explore the lure that Coney Island exerted on American culture over 150 years.” It features more than 140 objects of celebrated icons of American art, such as carousel animals, and rarely shown works from both public and private collections, including paintings, drawings, photographs, prints, posters and architectural artifacts.
Among the artists and photographers represented in the show are Milton Avery, Paul Camas, William Merritt Chase, Red Grooms, Reginald Marsh, John Henry Twachtman, Diane Arbus, Walker Evans, Robert Frank and Weegee.
In a companion exhibition that opened last Friday and will remain on view through March 14, the Westport Arts Center is presenting Coney Island: Side Show, which features more than 50 works by 14 photographers that depict Coney Island’s attraction and the transformation of people and place over the last 80 years. These vignettes, captured by major photographers such as Arthur Leipzig, Sid Grossman, Bruce Davidson and Morris Engel, are on loan from Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and are available for purchase. Also featured are works by Weegee and Westport photographers Nathaniel Gibbons, Douglas Healey, David Kalman, and Stephen Wilkes.
The Westport Arts Center is at 51 Riverside Avenue, Westport; for additional information, 203-222-7070 or westportartscenter.org
The Atheneum exhibition, curated by Dr. Robin Jaffee Frank, chief curator and Krieble Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, is further enhanced by ephemera, sound recordings and film clips that will immerse visitors in the popular culture of Coney Island. It’s presented in several sections: “Down at Coney Isle,” 1861-1894; “The World’s Greatest Playground,” 1895-1929; “The Nickel Empire,” 1930-1939; “A Coney Island of the Mind,” 1940-1961; and “Requiem for a Dream,” 1962-2008.
A number of lectures, talks, performances and films will be presented during the exhibition’s run; details can be found on the website, thewadsworth.org.
The Wadsworth Atheneum was founded in 1842 by Hartford native Daniel Wadsworth, one of America’s first major art patrons. The original Gothic Revival Wadsworth Building resembles a cross between a church and a castle. Over the years, the facility has been expanded to five interconnected buildings and renovated in various stages; its nearly 50,000 works of art span 5,000 years.
According to Visitor Services Manager Susan Carey, the museum is best known for its collection of Hudson River School paintings. “It’s one of the best in the county and we have the first work by Frederic Church sold to an American museum; he was from Hartford and Daniel Wadsworth took him to Thomas Cole, for whom he was a principal patron for two years, and said, ‘You must take him on.’” There is a depth to the collection that enables visitor to see the span of many artists’ careers.
Other highlights include Wallace Nutting’s (1861-1941) collection of antiques and reproductions — the minister, photographer, artist and antiquarian helped spur the Colonial Revival style; an Arts and Crafts collection donated by Stephen Gray; and a Colt firearms collection. Of special delight to visitors to the third floor galleries is the George Segal sculpture of a trapeze artist hanging at eye level and suspended over the classic sculpture, Venus with a Nymph and Satyr by Pietro Francavilla in the three-story Avery Court.
The museum is also renowned for its 1,100 European works of art — paintings, sculpture, decorative arts — from antiquity to today housed in The Great Hall of the Beaux Arts Morgan Memorial Building, financed by J. Pierpont Morgan in honor of his father Junius Spencer Morgan, an early supporter of the museum. In September, the Atheneum will have a public unveiling and centennial celebration of the Morgan Memorial with a complete reinstallation of the European Arts Collection, the first in more than 20 years.
Located just to the right of the lobby visitors desk, the new, large Postwar and Contemporary Art Galleries includes work by Josef Albers, Alexander Calder, Ellsworth Kelly, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, Kiki Smith, Cindy Sherman, Robert Motherwell and Andy Warhol, among many others.
A vibrant Sol LeWitt wall drawing installed in the grand staircase of the Morgan Memorial in 2004 provides a marked juxtaposition between galleries.
The renovations bring the Wadsworth up to date with cellphone audio guides in English and Spanish and for smartphone users, QR guides to access videos in American Sign Language, refurbished cafeteria and brand-new handicap-accessible bathrooms on main level. Its programs are planned for different age audiences and printed bilingual family guilds focusing on an artist, work of art or a concept are designed to facilitate conversation among generations.
Striving to accessible to everyone, Ms. Carey noted that the museum offers a variety of free general admission options (special fees excluded): Second Saturdays For Families, free admission for those arriving between 10 and 1 on the second Saturday of each month; Library ARTpass, available at more than 200 Connecticut public libraries, which provides free general admission for two adults and two youth age 17 and younger any day of the week; Bank of America Museums on Us, free admission to Bank of America credit and debit cardholders the first weekend every month; The Blue Star Museums program, which provides free admission for active-duty military and their immediate family members (up to five) Memorial Day through Labor Day; and free admission to active and former military personnel over the weekend of Veterans Day.
The Wadsworth Atheneum Art Museum is at 600 Main Street in Hartford. For additional information, thewadsworth.org or call 860-838-4076.