The New New Britain Museum of Art – The Legacy of Douglas Hyland.
By Barbara Malinsky
“Erected By the People for the Use of the People” is the New Britain Museum of American Art’s declaration that it is dedicated to serving all people by pursing excellence in art through collecting, exhibiting, and educating.”
This mission could not have been fulfilled without the vision of its directors. Douglas Highland (1999 – 2015), the museum’s most recent director, has left an enduring legacy making momentous contributions to enhance the only institution dedicated exclusively to American Art. Throughout his tenure, he presided over two extensive physical additions to the Museum and has acquired 6,000 objects to expand its collection. The breadth and quality of the acquisitions are a tribute to his expertise and gracious manner that has enabled him to work with a devoted staff and create relationships with artists and donors alike.
The re-imagined New Britain Museum of Art had its humble beginnings in 1858 as the New Britain Institute. In 1935, Grace Judd Landers donated her turn-of-the-century mansion as a permanent home for the art collection. Under Hyland’s directorship, two additions were added to that original edifice. In 2006, the first was the Chase Family Building that added 43,000 square feet. When planning that spectacular addition, Hyland wanted to be sure that the new museum, a cornerstone of culture in the city of New Britain, would be what the community required. “We asked the public what they wanted. They said a well-lit space, plenty of free parking, and ample seating in the galleries. That’s exactly what they got.”
Ann Beha Architects of Boston that specializes in joining older buildings to new annexes designed the two seamless additions. The first is a light-filled space. Referring to the light in that expansion, Hyland commented, “Beha did for us what Louis Kahn did for the Yale Center for British Art.” Hyland commissioned various artists to create over twenty benches throughout the galleries. Each one is a signed artistic statement in itself. The 2015 addition added about 15 more – a welcome perk when contemplating works of art.
The first addition allowed for the growth of programs and services offered to the community – an enlarged shop a café, a Print Study Center, a community auditorium, and more gallery space, which allows the museum to accept exhibitions of greater scope and size as well as display more of its permanent collection. The renovated Landers House contains an ArtLab, which is an interactive, multidisciplinary learning gallery for children and families, an Art Studio, and an art reference library in addition to administrative offices.
In 2015, another 17,346 square foot addition was completed which provides seven more galleries, new art studio spaces, and a tripling of the Art Lab. A reinstallation and reinterpretation of the permanent collection allows for a total of 450 works that extends and enhances the chronological display of the collection and improves its aesthetic presentation. Now an art aficionado can walk through 300 years of the nation’s artistic heritage in nine galleries and a newly expanded outdoor sculpture garden displaying dozens of pieces.
I was fortunate to have Director Hyland guide me through those 300 years beginning with the Hoffman Gallery that represents the beginning of American art. The earliest paintings from the 18th century exhibit a characteristic two dimensionality – folk art flatness – such as The Morgan Family (c. 1790) by John Brewster, Jr. Somewhat later, a sense of perspective emerges in Bowl of Peaches (1816) by Raphaelle Peale of the famous Philadelphia Peale family of painters.
The Bentley Gallery (1820 – 1850) represents artists’ sense of patriotism and transition to idealized landscapes. The Martin Gallery (1840 – 1880) showcases a desire for a national style. The Hudson River School of American landscape painters like Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church of Hartford, and Albert Bierstadt are represented here as well as Winslow Homer. He was the first embedded war documentarian producing numerous illustrations and paintings of the Civil War. Skirmish in the Wilderness (1863) documents the Battle of the Wilderness near Spotsylvania, Virginia. Exhibited for the first time, The Miller Gallery displays the last remaining, rare furnishings from the Shaker settlement in Enfield, Connecticut.
The Warrington Gallery displays The Gilded Age (1860 – 1920). These works express the increase of excess and luxury that emerged following the end of the 19th century. The Art of the American West (1840 – 1910) is on display in the Hyland Gallery. “There was the potential to discover gold, overpopulation of the east, and the quest for land among others which drove the nation westward,” Hyland explained. Henry Raschen’s portrait of a Vaquero or Mexican Cowboy exemplifies the working gear of the cowhand – the chaps, boots, and cowboy hat – which was later adopted by the American cowboy. George Caitlin’s photographs of the Native Plains Tribes are on display. Caitlin was the first white man to depict them in their native territory. There is also a rare garment worn by the Native American Pomo People of Sonoma.
American Impressionists are profiled in the Shivery Gallery (1880 – 1910). By the 1870s, Impressionism was in its heyday in Europe. These artists emphasized light’s changing qualities, movement, primacy of color over line, and short brush strokes. In the United States, a school of Impressionists was emerging with its own unique American perspective. “Frederick Childe Hassam embraced the palette of Monet and his brushwork,” according to Hyland. Also represented are Lilly Martin Spencer, considered the first successful woman artist, with this Little Pig Went to Market (1857) as well as Mary Cassatt with A Caress (1891).
The Hamm Gallery (1900 – 1950) represents the rebellious American artists who dismissed genteel Eurocentric styles and produced the Realism of American Scene Painting that was popular from 1920s to 1950s. Beatrice Lavis Cuming, a leading woman artist of Connecticut, is represented by her portrait of a welder. According to Hyland, “the shock of the new early modernists and their subjective reality are notable.” Artists’ conceptions of their medium continue to evolve as represented in The Johnson Gallery (1910 – 1940) which explores the early American Modernists as they rebel against Impressionism and Realism to embrace more progressive styles of art like Cubism: Max Weber was the first American cubist.
The celebrated five-panel mural The Arts of Life in America by Thomas Hart Benton (1932) resonates in The Chase Family Gallery. Here is a stunning portrait of life in the 1930s. Those who have seen the murals before should consider revisiting them in their new location. Their color is even more impactful because the installation echoes the colors in the murals. Benton used different colors to represent sounds and the panels do seem to sing when entering the space.
The P. B. Stanley Gallery (1945 – 1970) explores American Art at Mid-Century. The influence of leading European modernists during World War II helped free artists from purely representational art producing Surrealists and Abstract Expressionists like Milton Avery, Sam Francis, Adolph Gottlieb, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner.
The Batchelor Gallery (1960 – 2000) focuses on American artists’ reaction to a period of dramatic social change. African-American artist Jacob Lawrence was known for his portrayal of African-American life in bright, two-dimensional Matisse-like color. Several panels capture the eye.
Post Contemporary movements are represented in the A. W. Stanley Gallery that includes the 9/11 Memorial by Realist Graydon Parrish’s September 11, 2001-2006: The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy, a study in terror evoking meditation of this tragic event and its impact on the American psyche. Art Today can be found in the McKernen Gallery. Here artists are addressing issues and challenges facing society and ever changing technology and cutting edge New Media.
The Stitzer Family Gallery, the Davis Gallery, and the Cheney Gallery are devoted to changing exhibitions. As before, the Illustration Gallery features work from the Sanford B. D. Low Illustration Collection. The NBMAA was the first of only two museums to collect illustration.
The Museum is fulfilling it mission, making arts accessible to the public with 25 special exhibitions every year, from the traditional to the contemporary that may have some weightier import like Salvador Dalí: Cycle of Life in Print. Others are more fanciful like the Art of Carved Birds, Ruthie Davis Shoes: Couture, Futuristic Design, and Nantucket Baskets that keep things lighthearted.
Reflecting upon his time as director, Hyland commented, “It is a daunting task to reflect upon and summarize my activities of the last 16 years in a few hundred words. I would characterize my thoughts as being both tangible and intangible. I am proudest of the fact that we have acquired 6,000 objects for the permanent collection of the Museum. It was the excellence of the Museum’s holdings that first attracted me to the New Britain Museum in 1999. Now we have expanded and refined the collection while at the same time adding amazing works primarily of the 21st century. Our collection is the envy of museums across the country.
I am pleased that the Museum has expanded its endowment and operates on a sound financial footing. This enviable situation would not have been possible without the donations of tens of thousands of individuals who are members of the Museum and benefactors in countless ways. Most of all, I am proud of the fact that the Museum has played such a significant role in the lives of hundreds of thousands of visitors. I am reminded that the Museum is a hundred and twelve years old and I am grateful to have contributed to its advancement. Our future will be even brighter. Ars longa. Vita brevis est. Art is forever. Life is short.”
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