The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, the oldest public art museum in the United States, was founded in 1842 by Daniel Wadsworth, one of the first important American patrons of the arts. Its collections include around 50,000 works of art produced over a 5,000-year time span. Visitors can enjoy the Morgan collection of Greek and Roman antiquities and European decorative arts; baroque and surrealist paintings; an acclaimed collection of Hudson River School landscapes; European and American Impressionist paintings; modernist masterpieces; the Serge Lifar collecton of Ballets Russes drawings and costumes; the George A. Gay collection of prints; the Wallace Nutting collection of American colonial furniture and decorative arts; the Samuel Colt firearms collection; costumes and textiles; African American art and artifacts; and contemporary art. Although Daniel Wadsworth at first planned to open “a Gallery of Fine Arts,” he was instead convinced to establish an “atheneum,” a cultural institution that included a library, works of art, artifacts, and a mission of promoting history, literature, art and science.
Backstory and Context
The Atheneum got its start with the Gothic Revival Wadsworth building, constructed between 1842 and 1844 on property belonging to Atheneum sponsor Daniel Wadsworth. When the Wadsworth "castle" opened, it housed not only an art gallery, but also the Connecticut Historical Society, the Young Men’s Institute (a precursor of the Hartford Public Library), and the Natural History Society, and in the 1864 added the Watkinson reference library. Today, the Atheneum's oldest building is actually used to exhibit some of its newest artifacts, with galleries dedicated to art from the 20th and 21st centuries. This building also houses the Amistad Center, which celebrates African-American art and culture.
By the turn of the last century, the Wadsworth collection was growing too large to be housed in just one building, so the museum directors commissioned Benjamin Wistar Morris to designed the Tudor Revival Colt Memorial of 1910 and the Renaissance Revival Morgan Memorial of 1910-15 to supply more space. The Atheneum had struggled a bit during the 1880s, even being closed to the public between 1884 and 1886, Luckily, several "angels" stepped in to support the institution, and in the 1890s, the first of these, one J. Pierpont Morgan, sponsored some much-needed renovations. A later donation from Morgan, and a similar bequest from Elizabeth Colt (widow of arms maker Samuel), allowed for the construction of the buildings that bear their names. The Morgan building is used to house art works from ancient times up through the 19th century.
In 1934, the Avery Memorial opened. It was the earliest museum building in the United States with a modern International Style interior. While the building's genesis was due to namesake donor Samuel P. Avery, Jr., whose father had founded the Metropilitan Museum of Art, its style may owe something to the Atheneum's director at the time. A. Everett “Chick” Austin, Jr. had a passion for modern interior design, and the dressing room he created for his wife in their unique home is one of the country's first International Style residential interiors. Today the Avery Memorial exhibits American art and decorative arts, the latter collection including a number of antique firearms donated by Elizabeth Colt. Chick Austin's house also now belongs to the museum, although it is not part of the main complex and is only open for limited tours a few times a month.
In 1965 the Atheneum broke ground on its most recent addition, the late modernist Goodwin building. This was named after James Lippincott Goodwin, a prominent architect who had served as one of the museum's trustees before his death in 1958. The architects responsible for this structure were a local firm, Huntington, Darbee and Dollard. At the dawn of the millennium, this new building's future was suddenly in doubt. Plans for museum expansion circa 2000 called for demolishing it in order to construct a larger museum expansion. With a change in leadership, plans for any new construction were scrapped, along with plans for demolition. While much-needed renovations were put on hold for the time being, at least the Goodwin Building would be spared from the wrecking ball.
In September 2015, the Wadsworth Atheneum finished a five year long $33 million renovation. This renovation put aside addition and expansion in favor of extensive repairs and upgrades to 32 galleries and 15 public spaces throughout the museum's five interconnected buildings. These renovations received wide press coverage and were met with high praise from media outlets including the Boston Globe, the Economist, the Wall Street Journbal, and the New York Times. The TImes, in particular, praised the Atheneum's renovations as a perfect example for how such things should be done, remaining true to the spirit of the museum's founders while ensuring that modern patrons' expectations are met.
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