By Elizabeth J. Normen
(c) Connecticut Explorded Inc., 2004 Nov/Dec/Jan 2005
Can anyone really claim, “There’s nothing to do in Hartford?” I can’t imagine anyone could, unless, perhaps, they have no interest in music, dance, theater, film, poetry, or art. The energy and importance of the Hartford region’s arts scene is becoming more widely acknowledged—and it’s about time. We have the oldest continuously operating art museum in the nation. At a lively 162 years young, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art has been around more than three decades longer than Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The New Britain Museum of American Art, the first museum in the nation devoted solely to collecting American art, celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2003 and is breaking ground on an expansion that will transform it into a museum for the next century. We can also claim one of the oldest symphonies in the nation, the sixth-oldest professional opera company, and a Tony-award-winning regional theater that’s just completed its 40th season. This latter enterprise, Hartford Stage, was formed out of the national movement in the 1960s to establish professional regional theaters throughout the country. The venerable Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts begins its 75th anniversary celebration in January 2005. Just one part of that celebration is a collaboration with the Atheneum to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of choreographer George Balanchine, whose immigration to the United States was sponsored by the Atheneum in 1933. (Yes, George Balanchine came to Hartford first before founding the New York City Ballet, which then had its premier public performances in Hartford at the Atheneum.) And of course, we have much younger but also celebrated arts organizations, including the nationally recognized Artists Collective and Real Art Ways. Our region’s arts are rich in history and innovation; retelling some of these stories is what this issue is all about.
How did we come to have such an “embarrassment of riches?” The Hartford region has a legacy of an educated, skilled population and its share of movers and shakers. There’s been a strong tradition of civic involvement, reform movements, and institution building. The Atheneum and the New Britain Museum of American Art, for example, were both started and nurtured by wealthy businessmen: the Atheneum by Daniel Wadsworth, whose father had amassed a fortune through trade, manufacturing, banking, and insurance in the Revolutionary War era, and the New Britain Museum by industrialist John Butler Talcott of New Britain’s American Hosiery Company. Wealthy women have done their share as well. Philanthropist Dotha Bushnell Hillyer provided the largesse to build The Bushnell as a memorial to her father, and architect Theodate Pope Riddle left part of her estate as Hill-Stead Museum.
But not all our institutions were initiated with large injections of capital by a few, very wealthy individuals. The 126-year-old Hartford Art School, now part of the University of Hartford and among the nation’s top art schools, was started by a group of Hartford’s leading ladies (including the organization’s first president, gun manufacturer Elizabeth Colt) who contributed modest membership dues and relied heavily on student tuition for operating funds. [See An Art School Forged in the Gilded Age, Summer 2003] More recently established arts organizations like Hartford Stage, Artists Collective, Real Art Ways, The Amistad Center for Art & Culture, and many others have, from their inception, relied on a broad base of community support from corporations, foundations, and individuals.
It’s tempting to assume or hope that history will repeat itself, and a few wealthy individuals or corporations will foot the bill so the rest of us can enjoy great performances and exhibitions for decades to come. In the 21st century, however, it takes “the rest of us,” as members, subscribers, ticket buyers, volunteers, and donors, with contributions large and small, to keep the galleries open and the footlights on—and the same goes tor our heritage organizations. If we each step up as arts and heritage supporters, surely no one could ever legitimately claim that there’s nothing to do in Hartford.
Read all of the stories in the 2004 Nov/Dec/Jan 2005 issue
Read all of our stories about Connecticut’s art history on our TOPICS page