The Wadsworth Atheneum, located on Main Street in Hartford, Connecticut, is the oldest public art museum in the United States. It was founded in 1842 by Daniel Wadsworth, as a hodgepodge of various collections and organisations1 that has, over the decades, coalesced into an outstanding art museum.
The Atheneum from the very start has been committed to displaying not only great art of the past but also the best in contemporary art. Daniel Wadsworth's collection included many works by his contemporaries such as Fredrick Church and Thomas Cole, who are among what is now called the Hudson River School of painters. Bequests from Elizabeth Colt (widow of Samuel Colt of Colt Firearms fame) and JP Morgan helped keep the collections and the physical plant growing. Today the Atheneum features the 'MATRIX' program, a gallery devoted to works by contemporary artists. Art is not a static entity; it grows and changes continually, and the Atheneum is eager to display the crest of each artistic wave.
The Atheneum's Golden Age surely began in 1927, when A Everett 'Chick' Austin became director. Austin was, to put it mildly, a genius; a painter, costume designer, magician and amateur actor, he had an unerring eye for outstanding art. Though Baroque painting had been out of style for centuries, Austin recognized the importance of that period, and built the Atheneum's collection of Baroque art into one of the finest in the country. The first exhibition of Italian Baroque paintings in America happened at the Atheneum. Also the first major Picasso retrospective; and the first Surrealist show. The Atheneum helped sponsor George Balanchine's (ballet choreographer) emigration to the US.
The triumph of Austin's career was the premier of the Virgil Thomson - Gertrude Stein opera Four Saints in Three Acts, which took place in the Atheneum Theater in 1934. The theatre was part of the recently completed Avery Memorial wing of the museum, which Austin had helped to design. It was the first museum interior in what is called the International Style.
Though it seemed that Hartford was on its way to a cultural peak, the old bones of the city were not to be stirred by such extraordinary happenings. Austin was fired in 1944, by which point Hartford was already sinking back into bourgeois complacency. The Atheneum has continued to be an oasis of thoughtfulness and exploration in a town that is deeply conservative and hidebound. The Atheneum is perhaps the only Hartford organization to appreciate Carl Andre's Stone Field Sculpture, which is located nearby.
The Atheneum today holds echoes of the great days that have been, and the promise of great days to come. For more information on the museum, visit the official Wadsworth Atheneum website.