The Beginnings and a Generous Bequest
The New Britain Museum of American Art originates in the New Britain Institute, established in 1853, with the honorable goal of promoting education and art within the city.
The museum’s journey took a significant turn in 1903 when it received a bequest of $20,000 from John Butler Talcott to acquire “original modern oil paintings either by native or foreign artists.” This generous act laid the foundation for a collection that would grow to become a treasure trove of American art.
A Focus on American Art
Guided by Bryson Burroughs, then curator of paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the museum officials directed their efforts at acquiring American art.
This focus proved to be cost-effective and aligned with the museum’s vision. The early years saw the museum amassing a collection now worth millions, seldom spending more than $1,000 for any artwork.
Grace Judd Landers’ Contribution
A wealthy widow, Grace Judd Landers, had expected to donate a large sum to the museum. However, the stock market crash 1929 changed her fortunes, leading her to present her house to a museum in 1934.
This generosity marked a significant milestone in the museum’s history, reflecting the community’s commitment to art and culture.
Early Acquisitions and Directors
Sanford B. D. Low’s Leadership
Sanford B. D. Low, the museum’s first director, played a pivotal role in shaping its collection. He acquired several works by his friend, Thomas Hart Benton, and was instrumental in the museum’s acquisition of Benton’s “The Arts of Life in America” series from the Whitney Museum. Low’s leadership and vision set the tone for the museum’s future growth.
A High-Spirited Circle of Friends
Low, Benton, and others, including James Cagney, formed an animated group of friends who would often spend their summers engaged in painting activities. Their camaraderie and passion for art contributed to the museum’s vibrant culture. The purchase of Benton’s murals for a mere $500, less than the cost to move them, is a testament to the museum’s innovative acquisition approach.
Building a Valuable Collection
Strategic acquisitions and a focus on American art marked the early years. The museum’s collection grew in value and significance, reflecting a commitment to quality and a keen understanding of the art market. The collection’s growth was not just about numbers but about building a repository of American art that resonated with the community.
Expansion and Growth
The Sanford B. D. Low Memorial Illustration Collection
In 1964, the museum inaugurated the Sanford B. D. Low Memorial Illustration Collection, the first museum collection of American illustrations in the United States. Holding over 1,700 works from the 19th century, this collection added a new dimension to the museum’s offerings.
Douglas Hyland’s Tenure
Douglas Hyland became executive director in 1999, bringing a fresh perspective to the museum. He raised funds from new donors, including the Henry Luce Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. His leadership led to the construction of the 43,000-square-foot Chase Family Building in 2003, doubling the museum’s size.
Renovation and Growth
Under Hyland’s tenure, the New Britain museum building was renovated, and the collection doubled to 10,000 objects. The full-time staff grew to 24 employees, docents doubled to 100, and memberships nearly tripled from 1,200 to 3,500. This period of growth reflected the museum’s evolving role as a cultural hub and deepening connection with the community.
New Britain Museum of American Art: Collection Highlights
Colonial and Federal Portraits
The museum’s collection represents over three centuries of significant artists and movements of American art. Among the highlights are colonial and federal portraits by renowned artists such as John Smibert, John Trumbull, and Gilbert Stuart. These works offer a glimpse into the nation’s history and the evolution of artistic styles.
Hudson River School and American Impressionists
The collection includes masterpieces from the Hudson River School, including landscapes by Thomas Cole and Frederic Church. The American Impressionists are also well-represented, with works by Theodore Robinson, John Henry Twachtman, and Childe Hassam. These paintings capture the beauty of the American landscape and reflect a unique artistic sensibility.
Contemporary Works and Post-War Highlights
The museum continues acquiring contemporary works by notable artists, capturing American art’s dynamic and evolving narrative. Post-war highlights include examples of Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop and Op art, and more. The museum’s commitment to contemporary art ensures it remains a vibrant and relevant cultural institution.
Thomas Hart Benton’s Mural
One of the museum’s most valued pieces is a five-panel mural by Thomas Hart Benton, The Arts of Life in America, created in 1932. This iconic work embodies the spirit of Regionalist painting and stands as a testament to the museum’s dedication to preserving and showcasing American art.
Community Engagement and Visitor Experience
Engaging with the Community
The New Britain Museum of American Art welcomes everyone to explore American art through its permanent collection, special exhibitions, and incredible programs. The museum’s commitment to education and community engagement is evident in its diverse offerings and inclusive approach.
Hours and Accessibility
The museum is open to the public from Wednesday to Sunday, with extended hours on Thursdays. Its central location at 56 Lexington Street in New Britain, CT, makes it easily accessible to locals and tourists. The welcoming atmosphere and rich collection make it a must-visit destination for art enthusiasts.
Future Prospects and Challenges
Future Plans and Vision
The museum’s future is bright, with plans to continue expanding its collection and engaging with new audiences. The focus on contemporary works and the commitment to capturing the evolving narrative of American art will ensure that the museum remains a dynamic cultural institution.
Challenges and Opportunities
The challenges of fundraising, maintaining relevance in a changing art landscape, and competing with other cultural institutions are real. However, the museum’s strong community connections, innovative approach, and dedication to excellence provide a solid foundation for continued growth and success.
Reflection on Legacy and Position
The New Britain Museum of American Art’s legacy is intertwined with the city’s history and the broader context of American art. Its position as a leading art museum in Connecticut and its dedication to American artists and their works make it a unique and valuable cultural asset.
A Cultural Treasure
The New Britain Museum of American Art is a cultural treasure, reflecting the community’s passion for art, history, and education. Its rich collection, innovative approach, and commitment to community engagement make it a beacon of creativity and inspiration.
The New Britain Museum of American Art is more than a collection of paintings and sculptures. It reflects the community’s values, aspirations, and love for art. It stands as a testament to the power of art to inspire, educate, and bring people together.