Quantum Leap

When noted architects from Amsterdam and New York unveil their expansion plans for the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art at a press conference Friday, the public will get its first glimpse of the dramatic, innovative improvements soon in store for the 160-year-old institution on Hartford's Main Street.

This multimillion-dollar project (the cost has not been divulged) will yank the nation's oldest public art museum's woefully cramped, antiquated facilities into the new millennium. But the Atheneum will have to close during the reconstruction from 2004 to 2006.

Even so, the downtown museum plans to continue being a prime cultural force in the region and on the national scene, director Kate M. Sellers says.

The project calls for razing the Goodwin Building on the north side of the five-building campus. A grand entrance will be constructed there, connecting to an elegant concourse to the south end of the campus, opening onto Burr Mall. The museum cafe will move to that area and will be open to the public without museum admission. The outdoor Gengras Court will be covered, expanding the museum's indoor space.

Although groundbreaking is about two years away, Sellers is already enacting a "museum without walls" master plan to preserve the museum's presence.

Sellers' strategy calls for marshaling the museum's resources, including curators, docents and a number of its masterworks, and sending them on the road. Distant from falling plaster, steel, mortar and dust, these mobilized units will come face-to-face with the public as the physical embodiment of the museum.

"We plan to work with our sister arts organizations, including the Old State House and Real Art Ways. At the Old State House, our famous, historic Trumbull paintings could be shown for schoolchildren in the city.

"With Real Art Ways' cooperation, we could present Matrix shows. (RAW and Matrix have long been the region's preeminent presenters of cutting-edge art.) We've also talked with the University of Hartford and Trinity College about them presenting works there.

"And Nicholas Baume, our contemporary-art curator, is talking about taking one of his Matrix shows out onto the street and into Bushnell Park," Sellers says.

Sharing agreements with local venues like this could be beneficial to both the Atheneum and to participating groups, she suggests.

Many of the museum's great collections, such as its priceless porcelains, its surrealist and modern works, Old Master paintings and its world-famous Hudson River Collection, will also be on the road during construction, Sellers says.

"I'm very happy to say my colleagues across the country are clamoring for these collections. They'll be completely booked. And I think it will raise the profile of the Wadsworth nationally because more people will have seen our great collections across the nation," she says.

Shoe leather will be a key element in keeping the museum's imprint alive and well, she stresses. "Our docents will be going out into the schools. And our curators, instead of lecturing in the museum, will be going out into the public," she says.

What makes this down period so radically different, say, from that of the Hartford Civic Center after its roof collapsed in 1978 is that the museum, even without physical facilities, has intellectual assets that can be marketed. These include its fine art, scholarship and teaching and educational capabilities.

All these elements can be moved around strategically and efficiently, keeping the Atheneum's banner high while the museum is modernized with its first major building project in more than three decades.

Like D-Day

Sellers will also preside over two enormous physical tasks linked with the project.

One is the protection and preservation of the museum's 50,000 art objects. The other is the relocation of about 100 full-time and 85 part-time employees.

The means to achieve both purposes is an off-site storage and office facility, climate-controlled and with high security. For security reasons, the Atheneum declines to reveal the location.

That massive move - sort of the art world's version of D-Day - will be done under the tightest secrecy. For much of the collection, this will be, at least initially, a one-stop move from Main Street to the off-site facility.

When the museum reopens at some not-yet-determined date in 2006, the crown jewels of the collection will return to be exhibited. The rest will remain off-site.

Only 2,000 of the 50,000 pieces are currently exhibited because gallery space is so short. The rest are in antiquated, overstuffed storage facilities.

"The square footage on our footprint on Main is too valuable to be used for storage. We need to use the space for galleries. We need to use it for our special museum programs," Sellers says.

The return to Main Street of employees working in the storage facility will free enough space to store new acquisitions over the next 25 years.

The Last Time

Giant museum construction projects requiring the relocation of priceless collections are more common than one might expect.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York, for example, recently closed for three years during a $650 million project, temporarily leaving its famous Manhattan site for Long Island City, Queens.

The Atheneum itself closed for 11 months in the late 1970s, when the Goodwin Building - the one that will be demolished - was under construction as part of a $5 million remodeling.

Most dramatically, the old castle building on Main Street was stripped to its skeletal façade, looking like a shell-shocked survivor of a World War II bombing. Granite blocks in the castle building's north wall were disassembled, numbered like giant children's toys and lined up on the lawn across from City Hall before eventually being reassembled.

With all due consideration to the artworks, the public and staff, there was really no choice but to shut down again, Sellers says.

"What would the visitors' experience be with all the jackhammers and dust? One estimate was made that the complex could be kept open during construction, but at the cost of an extra $15 million, plus extending the project's run by a whole year," she says.

"But that was just a notion," she says, "because it is even impossible to think about how you would do that. You certainly couldn't borrow any paintings from anybody for an exhibition. Nobody is going to lend you a work of art while you're under construction. And you'd be exposing your permanent collection to risk - undue risk, I believe - and without any up side."

As regrettable as the shutdown is, Sellers says, it will be far outweighed in the long run by the many pluses in store for patrons and the city when the museum reopens with an array of improvements.

These include chic amenities like the 125-seat café that will spill outdoors onto Burr Mall, and modern facilities necessary for any museum with a national reputation.

Key among these is a bona fide space for special exhibitions. Over the decades, the museum has had to move its permanent collection around every time it installs a major touring show. Now these shows, which have become an Atheneum hallmark, will have room of their own, graced with sufficient and flexible space and sophisticated lighting.

Also key among the project's many improvements is a 30 percent increase in gallery space. And, at long last, the museum will also have a rational floor plan, replacing the Alice-in-Wonderland mishmash that has driven some patrons nuts.

Five Years Of Planning

In the next step, culminating five years of planning, the project's renderings and models will be presented Thursday to the Atheneum board of trustees. They'll be shown to the public Friday. The project is a collaborative effort by the innovative UN Studio of Amsterdam and the prestigious New York firm Fox & Fowle Architects.

The project will replace the Goodwin Building - which has galleries on the first and third floor and houses administrative staff members working in rabbit warren-like work stations - with a futuristic entranceway that can be seen from both Main and Prospect streets.

From there, an elegant concourse, open to the public at no charge, will run north to south through the building complex. The southern portal will be on Burr Mall, the outdoor strip that will provide a scenic artery from Main Street to the Adriaen's Landing development. The museum café, now tucked inside the building so that non-members have to pay to get in, will be relocated to the mall.

As part of the concourse plan, the outdoor Gengras Court - with its bleak, prison-yard décor - will be covered and converted to gallery space.

As people stroll the concourse, parts of the collection will be visible through glass. The museum hopes, of course, that this aesthetic window-shopping will draw the curious into the galleries, for which they'll be charged admission. The museum's prime entrances and exits will be the concourse's north and south portals.

Part of the museum's idiosyncratic charm has been its many exterior doors, a confusing multiplicity that rings the perimeter of its complex of buildings. All the doors will remain, for safety purposes, but will not be used as entrances - not even the doorway to the iconic, castle-like Wadsworth building on Main Street.

The only exception to this "closed-door policy" will be the entrance to the Avery Theater lobby from Atheneum Square North.

Still in the works are the revamped designs for the museum's front yard on Main Street, a project commissioned to Maya Lin, the celebrated artist and architect most famous for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

With the public unveiling ceremony Friday, the museum is now poised for one of the greatest leaps forward in its history. Any leap, even one as meticulously planned as this one, finally involves an act of faith.

Do Nothing?

Doing nothing, or merely maintaining the status quo, might have been the easiest choice for the moment. After all, the museum is on a successful roll and should continue to do well until the project begins.

During the next two years, it will present a series of major exhibitions sure to gain national, perhaps even international, attention.

Among the blue-chip events are a show devoted to the great African American painter Benny Andrews and a much-anticipated, groundbreaking exhibition on the painter Marsden Hartley.

But Sellers says that doing nothing was never an option, because the Atheneum, which has made quantum leaps in national recognition and critical acclaim with a series of top-flight exhibitions, has quite simply maxed out, she says.

With success come even greater physical demands and a need to keep gaining momentum, she says.

"If you don't take the time to do this right now, you won't have the capability to serve a larger audience," she says.

"Even if you did nothing, you'd still have the big expense of just maintaining the buildings. If we did nothing with Gengras Court, for example, we'd still have to caulk its leaks. Eventually, you'd come to the point where everything became so compromised that you would become less than what you are right now.

"If you're not willing to grow, you're going to decline. And that's a direction we don't accept."