MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price visited the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art to talk with Director and CEO Tom Loughman about the museum’s economic impact on the Hartford Region.
NAN PRICE: You’ve held positions in art museums throughout the country. What brought you to Hartford?
TOM LOUGHMAN: I wanted to work in a civic art museum because I believe in the concept of providing access to arts and culture for all. I also believe that art enables people to connect with their own humanity.
I was drawn to this position at the Wadsworth and this idea of strengthening a venerable civic institution. Through formative experiences in places like the Phoenix Art Museum, where I was Curator of European Art, I realized the impact this kind of role can have. I understand museums need to lead their communities into real cultural conversations. They’re about now and the future.
NAN: Speaking of the future, as a longstanding institution, how do you innovate and stay relevant?
TOM: One of the things that attracted me to come to the Wadsworth, as opposed to another type of institution, is that it’s rooted in innovation. The Wadsworth was founded as an art museum in an age when cities didn’t have art museums. It was founded by a radical act of philanthropy. When Daniel Wadsworth founded the museum 178 years ago, it was not for his own collection to go on view, but to showcase a civically built collection.
We’ve always been embracing the art of our time and combining that with world experience. So, the art you encounter at the museum tells the full range of human story. The great task for this institution right now is to make our programming even more connected to lives of people today.
We’re becoming a more visitor-focused organization than we’ve ever been in our history. That, in itself, is innovation. And, despite what people sometimes say, Connecticut has always been a place of innovation.
NAN: Let’s talk about how the museum creates an economic impact in the region.
TOM: From a purely economic development point of view, we have a huge impact here as a major employer. We have 100 employees, 60 to 70 people working here regularly, and more than 100 people in our volunteer corps. Our docent council is a great extension of our renowned educational program. We also have all kinds of contract purveyors, whether it’s for graphic signage, book publishing, protection services, or mechanical systems.
That’s an incredible amount of economic activity for any cultural organization. People make up more than half of our budget, so the payroll is at the center of our operations. I’m told every dollar devoted to human resource generates quite a few more dollars of impact.
We’re also attracting cultural philanthropy from outside the region and are engaged in collaborations nationally and globally.
NAN: In what ways does the Wadsworth collaborate with the local and global community?
TOM: We’re collaborating with higher education in many ways. There was a moment when the Hartford Consortium for Higher Ed asked if we would consider becoming an associate member because we had so many collaborations happening at University of Saint Joseph, University of Connecticut, and Trinity College. It’s a robust and very trusting network.
Right now, UConn just finished construction of a suite of offices for its master’s in arts administration program, which they’re relocating from Storrs to within the walls of the Wadsworth. We’re very excited and happy to have them here.
Our most ambitious collaborations involve special exhibitions and our most nuanced ones center on professional networks. For example, two years ago, we were host to The French Regional & American Museum Exchange (FRAME). We brought together colleagues from 15 French and 15 North American art museums to Hartford for a summit. The Wadsworth has a great collection of French art and we’re an active collaborator with our French colleagues in a special way. More recently, in my current role as president of the International Council of Museums, I was able to host a board meeting of America’s leading museum professionals.
We’re also part of the Connecticut Art Trail, which is a network of 20 Connecticut-based institutions that promote Connecticut arts and culture. About 24% of our visitation comes from outside Connecticut and probably half of that percentage come from abroad.
NAN: That leaves a large percentage here in the state.
TOM: Right. Of that percentage, about half live in Hartford County. We’re proud to say the Wadsworth Athenaeum is Connecticut’s flagship visual arts institution. We’re a large, long-established, public-facing museum with truly varied collections, spanning the world and five millennia. I believe that calls us to meet the broad societal needs for the visual arts across the state.
The Wadsworth is committed to making museums matter in the lives of everyone who lives here and in the lives of people who visit. We hold all this cultural property in the public trust for everyone. It’s our role to draw people together and provide a place that sparks creativity, ingenuity, and different kinds of learning. That’s what we do.