Douglas Hyland was a senior in 1970, majoring in history at University of Pennsylvania, when he first heard of the New Britain Museum of American Art.
A professor talked about the museum as a place that housed a very notable collection. "He would say, 'This Frederic Church is in the collection at the New Britain museum and it is the masterpiece of Frederic Church,' and 'This Thomas Hart Benton series is at the New Britain museum,' and 'This Childe Hassam "Le Jour de Grand Prix" is in the New Britain museum,'" he said.
Years later, when he was director of Fuller Art Museum in Brockton, Mass., Hyland got to know the New Britain museum well. He visited in 1999 as a peer reviewer to evaluate the 93-year-old institution for re-accreditation for the American Association of Museums.
It may not have been love at first sight. It was more like admiration mixed with puzzlement. Such a wonderful art collection — with such a poor infrastructure.
"I really was impressed by the needs of the institution," Hyland said. "I was amazed at how small the building was, how the lighting wasn't very good, the air conditioning went off and on, there was no auditorium, there was no café, there was water in the storage, the staff was tiny and badly paid. ... It was as if this institution had been asleep for 50 years."
Hyland made a good impression on the staff and trustees there. A few months later, the NBMAA director left and, after a nationwide search, Hyland got the job.
Fast forward to 2014. Not only does Hyland know and love New Britain, New Britain knows and loves Hyland. After 15 years at the helm of the museum, with documented years of consistent growth in square footage, endowment, collections, attendance, staff, membership and national reputation — Hyland, 65, announced last week that he will retire in autumn 2015.
The NBMAA community's sadness at the news came as quickly as the praise for Hyland.
"It was a sleepy little place before he arrived. It's now a vibrant, unbelievable museum, an amazing draw to Connecticut," said Bob Burns, director of the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury.
"Any board that attempts to find a clone of Douglas will indeed fail. He is ... a once-in-a-generation leader in the art world. You don't try to replace that. You try to build off of that," said Jim Williamson, president of the Community Foundation of Greater New Britain.
"We've been so fortunate to have him for 15 years," said Kathryn Cox, former chairwoman of the board of trustees. "The board wishes he had chosen to stay on for another decade."
At a "Community Day" held last weekend at the museum, a few days after Hyland broke the news, Cox got choked up when introducing him to visitors. Her display of emotion reflected what seems to be a consensus opinion: No one would deny Hyland the pleasure of retirement, but it's not easy to say goodbye to the man who made the NBMAA what it is today.
New England Boy
Hyland's path to New Britain was roundabout. He started out in New England and wound up in New England. In between, the course of his life took him to Pennsylvania, Delaware, Italy, Washington, D.C., Kansas, Tennessee, Alabama and Texas.
Hyland was born in Salem, Mass., one of four children of a lawyer father and a sculptor mother. Hyland can still recall his first visit to a museum. "I went to the Peabody Essex Museum. I'll never forget going into the East India hall and there they had a wide variety of different artifacts, ship models, a mummy on display, all of these exotic objects from all over the world," he said. "They had all the stuffed birds in one section and paintings by Fitz Henry Lane in another. I was probably 7 or 8 at the time."
While at University of Pennsylvania, he married his first wife, Stephanie. After graduation, the couple moved to her home state of Delaware. By then, Hyland had caught the art bug, but he was pushed in other directions.
"My father wanted me to be a lawyer and my father-in-law wanted me to be a banker, so I went to work for a bank and then I applied to law school. But I was very curious what it would be like to take classes at night, so I signed up for art history classes at the Winterthur Museum [in Wilmington, Del.]," he said. "I discovered that I really preferred that as a career."
His mother and father were supportive. "The tendency today is for people to criticize their parents, but in my whole life I've never been able to figure out how I would criticize my parents," he said. He got a master's and doctorate at the University of Delaware in art history, with an emphasis on American art.
His parents may have been supportive, but his burgeoning art career eventually brought his marriage to an end. "I received this Kress fellowship to write my dissertation in Florence [Italy]. My first wife wanted to remain in Delaware, so she and I divorced," he said. The couple have two children, Octavia and Samuel.
After the five-month Kress fellowship, Hyland became a Smithsonian fellow in Washington, D.C., which led to a curating position at the Spencer Museum at University of Kansas in Lawrence. His time in the Midwest was important for another reason. While there, he was reunited with an old friend, Alice, nicknamed Tita. "She and I were both from a small area of Massachusetts. I met her in 1976. Her brother-in-law was my best friend growing up," he said. Tita was teaching art at the University of Missouri, in nearby Kansas City. Douglas and Tita were married in 1981, and have one daughter, Cassandra.
He left Kansas to become director of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Tennessee, then director of the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama, then director of the San Antonio Museum of Art in Texas.
But the lure of New England was too strong. During a brief, unsatisfying stint at the Fuller Art Museum in Brockton, Mass. — "The trustees were not supportive and had no idea what to do with the place," Hyland said — he heard that NBMAA's director, Laurene Buckley, was departing. Buckley encouraged him to apply to replace her.
Hyland said he was attracted to NBMAA's small size. "I was going to be curator as well [as director]. ... I could work on exhibitions, research, acquisitions, I could visit artists, do the creative part which I so love, and do the fundraising and administrative and operational aspect of it," he said. "It was the ultimate expression of my father, who is very smart and focused and literal, and my mother, who is creative and amusing.
"I'm a Libran. Librans are divided between creativity and the analytical," he said. "Had I just been the director I would have left a long time ago. I've been offered other jobs over the years at much bigger institutions. They always had a very big staff and curators all vying for the exhibitions and acquisitions. ... This has worked out perfectly."
In New Britain
Before Hyland arrived, NBMAA was often referred to as the state or the city's "best-kept secret." Cox called it "a quiet house museum, best beloved by a small group of people, kind of like a club."
Ford Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums (formerly American Association of Museums), said that when Hyland visited to re-accredit the museum for that organization in 1999, NBMAA already was respected. "It was the first museum in the U.S. dedicated exclusively to American art, and it was accredited the first year accreditation existed," Bell said. "Just being accredited puts it in a class. Only 5 percent of museums are accredited."
Nonetheless, that fine art collection — most famous for the spectacular Benton murals — was exhibited in a place that used to be someone's house. Grace Judd Landers donated her home to the museum and the collection moved in in 1937, after having been housed since 1903 in the building that is now the New Britain Public Library. A few galleries were added in the decades after that, but people who spent time there in the '70s, '80s and '90s still felt it was small.
Artist Zbigniew Grzyb of Farmington exhibited his work at NBMAA in 1984 and then took a job at the museum. "I started out as a technician and then a security guard. Then there were only four people running the museum including me. Everybody did everything," Grzyb said. "It looked like a home, like somebody just left for lunch or something. The chairs were there, the couch was there."
Claudia Thesing, who has worked at NBMAA off and on since the 1980s and is now its director of development, said, "We all worked in the basement of the Landers house. ... There were no windows. We were next to the grease trap and the water heater."
Philanthropist Cheryl Chase, whose family members are now top-tier benefactors to NBMAA, recalled the old museum as "quaint and charming." "You were right up against the wall. If there were more than 10 people in the room with you, it got kind of cozy," she said.
Charles Ferguson, director of NBMAA from 1964 to 1984, vividly remembers the building's structural weaknesses. "I still dream about it," he said last week. "I had a bad dream that the basement got flooded. One time it did get flooded. There was no damage, but we were pretty concerned about it at the time."
Brenda Manning of Kensington, who has been a docent on and off since 1972, recalled that Ferguson gave docent-training classes in the Landers' dining room. "We were pretty tight," she said.
People become a bit fanciful when referring to the museum in the old days. Hyland called it "Sleeping Beauty, sleeping in a very small gazebo." Rhoda Chase, Cheryl Chase's mother and a seasoned art collector and benefactor, once called it "a beautiful girl in a tattered dress."
Since his arrival, Hyland has been credited with waking up his "Sleeping Beauty" in myriad ways. Collections more than tripled to over 14,000 items, the docent squad has grown from 35 to 117, memberships have increased from 1,500 to 3,800, staff has increased from 19 to 46, the board of trustees has grown in number and the endowment has grown from $9 million to $21 million. To date this year, 96,000 people have visited the NBMAA, up from about 35,000 annually.
Hyland also originated the Museum After Dark cocktail-and-music events aimed at reeling in young professionals, and expanded the museum hours to seven days a week. He has mounted a succession of highly successful exhibits, including extremely popular shows of work by M.C. Escher, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Walter Wick, Louis Comfort Tiffany and Maurice Sendak.
Hyland is especially pleased that a large percentage of visitors are schoolchildren from 70 towns across the state. Manning, the docent, is especially pleased that some visitors who come for tours are groups of docents from other museums. "When you see that, you think, we're really on the map now," she said.
Hyland is also proud that 20 community locations have borrowed the museum's paintings to exhibit, bringing the art out to where the people are. "When you go to the Hospital for Special Care, you'll see 20 of our paintings. When you go to The American Savings Foundation, you'll see 15 of our paintings. When you are incarcerated in the New Britain Police Station, you'll see 15 of our paintings," he said.
Hyland's most visible improvement is the building itself. The $27-million, 43,000-square-feet Chase Family Building addition was unveiled in 2006. In August 2015, about a month before Hyland is expected to make his departure, another enlargement will be unveiled, a $22 million, 17,346-square-feet expansion that will house seven galleries, new art studios and increased parking facilities, bringing the museum's total square footage to more than 75,000.
Vision, Courage, Charm
These successes, observers say, can be attributed to three things: Hyland's vision of what the museum was capable of being, his fearlessness at asking community members, politicians and institutions to donate money — not to mention asking people to donate their artworks — and his considerable personal charm. A phrase often heard to describe him is "Pied Piper," someone who can get anyone to follow him anywhere.
Williamson said "When I think of Douglas, two words come to mind: outrageous and brilliant, outrageous in his vision for the museum and brilliant in how he convinced and brought along others to execute it."
One project that required, and got, widespread cooperation was Hyland's organization, in 2011, of a statewide coalition of museums to get a $75,000-per-museum line item in the annual state budget. The coalition includes NBMAA, Mattatuck, Florence Griswold in Old Lyme, Lyman Allyn in New London, Bruce in Greenwich, Aldrich in Ridgefield and Hill-Stead in Farmington. "It helps all of us. We loan things to each other, bounce ideas off each other," said Burns, co-founder of the coalition.
His stellar record aside, Hyland's tenure hasn't been without difficulties. In 2001, he led a campaign to move the museum — which snuggles up close to Walnut Hill Park — to another location, inside the park. That plan was proposed because the museum tried but failed to acquire an adjoining parcel to expand in its original location. A convalescent hospital was on the parcel.
Public opposition to moving the museum was heated. Residents wanted the park — which was designed by the legendary Frederick Law Olmsted and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places — to be left alone. Lucian Pawlak, who was mayor of New Britain at the time and who supported the plan, remembers those days. "There was a petition to have me thrown out of office," Pawlak said. "People were walking around with clipboards, yelling 'recall the mayor, he's nuts to destroy our beautiful park.'"
The plan to move the museum was abandoned. Around the same time, something unexpected happened. "We didn't know that HUD was going to foreclose on [the convalescent hospital]," Pawlak said. After the convalescent home's troubles came to light, U.S. Congresswoman Nancy Johnson helped NBMAA get the parcel. The expansion-in-place plan was set in motion, culminating in the 2006 Chase unveiling.
When asked about the expansion that is currently under construction, Pawlak laughs. "Every time I walk my dog past the museum, I think, geez, where are all those antis now?" he said. "Maybe they discovered the museum, too, and realized what a great asset it is for the city."
Hyland, who lives with Tita in West Hartford, says that despite the great success of the 2006 unveiling, his first seven years in the position weren't as successful as his second seven years. But he said that is to be expected.
"It takes a while to gain traction, to make friends, to develop relationships. ... Nothing is done easily. ... You have to prove yourself. If you have a success story, people are more apt to validate what you want to do," he said. "If you have a good program and some proven results and if you're on an upward trajectory, people will open their purse strings and provide the wherewithal to continue the momentum that you have started."