For years, the New Britain Museum of American Art has been called "a little gem" by Connecticut's art aficionados. It's time for a new nickname.
The first museum in the nation dedicated solely to American art is still a gem, but it's not little any more.
On Sunday, Oct. 18, for the second time in a decade, the NBMAA will cut the ribbon on a sizable expansion of the 112-year-old museum, where the growth of its collection has been impressive as well, more than doubling in recent years.
The unveiling will reveal spacious and vibrant galleries dedicated to Native Americans, American Impressionists, realism and regionalism, modernism and abstraction, and the museum's great Thomas Hart Benton murals.
The largest space in the new wing is showing an eclectic collection — "Director's Favorites" — chosen by director Douglas Hyland, who took over leadership of "the little gem" in 1999 and led its growth to an increasingly formidable art space. The unveiling of the expansion is Hyland's swan song, as he retires as director in a few weeks.
"The history of museum directors is written in sand," Hyland said, quoting another museum chief, during a recent walk-through of the expansion.
True. The installations will change, the collection and exhibition emphases may change, but the elegant Mankato limestone-and-glass building will remain, as will its expanded new galleries, one of which bears Hyland's name, a lasting reminder of who made NBMAA what it is today.
As a child, Hyland loved the Lone Ranger. "I grew up romanticizing the American West," he said. So he arranged for the Hyland gallery — funded by Sharon and David Jepson — to house photography, painting and sculptures of Native Americans, gold prospectors and other images of the West.
"The missing link in our previous story is the role of indigenous people," said Hyland, who will be succeeded by Min Jung Kim from the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum of Michigan State University.
Sculptures of horses and Army scouts by Solon Borglum are exhibited alongside paintings by George Catlin, scenes of Indian encampments and hunters by Ralph Blakelock and works by Henry Raschen, the German-born painter who accompanied the U.S. Army on missions to find the Apache leader Geronimo. The gallery's standout is a large, full-color chromolithograph of Custer's last stand, which was used as a promotional poster for Anheuser-Busch.
The adjoining gallery is dedicated to American Impressionism. Its walls are painted a pale pink, a color favored by Impressionists. That hue appears in several works: a floral painting by Charles Ethan Porter of Rockville; an oil of mountain laurel painted on the Lieutenant River in Old Lyme by Willard Metcalf; a Venetian canal-scape with two girls in the foreground by Ivan Olinsky; and a woman's portrait by John Singer Sargent. Also included are paintings by Mary Cassatt and Walter Gay, and Childe Hassam's wonderful "Le Jour de Grand Prix."
A floral work in the Impressionism room used to hang in Hyland's office; the Olinsky hung at Stanley Works in New Britain for years; the Sargent used to be in Paris. Those and other works in the room were brought back from other locations, to which they had been loaned, to maximize the impact of the gallery's debut.
"We recalled our best and brightest," Hyland said.
That room also features a fun game: spot the fake. A 1912 Frank Weston Benson oil of a woman at a table was bought by NBMAA in 1972. The seller, the Detroit Club, commissioned a copy, and later sold that one at Christie's as a real Benson. After a failed lawsuit by the angry buyer, NBMAA acquired the fake, too. They are reunited, side by side. But which is which?
Regionalism and realism are the themes in a third new gallery. The kings of that room are The Eight, the group of Ashcan School painters, led by Robert Henri, who revolutionized American realism at the turn of the 20th century.
"This gallery celebrates back-breaking labor," Hyland said, pointing out Bellows' work of sailors on Monhegan Island, Maine; Paul Sample's painting of the WPA-funded Norris Dam; images of seamen by Charles Hawthorne, Adlai Hardin and Rockwell Kent; a Georgia O'Keeffe industrial riverscape; a Beatrice Cuming painting of women welding and riveting at Electric Boat in Groton; and Lewis Hine's photos of a child in a cigarette factory and newsboys selling The Hartford Courant.
Not all is about labor, however. Grant Wood's "Sentimental Ballad" hangs alongside Benton's "Old Man Reading," across the gallery from what Hyland calls "the femme fatale wall," which features an image of a Ziegfeld girl and "Yvonne in Green Dress," a 1938 oil by Guy Pene du Bois of a woman who was in love with the married Stanley Works titan Alix Stanley.
The Early Modernism gallery is "where husbands and wives hang together," Hyland said. (The gallery, like most of the new rooms, is named after a husband and wife, in this case former U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson and Theodore Johnson.) William Zorach sculptures are displayed next to Marguerite Zorach paintings, a work by Ilya Bolotowsky next to one by Esphyr Slobodkina. Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock hang side-by-side. "It's the earliest known painting by Jackson Pollock," Hyland said, which would explain the tiny oil's Thomas Hart Bentonish look. A Benton that influenced the Pollock sits beside it. The Benton is perched in front of a mirror, showing a work on the reverse side of the canvas reflecting Benton's own influence, Paul Cezanne.
"The Red Candle," a mobile by Connecticut's Alexander Calder hangs, all by its lonesome, over the Bolotowsky.
Benton's "America at Play" murals, a longtime favorite of museum visitors, now hang in a vividly coral-walled room reflecting the skirt of a woman in one of the murals.
The latest expansion, of more than 17,000-square-feet, follows the 2006 expansion that added 43,000 square feet. Before the first expansion, the museum was around 15,000 square feet. Now it is closer to 75,000.
Walking up the stairs, past the newly reinstalled Dale Chihuly blue glass chandelier, visitors will be greeted by the "Director's Favorites" exhibit. It is installed in a gallery that will be used for rotating shows starting next year. (A Salvador Dalí exhibit is planned starting in January.) The show was curated by Hyland to showcase select pieces from the 6,500 works donated during his 16-year tenure.
"It was very difficult to pick. I could do about six exhibits," Hyland said. "It's a cross-section of everything I really love and enjoy. It's not linear, but really a peripatetic journey."
Works by internationally known artists — William Wegman, Winslow Homer, Frederic Church, Horst P. Horst, Walter Wick, etc. — hang in the gallery as well as works by Connecticut artists including James Prosek of Easton, Hartford-born Dorothy Powers, Susan Classen-Sullivan of Canterbury and Peter White, represented by a massive acrylic painting of Middletown's Arrigoni Bridge.
Hyland said exhibit is intended not to just show off invigorating works, but to honor the men and women who donated extensively to the museum over the years. "It gives me a chance to thank them," Hyland said. He is one of them; he and his wife, Tita, donated 40 works to the museum.
Hyland and his donors are an ardent mutual-admiration society. Joan Baekeland of New York, who with her husband, Frederick, has loaned, given and sold numerous works, recalls the NBMAA in the old days. "It never changed. It was the same thing. ... Part of me misses that sweet old building, with the seals over the mantel," she said, referring to an Albert Bierstadt painting..
But only a part of her misses it. "I love the museum. Doug is a builder with broad taste," she said. "He's both an art historian and a fundraiser. Some people are good at one of those and some people are good at the other. It's rare to find the combination. Museums need both, someone with a superb eye and taste and vision, and they need money."
Lindsley Wellman, the former president of the New Britain Herald, has promised a collection of 220 graphic works by Homer, which he collected with Judith Vance Weld Brown.
"When [Hyland] came to the New Britain museum 16 years ago, he was the right person at the right time. Through his vision and leadership, the museum was brought into the 21st century," Wellman said. "It was always a great treasure of Connecticut. It was not really that well known outside. Now it is well-known throughout the state and beyond."
DEDICATION DAY of the new wing at New Britain Museum of American Art, 56 Lexington St., is Sunday, Oct. 18, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Ribbon-cutting is at 1 p.m. nbmaa.org.