Director Thomas Loughman Making His Mark At Wadsworth Atheneum

Thomas Loughman has been at the helm of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford for just shy of a year. Usually, it takes about a year for a new director to start putting his stamp on a museum and a community. But the museum's newest director and CEO has already made himself known in Hartford.

So far Loughman's signature move has been the "Wadsworth Welcome" program he initiated on Aug. 24. More successful than Loughman had hoped, the program offers free memberships and admission for Hartford residents and has attracted 1,000 sign-ups so far, from all neighborhoods in the city, according to Atheneum statistics.

Loughman is even more excited about another facet of those statistics. "More than two-thirds of the people who have signed up are in the 18-to-45 age bracket. This is the Holy Grail. This is the future," Loughman said.

"The decision-maker when visiting an art museum in any household is usually in their late 50s. ... If you were to call up any of my colleagues [at other museums] and ask them about audience aging, that's the phrase that makes people blanch or go beet red. It's what they're worried about," he said. "To know that our enrollment is so weighted toward younger people, in particular 42 percent of those new enrollees are millennials, is just wow."

Museum spokeswoman Amanda Young added that the new enrollees encompass a wide range of communities. "In tracking the primary languages spoken at home by registrants, there are 17 languages other than English spoken among the constituents," Young said. "Fifteen percent primarily speak Spanish."

Now that Loughman has broadened the Atheneum's audience, it's time for the Atheneum to show that audience new and wonderful things.

The first major exhibit produced under Loughman's tenure opens Jan. 7: "Utamaro and the Lure of Japan." Among other artworks, the show will reunite two Japanese masterpieces for the first time in 130 years: "Fukagawa in the Snow" (1802-1806) from the Okada Museum of Art in Japan with the Atheneum's own, "Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara" (1793). The exhibit has a Hartford connection, too.

"When the United States Navy landed on the shores of Japan in 1853, they came bearing diplomatic gifts, among them deluxe pistols made by the Colt factory here in Hartford. In exchange for those pistols, Commodore Perry was presented with samurai swords and a major textile panel, a room decoration, to ferry back to the United States and give to the Colts," Loughman said.

 

Future shows will include a tribute to the centennial of J.P. Morgan's gift of hundreds of artifacts to the Atheneum and a show on surrealists' reactions to the Spanish Civil War and World War II.

Off On The Right Foot

Leaders in the Hartford arts community say Loughman got off on the right foot with "Wadsworth Welcome."

City resident Marta Bentham, a member of the Atheneum's board, said "Wadsworth Welcome" has lit up city residents' interest in the museum. "The people in the community now see the museum as part of their daily life," she said. "They see the Wadsworth now just as they see the Cathedral of St. Joseph. When you refer to it, it's just 'the cathedral.' Now people don't say 'the Wadsworth Atheneum.' They say 'our museum.'

"I was standing in line at the CVS waiting for a prescription and people behind me were saying 'I hear there's a Japanese exhibit coming'," she said. "That didn't happen before."

Susan Talbott, Loughman's predecessor as director of the Atheneum, praised her successor's "Wadsworth Welcome" initiative. "This shows that Tom believes as much as I do in building diversity and engaging audiences," Talbott said when the program launched. "It's the strongest sign of commitment you can give because anything involving budget is always the hardest thing to do."

Henry R. Martin, chairman of the Atheneum's board of trustees, said Loughman is changing the culture in the museum. "He's working with the staff to become a little more sensitive to the visitor that is coming into the museum, to make sure we are relevant to them," Martin said. "I think that 'Wadsworth Welcome' is the first of several things you're going to see led by Tom and Tom's vision."

Cathy Malloy, CEO of the Greater Hartford Arts Council, echoed Martin's optimism. She praised Loughman for "getting the word out" about the museum, and is looking forward to what he has in store. "He's still the new kid on the block," Malloy said.

Kristina Newman-Scott, cirector of culture for the State of Connecticut (DECD), said she was encouraged by the move toward racial inclusivity that came with "Wadsworth Welcome." "Hartford is over 70 percent people of color. The unfortunate reality is that this is not reflected in arts and cultural organizations," Newman-Scott said. "If we're moving toward people of color being a majority in the U.S., how can we ensure a space for everybody?"

She said she looks forward to working with Loughman and other arts leaders to increase inclusivity in all aspects of organizations' existences. "There is currently no staff of color in leadership positions [at the Atheneum]. We want to help our arts organizations move in that direction, too," she said. "We're in the capital city. We all should lead by example."

A Childhood Among Art

Loughman's exhibition instincts are grounded in a well-rounded background in a wide variety of artistic eras and styles. And to think that when he started his college career, he wanted to major in biology.

Loughman was born and raised in Morristown, N.J. As a child, his parents were fond of "dragging me and my sister into New York systematically to bring us to the theater and to visit art museums," he said.

As a freshman at Georgetown University, Loughman attended an orientation for biology majors, but that fizzled out when a professor asked him what he wanted to do. "'I don't really know' was the answer," he said.

Loughman didn't last long in that major. He switched to international relations. That put him only halfway to his ultimate destination. "A friend said 'Why not take this course with me?' ... a course on medieval and Renaissance architecture in Italy," he said. "I said, 'What does that have to do with me? Why would I ever do that?'"

He talked himself into it by relating it to his major. "It seemed like a way to learn the visual aspects of modern history," he said. But soon he was hooked on art. He went for a double-major in international relations and art history. He wrote papers on a Greek marble statue of Theseus and the campus architecture at Georgetown. Then he spent a summer in Florence, Italy, where he developed a fluency in Italian. He also is fluent in Spanish.

"I was living with a family that had had a pope in the family centuries earlier. I was trying to sort out the estate of the Prince Corsini, who had died. I was making up inventories of their property," he said. "They had a great picture gallery, a collection that wasn't open to the public." That family never was able to open an art museum, but Loughman latched onto the idea of running a gallery.

"I said to my senior thesis adviser ... Is there a world in which I can become an impactful art museum director in America?" he said. "After I was looked at with a great glance of suspicion and the question 'Are you serious?'... we had to figure out what our next moves were."

Next Moves

Loughman's next move was to Williams College for a master's degree. In peaceful Williamstown, free of big-city distractions, Loughman dived into scholarship. "I had never taken a course in the baroque. I had never taken a course in Chinese art. I had never taken a course in central Asian Islamic art. I had never had an up-close and personal experience with rare book collections," he said.

Michael Conforti knew Loughman when Loughman was a student in Williamstown. Years later, Conforti was director of the Clark and hired Loughman. He said Loughman's skills were evident when he was a grad student. "I think he had a perspective on institutions that went beyond the collections themselves. He is also interested in institutions as social and civic environments," Conforti said.

After Williams, Loughman took a job at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the prints, drawings and photographs department. In addition to being his first real art-museum job, Philadelphia was a turning point in his personal life. He met his future wife, Sarah, who was a registrar there. They got engaged a year later, when Loughman had left the museum to pursue his Ph.D. in art history at Rutgers University. Today, he and Sarah have two daughters. The family has moved from Williamstown to a home in Farmington.

Loughman wrote his doctoral dissertation on 14th-century Italian painter Spinello Aretino. Then he returned to Philadelphia, where he worked at the museum and taught college courses.

His first position as a full curator, in European art, came in 2004 at the Phoenix Art Museum, where he presented an almost constant stream of shows, about 20 in all. Among his exhibits were Baroque painting in 17th-century Naples, Rembrandt and the golden age of Dutch art, Edgar Degas sculptures, Theodore Robinson in Giverny and Irish painting.

Loughman returned to Williamstown in 2008, as associate director of program and planning at the Clark Art Institute. He spearheaded lending collaborations with international art spaces such as the Prado in Madrid and the Shanghai Museum.

He held that job until accepting the leadership position at the Atheneum. During a portion of his tenure there, galleries at the Clark were closed for renovations. Meanwhile, in Hartford, renovations were going on at the Atheneum. Loughman is happy that he's taking over with the Atheneum "newly spiffed."

Listen And Learn

When Loughman, 45, arrived last February, he said his first goal was "listening." He did that and is still doing that — among his staff, other local cultural leaders, business leaders, faith leaders, educators, board members and trustees, members of the community — and what he has heard helped to shape his priorities moving forward.

In August, when launching the "Wadsworth Welcome" initiative, Loughman referred to the U.S. Census Bureau's statistics showing that the median annual household income in Hartford is $29,319, the lowest of all the state's 169 municipalities, with 34.4 percent living in poverty.

"That disparity we need to own. It's about social equity and it's about inclusion, " Loughman said in August. "Many of the people who live in our area ... still believe that an art museum is not for them, that that's a place for rich people. The message is, 'It belongs to you.'"

Getting bodies into the museum is important, Loughman said, but it is only half the battle. "If you were to organize the most well-conceived exhibitions with the most perfect loans and the most perfect ideas and no one comes, you've failed. Similarly, if you have a lot of people come to an exhibition that has all the wrong things in it and wrong ideas in it then you've squandered an opportunity," he said. "We need to reckon the right balance of these key ingredients: great works of art, ideas that are refreshing, harnessing the power of history in the service of a contemporary conversation with people about art."

Loughman is encouraged by development in the city — the UConn campus across the street from the Atheneum, slated to open this year, Travelers Plaza, Dunkin' Donuts Park, Front Street — and its promise of a more bustling downtown. "Our institution in its urban context is a new opportunity," he said. "The Atheneum greater than ever needs to become that urban oasis."

Editor's note: This story has been modified from a previous version to clarify the opening date of the "Utamaro" exhibit.

 

Copyright © 2017, CT Now
68°