HARTFORD — Lifelong Hartford resident Paul Caraballo had never been to the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art before Wednesday. "It didn't really catch my eye," he said. Then he heard the news that all residents of the city will be admitted free. "My friends came in before me and put it on Facebook," he said. "I thought I'd go check it out."
Caraballo and his friends were among the first Hartford residents to take advantage of the initiative launched this week by Atheneum CEO Thomas J. Loughman. Hartford residents who proof of residency can get a card good for free admission usable at any time, with up to four guests also admitted free. "Wadsworth Welcome" took effect Wednesday.
LoRay White hadn't been to the museum since she was a schoolgirl. "I love it. I'm so looking forward to this," White said. She got her card on Wednesday and joined a docent-led highlights tour.
Loughman initiated Wadsworth Welcome to open the museum's doors to people who might not be able to afford the $15 general admission. Recent U.S. Census figures show the median annual household income in Hartford as $29,319, with 34.4 percent living in poverty. Loughman also said he wants the museum to be a gathering place for all the city's diverse communities to interact.
Visitors on Wednesday were certainly diverse: white, Hispanic, African-American, men and women, senior citizens and young adults. Visitor services representative Gina Calliva said the pace of applicants was slow but steady throughout the morning and early afternoon.
Krishna Hayes is familiar with the museum. He used to work there as a security guard. Hayes enjoys going to the Atheneum but said the cost sometimes could be prohibitive. "I'm an artist. I don't have a lot of money," he said. He got his card Wednesday and plans to come more often. "I think this is great. It will expose more people to art," he said.
John Powell is an artist, too. "I just started painting again. I want to come here to get inspiration," he said. In the past, he has come as frequently as possible, but often he couldn't afford it. With his card, he said, "I might come here every day."
Johnny Mojica was a regular museumgoer years ago when he was a special-education teacher. "I'd bring the kids," he said, but as a teacher bringing in classes, he didn't have to pay. He hasn't visited as frequently since then. He was so happy about the Wadsworth Welcome program that he showed up before the museum was open. Calliva told him to come back later. "I'm so happy that he did," she said.
Mojica said he would come often and bring friends. "It's a good thing to do with people from outside the city," he said.
Cie Peterson, a city resident who came Wednesday, brought someone from outside the city. Her friend, Toni Robin of San Diego, works in arts marketing and is familiar with museums. "I see California art all the time, but to see the Hudson River School art was very exciting," Robin said.
Calliva said she has observed that sometimes people are nervous about approaching the museum because they don't understand what it is. Marta Bentham, an Atheneum trustee, told The Courant in 2013, "A lot of people don't think of the museum as something to enter. To them, the Atheneum is a bus stop."
Calliva said she works to break through that, sometimes even going outside to encourage people to come in.
"I think that this is going to open people's eyes," Calliva said. "And those people will go home and tell their neighbors."