Value Beyond Decor: $1 Million Dollar XL Center Murals Present Problem Of Preservation

Two Romare Bearden murals installed at the XL Center in 1980 need to be removed from the arena prior to the facility's renovation. (Left: Arman Hatsian; Right: Brad Horrigan)

The renovation of Hartford's XL Center arena presents plenty of challenges: dealing with season-ticket holders whose seats must be moved to make way for new premium boxes; ordering custom-made parts because heating and cooling systems are so old; and figuring how to rig scaffolding so work can be done around events.

And then, there's the mural problem.

Two murals hung high above the arena's northwest entrance — abstract sports and music motifs — must be carefully taken down for the renovations. Trouble is, they are large — the biggest is 16 feet by 10 feet — and it will be tough even getting them out of the building. The murals aren't being used in the makeover of the XL's concourse, so now new homes must be found for them, difficult because of their size.

But there is another reason to handle these murals with care: they could be worth over a million dollars.

"We didn't know anything about them," said Kimberly C. Hart, venue director for the Capital Region Development Authority, which oversees XL. "We were literally talking to staff in the building, and they said they were by a famous artist and they were worth a lot of money."

What Hart discovered on Google and by talking to a local art dealer is that the murals were created by the well-known Harlem Renaissance artist, Romare Bearden. They were commissioned by the city in 1980 as public art to adorn what was then called the Hartford Civic Center.

"Really, Romare Bearden is one of the premiere collage makers in the United States and he's represented in many of the art museums throughout the country," Myron E. Schwartzman, author of "Romare Bearden: His Life and Art," said. "He's really one of the most highly thought of artists in the United States, particularly in collages."

Schwartzman, a retired college professor living in New York City, said the murals could be valued at $1 million, or at least well up into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The value of Bearden's work has been rising since the artist's death in 1988 and major exhibitions of his work in 2004 and 2008, he said.

Bill Katz, owner of Jubilee Fine Arts in Hartford and the dealer consulted by the CRDA said his estimate of at least $1 million was not a formal appraisal. Rather, his estimate was based on two, smaller studies of the XL Center murals that had asking prices of $200,000 each several years ago at a gallery in New York City, said Katz, who specializes in African-American and Latin American art.

"You can extrapolate from that," Katz said.

Unseen Masterworks

It is easy to miss the murals — named "Olympics" and "Untitled" — if you visit the XL Center. They are above the numbered doors that lead from the concourse into the arena. Most ticket-holders are looking at those numbers — and not much higher — as they try to find their seats.

"My personal joke with friends is that you'll see masterworks of American art if you buy a ticket to the Civic Center," Katz said.

Just getting the murals out of the XL Center will be tough. They can't be passed through exterior doors because the murals are too large. Instead, doors to the arena will be taken off, the murals carried down into the bowl and then out much larger portals where staging equipment is brought into the arena.

That, Hart said, is easily enough figured out. Much more difficult is finding a new home for them, she said.

The Wadsworth Atheneum doesn't have the space because it is in the midst of renovations. The New Britain Museum of American Art now has two Beardens in its collection, but again, the size was the problem.

"And there was some desire to keep them in the city," Hart said.

A potential location for one of the murals could be the Connecticut Convention Center, but no decisions have been made, Hart said. They also could return to a city sports arena should a new one be built in the future, she said.

Though the artworks are nearly invisible to most, Katz has been pushing since the late 2000's for the murals to be displayed in a more public venue — and not one that required a ticket. The issue isn't new: the murals were commissioned as public art — in the same vein as Hartford's "Stone Field" and "Stegosaurus" — but haven't been truly public, a matter of debate even before they were hung in the Civic Center 34 years ago.

"The works were created to be enjoyed by the public in a non-museum environment," Katz wrote in a 2007 Op-Ed piece in The Courant. "Though they are not Bearden's finest works, they are nonetheless worthy of a world-class artist."