Sunday, February 15, 2015

Review: Wadsworth Atheneum

As part of a gloriously arty weekend, we spent several hours at the Wadsworth Atheneum on Saturday afternoon to visit some favorite paintings and to see the newly renovated spaces for contemporary art and other exhibits. You can read more about the changes at the Atheneum’s own website; I won’t attempt to describe it all here.

I’m not qualified to offer a technical or even a qualified aesthetic review, but I can offer a perspective as a patron who attends museums very often and as one who pays close attention to how art is presented within a museum space.

For the most part, I enjoyed what I saw and experienced. The new rooms are roomy, though the spaces are so large that sometimes the works of art are too far apart; sometimes one wants to closely compare works in the same gallery.

All-hardwood floors are elegant and attractive, but contribute to the high noise level in every space. Of course people want to talk with each other about what they’re seeing, and it’s really wonderful to see families with kids of all ages enjoying art. But in these large, hard-surfaced rooms, every sound was magnified. A nice area carpet in each room would have added visual appeal and would have dampened most of the noise. I hadn’t been there more than five minutes before I had to pull out my industrial-strength ear-plugs.

(Ahhh…..within a few seconds, I have entered a near-total silent place. No auditory or verbal distractions. Just the art and my own thoughts.)

Hmm… even with the ear plugs, I found myself distracted and distressed. I was unable to get comfortable physically. I was warm enough; had just had a nice lunch with D; was wearing comfortable shoes; had my earplugs in. What was going on?


In some galleries, there was far too much light, bouncing and glaring off the painted and glassed surfaces of the paintings. In several instances I could not find a place to stand to look at a painting that was without glare: there was just too much light, and some paintings were hung too high or too flat to the wall, with ugly track lighting blaring down in unfiltered whiteness. It actually hurt my eyes. Look at the inescapable glare on George Inness’ depiction of lovely Étretat. In the top photo, that's a huge patch of glare above the famous cliff. In the next photo, it appears that Inness painted sheets of water coming down the cliff; no, that's glare on the oil paint. And in the last photo, the glare spoils the effect of clouds and sky. It was impossible to find a viewpoint that was not spoiled.

In some places, there was not enough light, as in these rooms:

In each of these rooms, there is a painting in near-darkness. 

If these dark spots were by design, well, then that’s a terrible design. If they are by accident (such as caused by burnt out bulbs), well, then someone should be paying attention.

In all the rooms, whether the lighting was inadequate or overbearing, they illumination came from ugly, unshaded track lighting, and (if I recall correctly) some inset lights. It was ugly, harsh, and in most cases utterly unflattering to the objects it was supposed to enhance.

Who designed this awful lighting?

In the case of the dark spots, I’m willing to give benefit of the doubt, and assume the lights were not functioning properly. But in a place whose mission is, presumably, to encourage and facilitate public viewing and interaction with art,** it is inconceivable that there is not a person cruising the galleries pretty much constantly during open hours, looking to make sure all is well and that patrons can actually see the art comfortably. In a concert hall there is a chief usher whose job it is to ensure that all the patrons can have a satisfactory listening experience; this would include identifying trouble spots (e.g., disorderly attendees) and resolving them (e.g., ushering them out of the hall). Museums should do the same, by providing perceptive people -- skilled volunteers –to walk from gallery to gallery to ensure that patrons can at least see the art.

I’ve been to many, many museums in the past several years; never have I felt so assaulted by the lighting. In fact, in most museums, I don’t even notice the lighting, and that’s how it should be. The lighting should illuminate and even elucidate without drawing attention to itself (in the same way that a good amplification system does its job without being noticeable).

Another issue: Around the Gengras Court, decorative objects are arranged with complementary paintings from corresponding eras and regions:

That’s informative and very pleasant. But I miss seeing, for example, a set of silver in a case with a dozen other sets from the same period; it was nice to compare and learn deeply about one thing. So, these new mixed galleries are attractive and successful, but, I think, at great cost.

These issues aside, we had a wonderful visit to the Atheneum, and I enjoyed much of what I saw. Because I’ve been studying the Hudson River School and some other specific “schools” of art, I spent most of my time in those galleries. But I did take a moderately-paced tour through the new galleries for contemporary art, and I liked much of what I saw. I cannot look at, or contemplate, images that are explicitly violent, so in some cases I just glide by with averted glance.

Below, I’ve posted a few more photos with my comments.

Look for photos of some of the actual art in the near future.

Aside: It’s fascinating that I could not find the Atheneum’s mission on the museum website; I had to go to Guidestar. Huh. Maybe the museum leaders need to get that mission statement back under the eyes of people who design their new spaces. Interesting.

This still works beautifully.

The Morgan Gallery is now home to a set of 18th Century tapestries,
a grand use of this stunning space.

This photo (Chagall!) is taken at an angle in an effort to conceal or reduce glare.

Monet's water lilies are luminous, but even the Monet's skill can't compete
with the brutal shadow at upper left, caused by terrible lighting.

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