Mr. Wadsworth’s Museum

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All hummed along solidly, correctly, and inconspicuously until the annus mirabilis of 1927, when, as the Atheneum’s archivist, Eusene R. Gaddis, writes in a forthcoming history of the mu- *5 seum, “Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, sound came to the movies, and A. Everett Austin, Jr., was named director of the Wadsworth Atheneum.” Austin, known as Chick, was a twenty-six-year-old Harvard graduate who had already made a reputation as one of the most formidable connoisseurs of his generation. He could also paint, act, design sets, costumes, and houses, and perform magic tricks.

Austin possessed not only an extraordinary eye but a bloodhound’s nose for the offbeat, affordable masterwork that happened to be underappreciated or out of vogue. When the baroque was considered decadent, he embraced it; in 1930 he organized the first exhibition of Italian baroque art in America and, as a follow-up, began buying an extraordinary group of seventeenth-century paintings. A year later Austin staged the first surrealist show in America, and in 1934 he mounted the inaugural Picasso retrospective on this side of the Atlantic. Preternaturally ahead of everyone else, Austin was the first American museum director to purchase works by DaIi, Mondrian, and Caravaggio.

 
 
 

“Chick,” in the composer Virgil Thomson’s words, “was a whole cultural movement in one man,” as he introduced film, dance, music, and theater to the Atheneum. In 1933 he received a letter from Lincoln Kirstein saying he’d “stake my life on [the] talent” of a young dancer he had seen. Austin persuaded the museum’s trustees to bring George Balanchine to the United States to open a school in Hartford. It didn’t last very long, but the museum’s initial sponsorship helped shape the future of dance in America. The most famous event of Austin’s entire career was the 1934 première in the museum’s theater of Four Saints in Three Acts —a collaboration between Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein.

After Austin left the Atheneum in 1945, the glory days were never duplicated. But the museum’s most recent directors, Tracy Atkinson and Patrick McCaughey, have followed Austin’s policy of pursuing neglected artists and genres. In particular they have collected and exhibited art by African-Americans. In 1989 the museum became custodian of the Simpson Collection, which consists of more than six thousand paintings, prints, sculptures, photographs, books, and manuscripts documenting three centuries of black life. “I would be horrified,” McCaughey recently said, “if the Atheneum’s view of American art stayed fixed in aspic, if people only thought of us for the Colonial Revival and the Hudson River school.”

McCaughey’s words seem to echo Chick Austin’s own views on keeping a museum vital. “We must have the great things of the past to enjoy and study,” Austin wrote, “but with that valuable experience and pleasure as guide and criterion, we must surely seek to live in the present and to try to create the new forms which are to be our legacy to the future.” Daniel Wadsworth could hardly quarrel with that.