New Britain Museum of American Art | Connecticut

Posted by on September 29, 2008

I don’t think I have ever suggested a day trip because of a Ladies’ Room, until now.

In fact I hardly ever remember rest rooms at all.  Except one in Alsace at the Haeberlin brothers three star restaurant. But that’s another story.

In my zeal to find trips near home this summer for all of us gasoline-traumatized citizens, and to visit a museum with a spectacular new wing, I motored over to New Britain, in Central Connecticut.

Even without the aforementioned Ladies’ room, this museum is well worth the almost two hours it takes to get there.  And as they say, the beautiful journey is an integral part.

I also went to meet an old friend for lunch, and to see the “Contemporary Glass: Chihuly and Beyond,” exhibit, which will be at the museum until the end of October, so take note.

The drive across Northwestern Connecticut is really lovely in any season.  We just took Route 4 to Farmington, then south on Route 84 for a couple of exits, then Route 72 in to New Britain, and there we were.

A stop in Farmington would not be a bad idea.  It is the home of Miss Porter’s School, with its wonderful examples of New England architecture.  Just driving through the main street is a mini-Williamsburg experience.

I was amazed at the changes in the New Britain museum, which used to be a small excellent array of (only) American Art, housed in a former mansion near Walnut Hill Park. Now, with a new second expansion, it has really come in to the 21st century in a big way.  The lovely old mansion, it seems, has been saved, to house administrative and education offices.

The new wing, called the Chase Family galleries, is larger than the old museum and has a giant stairway as one of its main features.  Hanging in the great central space of this stair is a stunning Chihuly chandelier.  The acquisition of this might well have been the impetus for the current contemporary glass exhibit.

I must admit that glass has never been one of my favorite art objects.  That is, not until I discovered Dale Chihuly.  This rather unlikely looking man has really changed the face of the glass industry, and how glass is blown, as well as how it is exhibited.

What we saw at the New Britain Museum was a rather tame, though entrancing exhibit, (compared to other works of Chihuly that I have seen hanging over canals in Venice, for example.)  Nevertheless, the works we saw were dramatic, odd, gorgeous, mesmerizing, all at the same time.  Glass is a tremendously versatile material, which can be functional as well as artistic.

Chihuly has helped make glass a high Art, rather than a craft, but available to everyone with his unusual venues (Jerusalem, in the old Wall, Las Vegas, in the Bellagio ceiling) in fact, he’s almost everywhere these days.  This museum would be a good place to learn about the history and versatility of glass.

The other incredible installation on this grand stair is called The Gravity of Color, by Lisa Hoke, a 2008 work, made from plastic cups, paper cups, paint, and hardware!! The most amazing thing about it is that it is utterly beautiful, though it certainly sounds strange, doesn’t it??

The original museum was founded with paintings from the families of early industrialists in the area.  There are marvelous examples of almost any American Artist you can name, from the earliest up to the most contemporary.  However, this museum is not one of those that accepts whatever the local wealthy donate.  It contains some of the best examples of some of the very best American painters and sculptors because of Directors like Sanford Low and Charles Ferguson.

I had fun finding old favorites, which I remembered from living in the area forty years ago!  Among them were: Raphaelle Peale’s “Bowl of Peaches,” (in fact a poster of that hangs in my kitchen!) and Frederic Church’s “West Rock, New Haven.”  I have a favorite Maurice Prendergast which lives there, as does Maxfield Parrish’s “Dusk” a hauntingly beautiful expression of what “home” means (at least to me.)  I think George Bellows “Big Dory” is my very favorite of his paintings.  Here also is found Andrew Wyeth’s McVey’s barn, and that incredible Whistler called the “Beach at Selsey Bill” in which he conveys an entire seascape with just a few brush strokes.

One of the big draws in the earlier history of the NBMAA (as it is called on the web) was and still is the famous Thomas Hart Benton Murals of Arts of Life in America. They fill a room, and came to the museum through Benton’s friendship with Sandy Low, who was the museum’s director for a long time.

Now you have probably guessed that I am not ACTUALLY recommending this place for it’s Ladies’ Room, but you really must go and have a look at the elegant, calm, artistic, and yes, useful, rest room that I hope will impress you as it did me.

The museum now boasts a restaurant too, called the Café on The Park.  Its terrace will make a marvelous lunch stop all through the fall. And if it is too cold to eat outside, the restaurant has a wall of windows looking out toward the majestic old maples and elms across the street in Walnut Hill.  The café is run by Jordan Caterers, an outfit that has won the “best caterer” award by  Connecticut Magazine for several years.  You can check out the menu on their website.

In addition to a pretty good museum shop (I bought several gifts) the museum has a wonderful educational program.  One of the best ones, I thought, is an Introduction to Art for pre-schoolers and their caregivers, called “ArtStart” in which the kids can hear stories about art, and then explore line, shape and color with Museum educators.  What a great idea!

The museum’s website is worth a look –  as it has all sorts of information, and a wonderful slide show of some of the masterpieces of American Art which can be found there.

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