Connecticut Art Trail Offers Strength in Numbers

Richard Friswell
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Slater Museum, Norwich, CT

A reoccurring theme at this year’s Museum Association annual meeting, held on the West Coast, was cooperation. In these difficult economic times, it is more important th an ever for institutions to band together to more effectively and efficiently compete for the public’s attention and vital revenue. Across the country the issues are essentially the same. But given the universal scope and scale of the challenge, responses tend to vary widely. For a culturally-diverse community like Los Angeles, with more than forty museums within the city’s limits, the need to find common ground and related exhibition themes is essential to bringing people to their doors and vital young membership to their rolls. For many far-western and less-centrally located museums, the priority is outreach and cooperative programs with other cultural and educational institutions in the region, where a shared cultural legacy or historical narrative, with its associated artistic heritage becomes the ‘take home message.’  Fine Arts Magazine

Tufte Scupture Installation, Aldrich Museum, Ridgefield, CT

Back East, the mood is a different one. Large urban art institutions continue to set the tone for ground-breaking and innovative exhibitions featuring, in many cases, the giants of the western European art movements of the last two centuries, as well as a cadre of emerging and established artists who stand at the center of the contemporary art whirlwind. Directors and curators vie for high-profile names and regularly march out portions of their vast permanent holdings, mixed with famous and not-so-famous works on loan, to drive home a curatorial message. With currently-planned expansions of the physical plant more the exception than the rule now, the emphasis for many institutions is to achieve a Wow! Factor in the absence of dramatic new accommodations.

In Connecticut, at least, there is one important exception to the temptation to draw back and hunker down. With a rich heritage of art production that dates back to the founding of the country in the 18th century, the state’s museums have often acted as repositories for some of the most famous and beloved works of art by American artists known today. While frequently traditional in nature (American Impressionism was born in Connecticut), a new generation of institutions has appeared on the scene, representing the contemporary art world in a thoughtful and dynamic way. The Connecticut Art Trail is a coalition of 15 museums and historical settings which run the gamut from one end of the state to the other and from Old Masters of the 16th century to Conceptual artists of the 21st.

Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT

Founded in 1995 as the Connecticut Impressionist Art Trail, within recent years the organization has redefined its objectives and broadened it s cultural horizons. Under the  guidance of Sandy Betner, who was hired as executive director four years ago, and an active board, the mission of the ‘Trail’ has been strengthened and redefined. “We are passionate about partnering,” Sandy tells me. “Being inwardly-directed if you’re an art institution is passé. In order to survive in this market, with so many high-tech products competing for the hearts and minds of the younger visitor, becoming outwardly-oriented just makes sense. We have studied the data and know that people are looking for value when they travel. They don’t want to spend hours in the car to come to just one place and not be offered a range of things to do once they get there.”

Working closely with the Connecticut Department of Culture and Tourism, Sandy and her team determined that many families travelling for fun or couples getting away for a weekend expressed a desire to have a ‘cultural experience’ be part of that journey. What the ‘Trail’ then did was to: group institutions that were part of the association by state region, combine them with other experiences (dining, attractions, lodging, sporting venues) and put mileage designations between these attractions (GPS co-ordinates are on the drawing board for the near future). Travel packages were then created, with hotel discounts and suggested itineraries. A dynamic Web site, featuring links to all of the museums and historical stops along the way is being regularly updated. “We want the museum experience to be fun and enlightening. We suggest that the museum staff take a step back and look at their facility from the visitor’s point-of-view. While museums used to be visual experiences, they are now more interactive. Our goal is to offer something of interest for all ages.”

The on-line visitor has the option to purchase an Art Pass for $25. This represents a $75 value and allows the purchaser to visit all 15 museums on the trail for any two-month period they choose. Children under 12 are free, when accompanied by an adult. Art Passes can be purchased on line at www.arttrail.org.  “There is strength in numbers,” Sandy says. “We’ve known that basic fact for a long time. We have had good results applying that concept to the state’s wide range of world-quality museums.”

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