Florence Griswold Museum Director Rebekah Beaulieu (CT Examiner/Hewitt)

Florence Griswold Museum Launches Five-year Planning, Added Space a Possibility

OLD LYME — From her second-floor office, museum director Rebekah Beaulieu can see the banks of the Lieutenant River where the Lyme Art Colony painted in the early 1900s.

“This is not an exclusive museum,” Beaulieu explained, “this is a museum about the intersection of art, history and landscape.”

That three-part vision, laid out by the museum’s mission statement, is key to planning the next five years for the Florence Griswold Museum, arguably the best-preserved home of American Impressionism and one of just 63 National Historic Landmarks in Connecticut.

“It has this unparalleled experience where you can come. You can go in our galleries. You can be inspired by a work of art that was painted here 100 years ago. You can go to the exact spot on our grounds where it was painted and you can paint your own painting,” Beaulieu said in an interview on March 3. “We encourage people to be creative here, we consider it our role to foster creativity. “

“We’re considering where do we fit in in Connecticut, where do we fit in in New England.” she said. “And, where are we as a unique museum in the national landscape? What are we doing that’s different that we can start highlighting more, what story do we have, we know so well the story of the artists colony. How can we continue to grow that narrative and to make ourselves an appealing institution on a larger scale?”

In January, the Florence Griswold Museum hired the Charleston-based Winkler Group to help create a five-year plan.

“We were looking for a partner that was going to work very closely with us and we wanted a firm from outside the area. We wanted objective expertise so we did not want a firm that was based here,” said Beaulieu, who became director in 2018, succeeding longtime director Jeffrey Andersen, who led the museum for 40 years. “We had a strategic plan that was due to conclude in 2020 so this is right on schedule. This is truly about setting our priorities for the next five years.”

Some potential priorities include additional exhibition space, particularly to display the permanent collection, as well as space for exhibitions and research.

“All of that would require additional square footage. But also, we’re very mindful as we consider growth opportunities, we don’t want to overwhelm this property so I would say we may look at expansion, but I don’t think we would look at building any new buildings that would negatively impact the visitor experience,” said Beaulieu.

David Dangremond, who became a museum trustee in 1987 and has been president of the Board of Directors for two years, said he has worked through a succession of strategic plans and visions for the future of the museum.

“The joy of the strategic plan is it’s the period of possibilities, we want to make sure we incorporate every possible vision for the future,” he said by phone on March 5. “The challenge will be to evaluate and assess all of those possibilities and determine which of them are the highest priorities.”

Dangremond said museums are in a period of “enormous evolution,” especially in their role in serving the public.

“Museums on the whole have been very successful in drawing in new audiences and the challenge is continue to reach younger audiences,” he said. Technology offers challenges and educational opportunities, but “nothing compares to actual experience of being in the gallery with the actual work of art.”

“All of that would require additional square footage. But also, we’re very mindful as we consider growth opportunities, we don’t want to overwhelm this property so I would say we may look at expansion, but I don’t think we would look at building any new buildings that would negatively impact the visitor experience,” said Beaulieu.

Beaulieu said that the first step, and her current focus, in the planning process is listening to the community.

“We did stakeholder interviews, one on one, with members of board, with volunteer leadership — and those were really the people who are most familiar with the museum over the past few years. That was the first tier,” she said. “Second was outreach via email with a survey to 2,400 peeople and we got a 12 percent return rate, virtually unheard of for surveys.”

Next steps include an all-day retreat in March for the board, followed by focus groups in April that will include town leadership, staff, community and museum members.

Board member Deborah Moore, who is chair of the planning committee, said the question was how to take the museum’s story of art, history and landscape and make it sustainable for the next 20 years.

“We want to be sustainable and relevant,” she said. “I think the pace at which external forces can impact a museum is at a much more accelerated rate than 10 or 20 years ago and we have to be cognizant of all external factors that are going on. If you don’t adapt, you don’t survive.”

Beaulieu said sustainability will require expanding the museum’s circles to a larger audience.

“In terms of the sustainability of this organization, we have to be responsive to the community. There are changing demographics, there are changing philanthropic interests, this is a time for us to do more listening than talking,” said Beaulieu.

“We’re considering where do we fit in in Connecticut, where do we fit in in New England.” she said. “And, where are we as a unique museum in the national landscape? What are we doing that’s different that we can start highlighting more, what story do we have, we know so well the story of the artists colony. How can we continue to grow that narrative and to make ourselves an appealing institution on a larger scale?”

Beaulieu said she had participated in early conversations with the town concerning changes on Halls Road that could include the construction of a bow bridge where one once spanned the Lieutenant River. The bridge is depicted in a painting shown on the Robert F. Schumann Artists’ Trail near the potential site on museum grounds.

“We’re not hinging our future plans on what happens with the town, but we’re more than happy to contribute if and when those conversations continue,” she said. “The bow bridge is part of our history, it’s part of the town’s history, we would love to see some developments there, but we’re here to help in any way that we can.”

Beaulieu said that the artists’ trail is 60 percent complete and that the museum is planning to complete a circuit around the entire 12-acre museum property.

“We’re prioritizing on-site making the entire property one that can be traversed on foot, one where you were looking at native plantings, one where you were considering Connecticut history, landscape and sustainability as well as the art that was created here on site, that would be a natural dovetail for us in terms of the transition for the town — and a priority,” she said

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