NEW LONDON — The Lyman Allyn Art Museum will reopen at half capacity on June 30 and offer free admission to visitors until Labor Day.
“We thought people might need a little extra incentive to come into a public space. We all recognized that we’re all a little nervous and we wanted to let people know that we’re doing everything we can to make it safe and healthful,” said Sam Quigley, director of the museum, by telephone on Wednesday. “We wanted to eliminate any hurdles so that people could come in and really just take advantage of what we are, the cultural amenity for this community.”
Quigley said the museum will follow state guidelines for social distancing and cleaning protocols, including the requirement that visitors and staff wear face masks. The galleries will have directional, one-way traffic patterns and visitor capacity will be reduced and monitored.
The pandemic has overshadowed the museum’s accreditation from American Alliance of Museums, which the museum received in February after a two year process. Of the nation’s approximately 33,000 museums, only about 1,070 are accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.
“Accreditation is critical to get major loans from major museums and it helps with fundraising as well. And, it’s a very good effort to go through as a museum because it’s a process of re-examination of what you do, how you do it and what you could do better. It’s a test and seal of your adherence to excellence, and that’s very important to me.,” said Quigley. “It was an important goal and one that gives entree to the whole [range] of art and programming that you might not otherwise have access to.”
According to Quigley, accreditation will increase opportunities to borrow from other accredited museums — requiring more methodical planning — but offering the chance of a more ambitious schedule of exhibitions.
“A museum of our stature needs to have an exhibition schedule that goes out two or three years in advance because that’s also a way that you get entree to these great shows, you can’t ‘dial them up’ at the last minute. You’ve got to be part of the process and plan them out,” he said.
As a result, the museum has developed long-term plans for exhibitions, budgets and development as well as a strategic plan.
Quigley said the museum is planning an exhibit focusing on Frank Vincent DuMond, a 20th century painter who also taught at the Art Students League in New York City. His students included Norman Rockwell, Georgia O’Keeffe and John Marin, among others. DuMond was a member of the Lyme Art Colony and lived in Grassy Hill.
“We’re going to have a show of his work and the work of a number of his students. That will be the summer show for next year,” Quigley said. “That’s an example where we’re going to be borrowing objects from other museums and, again, that’s where the accreditation will come into play.”
Quigley said that when he was hired as director in 2014, the trustees had a clear vision for revitalizing the museum.
“I think the word ‘reinvigorate’ was the mantra,” he said. “The museum was kind of down on its luck there for a while and I love a turnaround operation.”
In 2013, the museum had been given a provisional accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums.
“There was a checklist of areas they really needed to focus on, including re-engaging with the public and good governance. There were big issues around financial sustainability and they wanted to restore the staffing that had been cut down over the course of several years to what was really a bare minimum,” he said.
He said the museum had a well-trained and dedicated staff, but they hadn’t been given a strong, clear mandate.
Two big projects kept the focus on reinvigoration, he said.
“Right off the bat I was given an amazing opportunity to purchase a big Tiffany window from a church in New London that had to sell it but wanted to keep it in New London,” he said. “They sold it to us for a price we could afford and I committed to keeping it on public view to share it with the population of New London. That generated the idea of a big exhibition about Louis Comfort Tiffany and his work in New London and we opened the Tiffany Gallery in the fall of 2018, after fundraising.”
The other project, funded by a few substantial grants — which Quigley said he had managed to land — was the re-installation of the museum’s permanent collection of American works in 2016 into a group of galleries known as American Perspectives, a chronological view of three centuries of American art.
The museum’s challenges during the pandemic parallel those of other similar institutions, including a decreased donor base and a dearth of foot traffic.
Nevertheless, Quigley said the museum has been managing well and he was “pretty optimistic about the future, too.”
“We did set about right away to get all the help that we could. We did get our PPP allotment from the government and that has been a godsend. It’s kept us so that we have kept all the staff fully engaged without any reduction,” he said.
The museum is also pursuing other grants under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) act, which included allotments to the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), among others.
Though shaken by the pandemic, private philanthropy is still a key component of the museum’s financial stability going forward.
“We are quite concerned about that. We had to postpone our spring fundraiser twice and now we’re planning to have it on August 8 outdoors,” he said. “With the stock market collapse in March and April, even though fortunately it’s bounced back, a lot of the folks who have the ability to make gifts were shuttering up quickly. I don’t know what’s going to happen on that score, but we are certainly going to be making our case again for being worthy to receive some help from those individuals.”
The spring fundraising campaign was “fairly successful,” according to Quigley, but did not reach the museum’s original goals.
“But we’re not destitute because of it,” Quigley said. “I want to be methodical and busy and optimistic, but I also need to be realistic. We just don’t know what is going to happen, but we’re certainly doing everything we can to make sure we come out of this at least whole if not better.”
Putting ideas on the walls
The museum is holding over “Stories of Resilience: Encountering Racism” until August 2.
“The show opened on February 13 and then it was truncated by the COVID crisis and we decided even before George Floyd was murdered that we were going to reopen the show and keep it open because we had juggled the scheduled a little bit and we had wanted more people to be able to see it,” said Quigley.
The museum’s exhibits gain meaning only when people interact with the art, he said.
“The art museum is surely about the art, but without the people who put the art on the walls or the people who come and appreciate it, it really is hollow,” he said. “I try to tell people that, yes, we’re an art museum but really what we’re doing is putting up ideas on the walls and these are ideas that are hopefully something people can relate to.”
Quigley said when he worked at the San Francisco Museum of Art, the tagline was “open to interpretation,” which reflects the philosophy and attitude of the Lyman Allyn.
“We want to be ‘open to interpretation’ and to do that, you’ve got to look at the art, you’ve got to open yourself a little bit to it. We try to do that in everything we do,” he said. “We’re making progress. We’ve increased our attendance every year for the last five years. People are coming back and I think they’re enjoying themselves and we want to keep that going more and more.”