Hartford Courant: “Mystic Arts Center Renamed Mystic Museum Of Art”

Mystic Arts Center Renamed Mystic Museum Of Art

Hartford Courant

Released: February 16, 2016
By Susan Dunne

“What’s the difference between an arts center and a museum? Friends, fans, staff and board members of Mystic Arts Center, recently rechristened Mystic Museum of Art, are about to find out.

In May 2015, George King took over as the arts center’s director. Soon after, the venue that has been a hub of the local arts community for decades changed its name.

“When I was being interviewed [for Mystic], I said they should consider changing the name,” King said. “A museum designation is an appropriate one for the activities we conduct here. A museum has a quality and seriousness to it.”

He added, however, that “anybody can call themselves a museum.” King’s goal is to be not just “anybody.” He wants to bring the nonprofit art space into the art-world big leagues, by winning accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums.

“Accreditation is about how a museum comports itself,” he said. “When you get it, it means you’re at a certain professional level.”

Much work needs to be done. A multi-year process — including improving the building’s infrastructure, evaluating governance and staff, assessing its 230-object collection, examining its educational programs, which employ 28 teachers, and other tasks — is involved. King also said that the museum’s $800,000 endowment must be increased. He needs to get out into the community and get to work soliciting donations. “People may like the organization, but in the end people give to people,” he said.

King was director of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., from 1998 to 2008 and the Katonah (N.Y.) Museum of Art from 1988 to 1998. He was at the helm of both museums when they received their first-ever accreditations.

Yvonne Pollack, who was director of education at Katonah when King was there, praised his ability to get the museum accredited.

“George was involved in every aspect of the museum’s life. … His leadership during the accreditation process did not overlook any detail,” Pollack said. “It is an exacting procedure that requires a broad oversight as well as care to meticulous detail. George fulfilled all that and more.”

Benefits Of Museum

Mystic Art Association was founded in 1913 by Mystic art colony founder Charles Harold Davis. Mystic Arts Center, situated on a marina-view spot on the Mystic River, opened in 1931.

Rita Rivera of the Eastern Regional Tourism District/Mystic Country said the new name “will be beneficial in the long run” and easier to market.

“When you hear Mystic Museum of Art, automatically, to the average person, something comes to mind,” she said. “It’s an art museum. It’s very simple to understand. Mystic Arts Center is not quite as clear a picture.”

Museum board President Mary Anne Stets called the museum “the best-kept secret behind the cliff,” referring to a rocky outcropping that partially obstructs the view of the museum from Water Street. Stets said when the 1930 charter of incorporation was signed, the founding statement stated the goal was “to erect and maintain an art museum in the village of Mystic.”

Stets said the main benefit to a name change is visibility in the arts-granting community. She said the goal of achieving AAM accreditation isn’t as important as the journey to get there.

“AAM helps you identify what it is you need to do to work toward those standards of excellence,” she said.

The federal Institute of Museum and Library Services estimates that there are about 35,000 museums in the country. AAM reports that 1,054 museums are accredited, including 19 in Connecticut. Accredited museums of all kinds — art, history, science, zoos, botanical gardens, etc. — comply with standards in seven categories: public trust and accountability, mission and planning, leadership and organizational structure, facilities and risk management, education and interpretation, financial stability and collections stewardship.

Accreditation Process

Burt Logan, the chairman of the accreditation commission with AAM, said the accreditation process takes 2 to 2 1/2 years, normally.

The first step, he said, is that a museum has to complete five core documents:a mission statement, an institutional code of ethics, a strategic institutional plan, a disaster preparedness and emergency response plan and a collection management policy.

Those documents are reviewed by staff, and, when the staff is satisfied that the museum can move forward, an online questionnaire must be completed by the museum.

“It is designed to give a real broad overview of the condition of the museum standards,” Logan said.

The staff reviews the questionnaire, often requiring more information. When the questionnaire is satisfactory, a site visit is conducted by members of the accreditation commission.

“They’re looking to assess things that are difficult to gauge on paper, like how involved is the museum in the life of the community, what type of impact does their educational program have,” Logan said.

After those are completed, the commission has one of four options: to grant accreditation for a 10-year term, to deny it, to table it for a year to help the museum iron out problems, or to defer the decision due to missing information.

Logan said the most important factor in working toward accreditation is not to consider the forward steps as an additional duty, but to incorporate them into the daily operations of the museums.

“Some museums sort of mislead themselves to think they do the 8-to-5 work and then get ready for accreditation. Accreditation should be part of what you’re doing every day from 8 to 5,” he said. “It requires a shift in thinking.”

Curated Show

The museum launched its new name at the same time as it opened a curated show. Mixing curated shows into the venue’s usual lineup of juried local shows is one of King’s goals. “We want a larger degree of scholarship,” he said. “We want to publish catalogs, work with other museums.”

King curated “Drawn from a Private Collection: Works on Paper from 1880-2009” and hung it in the museum’s most polished gallery, the Liebig, whose walls are painted a light gray. Other galleries in the museum — which has a total of 3,830 square feet of gallery space — have non-museum-like wall coverings that look and feel like low-pile carpeting.

While works in other galleries are by contemporary local artists, the “Drawn” show reflects King’s goals of more curated exhibits with internationally known creators. The 26 pieces include a gouache of schooners by Winslow Homer, a small early oil by Thomas Hart Benton, a conceptual drawing by Christo, a lithograph-silkscreen by Kara Walker, a watercolor landscape by John Marin, two energetic works by Jacob Lawrence — one a gouache “The Family” and the other a striking ink-on-paper commemoration of the 1943 Harlem riots, “The Ballad of Margie Polite” — and a somber 1920 charcoal cityscape by O’Keeffe. Most of the artists in the show, which will be up until April 9, had never shown at the Mystic venue before.

It isn’t just the artworks, but also the wall text beside the artworks, that reflect King’s wishes for that “larger degree of scholarship.” The synopses are well-researched, giving historical context and curatorial insight.