Photography by Kyle Norton
The architect Philip Johnson said that museums “satisfy a deep natural want, as deep as sex or sleeping.” The original Bruce Museum of Art and Science was a brooding pile of stone with a widow’s walk, and the relics within —a portrait of Martha Washington here, a stuffed waterfowl there—did nothing to compete with either sex or sleep. (We are being a little unfair: the museum did, and does, possess sumptuous paintings by the Impressionists of the Cos Cob Art Colony, who flourished around the turn of the twentieth century. Then again, it also possessed a shrunken head.)
In 1993 the museum got a badly needed expansion. The architectural firm of Shope Reno Wharton wrapped the old granite mansion in stucco wings and an Arts and Crafts entranceway—and suddenly the Bruce was “punching above its weight,” as former executive director Peter Sutton liked to say. In ensuing years, the museum put on exhibitions one would happily go to New York to see: Rubens, Sisley, Munch, Picasso, Hans Hofmann, Chuck Close. “Theme” exhibitions were equally remarkable. “The Great American Nude” (speaking of sex) featured paintings by Eakins, Sargent, Bellows, de Kooning, Milton Avery and Lee Krasner, while “Love Letters” showcased seventeenth-century Dutch masters, including Vermeer, whose surviving oeuvre consists of only thirty-six paintings. The science side, too, got ambitious: an exhibition titled “Evolution of the Natural World” let us know, in a delightful way, that we’re all doomed to extinction.
This was major league stuff—in a minor league venue. “The building was holding them back,” notes Robert Wolterstorff, who assumed the Bruce’s directorship in 2019. Indeed, despite the $4.3 million expansion of 1993, the Bruce seemed smaller than ever, in that its modest size was muzzling its world-class potential. Most glaringly, the museum had precisely zero permanent art gallery space; its own fine collection lived in the basement. Then, in 2014, the museum board wisely decided the Bruce had a grander destiny to fulfill. A “new Bruce” was required, together with $60 million to bring it to life.
And now it’s here—a beauty of an addition that more than doubles the Bruce’s volume and reorients its entrance toward Museum Drive and surrounding parkland (that is, away from the old “back” entrance next to the whirring traffic of I-95). “It’s a supremely modernist building,” Wolterstorff says. “It’s a clean, serene kind of modernism—there’s a grandeur and elegance to it. It changes the whole vibe.” Architect Steve Dumez, of the New Orleans firm Eskew Dumez Ripple, who studied at Yale, drew inspiration from the granite of Connecticut’s cliffs and quarries. Thus, the new Bruce, built of cast stone and glass, by day resembles striated rock with a vein of quartz, and by night a block of shimmering aquamarine. Robert Bruce’s original Victorian mansion and the 1993 expansion (which, truth be told, coupled awkwardly) still exist but are largely out of view as you face the magnificent new Bruce.
The Bruce’s dual mission of art and science harks back to the days when museums saw no conflict in displaying under one roof works of art and works of nature. In the old Bruce, though, science was pretty cramped. In the new Bruce, science and natural history will take up all of the old Bruce’s gallery space. The old Bruce space will also be reconfigured to add an education wing funded with a $5 million gift from the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation. The Bruce’s education programs were always popular—so popular that the museum could not accommodate the demand. No longer will this be the case.
The 43,000-square-foot addition (the old Bruce totaled 37,000) houses all the art in a wing named for businessman and collector William L. Richter; it was his $15 million gift that got the new Bruce off the ground. The gallery for changing exhibitions alone measures a 4,500 square feet, twice the size of the old art gallery. Then there are five permanent galleries—one of them devoted to sculpture—to exhibit the Bruce’s growing permanent collection. A first-floor lecture hall and a café stress the new Bruce’s goal of serving a variety of community appetites.
The new Bruce held its grand opening on Sunday, April 2.
Following are brief interviews with five key Bruce Museum players, who tell us what we can expect.
The Bruce Meet some of the faces behind the new museum
CEO & EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
GM: In what ways did the “old” Bruce building hold the museum back?
RW: It held us back from building a strong collection. If I said, “You have a great Picasso, and I hope that you’ll put it in your will to the Bruce. It’ll be in storage most of the time, but I promise we’ll try to get it out every two years,” well, you’d give it to the Met or MoMA. What collectors don’t want, when they think of their legacy, is for their collections to end up in the basement. Now I can promise gallery space.
It also held us back in terms of education. Teachers can’t build a curriculum around exhibitions that are always changing. They want to know, when they bring a group of third graders around, that painting X will be hanging on the wall for them to see. It’s peculiar that we’ve been a museum of art and science for 110 years, and we never had permanent gallery space until now.
GM: What’s your favorite art work presently in the Bruce’s collection?
RW: Over your shoulder, that’s one of the great paintings in our collection. It’s by Childe Hassam, the American Impressionist, who was part of the Cos Cob Art Colony. What’s super cool is that it’s a Greenwich scene—that’s the Mianus River railroad bridge. It’s a spectacular painting, and it shouldn’t be hanging in the director’s office.When we open, it won’t be here.
GM: Now that you have five permanent galleries, collectors have begun to bequeath great work to the Bruce. Tell us about some of it.
RW: We have a promised gift that’s in a local couple’s will—a very large and significant collection of about seventy works by Europeans and Americans: Camille Pissarro, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth. Lots of Elie Nadelman, lots of Henry Moore.
There are two Hopper oils, which are in a show at the Whitney right now. One is called “Bridle Path,” and it shows people on horses going into a dark tunnel in Central Park. And then “Two Comedians.” Do you know that one? It’s profoundly moving—the last painting he ever painted. It’s Hopper and his wife on a darkened stage, in costume, so it reminds you of Shakespeare: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage…” I think “Two Comedians” will be our “Mona Lisa,” if you define “Mona Lisa” as a great work by an important artist that you would make a pilgrimage to see.
Well, the same might be said of Wyeth’s “Sheepskin” from the same collection—a really great painting from the Helga series [Helga Testorf was a neighbor of Wyeth’s in Pennsylvania who posed for him, clothed and nude, for fifteen years]. The paintwork is incredible—it’s all shades of brown and gold and umber and red. It has this seething vitality to it, this smoldering color. [Part of this collection is on loan to the Bruce.]
GM: We’re excited about the new exhibitions, especially “Connecticut Modern: Art, Design, and the Avant-Garde, 1930–1960,” coming this fall.
RW: Nobody noticed there was so much modernism going on in Connecticut. It was our adjunct curator, Ken Silver, who did notice, and found there was enough material for a show.
It starts in the Twenties, with Marcel Duchamp and Katherine Dreier, an artist and a patron who lived in Redding. They founded the Société Anonyme [the first museum of modern art in America; Man Ray was a cofounder]. Then Alexander Calder comes back from Paris in 1933. He sees the gathering storm clouds, sees the political climate getting ugly, and he moves to Roxbury. His studio is still there. Calder becomes a gathering point for a lot of people, especially French surrealists. So, Yves Tanguy was here [in Woodbury], Andre Masson was here [in New Preston]—a whole group of French surrealists. Then you have New York artists, like Arshile Gorky [in Sherman], coming up here to get out of the city. There were also people who were well settled here, like Sol LeWitt [in Chester] and Jasper Johns—he still lives in northwestern Connecticut. Robert Motherwell, the influential Abstract Expressionist, lived in Greenwich. And of course, he was married for fourteen years to Helen Frankenthaler, who lived in Darien. Connecticut is known for Impressionism, but it was also a hotbed of modernism.
CURATOR OF SCIENCE
GM: So how much more room does science have in the new Bruce?
DK: Twice as much. We have a permanent natural history gallery called “Natural Cycles Shape Our Land,” which is a little bigger than the previous permanent gallery. We have four times as much rotating gallery space, which is really great, because we were totally crammed in that little room of about 500 square feet, and now we can do really much more exciting and larger shows.
Then we have the Robert R. Wiener Mineral Gallery, which is a new space of about 840 square feet. It’ll blow you away. It’s about 200 minerals from all around the world, exquisitely beautiful and rare pieces. This is all coming from one guy, Bob Wiener, who we did a temporary show with in 2017. At the end of the show—he’d lent us ninety-seven minerals—he said, “Do you want to give them back, or do you want to keep them?” And so that was the nucleus of this display. Then he donated about 100 more specimens, and they’re just spectacular. We think of them as art and science.
GM: You’re a paleontologist by training and a renowned penguin expert. What’s your first big exhibition going to be?
DK: Penguins! We have a show called “Penguins, Past and Present” that’s about penguin evolution. It starts 60 million years ago, so you’ll see fossil penguins, you’ll see some extinct giant penguins (we made some life reconstructions of them, working with an artist in New York), and then you’ll see many species that are alive today. You’ll learn how they swim, how they evolved from flying birds, how their wings turned into flippers. It’s a really fun show, and it’s near and dear to my own heart. As a paleontologist, I work mostly on birds, and my favorite birds are penguins. They’re charming, they’re hilarious, they’re beautiful—and they made one of the greatest evolutionary transitions you can imagine.
GM: You mentioned giant penguins. How big did they get?
DK: We have a couple of fossils on display. We made a life reconstruction of Kairuku, a penguin that was about four and a half feet tall. That’s one that I worked on [excavating its bones in the field] in New Zealand in 2012. There’s an even bigger penguin, Kumimanu, also from New Zealand. This one was over 300 pounds, and about my height. We have a cutout of it downstairs [on the gallery floor]. So they got really, really big early on in their evolution, and then these larger species seem to have died out around twenty million years ago. We don’t know why, but it could be they were losing out in a competition with seals and sea lions, which may have been hogging the beach.
GM: What’s another science exhibition we can look forward to?
DK: The second show we’re going to do is on scientific hoaxes. This will be one of the most fun things we’ve ever done. We’ll have the Cardiff Giant [a huge “petrified” man dug up in 1869] coming from upstate New York. Three thousand pounds! I went up and saw it last month. We’re gonna ship that bad boy down here. We’re also going to have a centaur. And a mermaid. We obtained an 1800-era false mermaid, which were all the rage, you know: pay a dollar and come see the thing. It’s pretty gruesome. P.T. Barnum purchased one that had been shown in London in the early 1800s. It was made of an orangutan and a cod or something.
I’d love to do a dinosaur show at some point out. We have the space now. We never could have done that in the old science gallery. We’d have like half of one dinosaur.
CURATOR OF ART
GM: You specialize in 19th– and early 20th–century American art. Who are some of your favorite artists within that period?
MK: I’m especially fond of the realist tradition in American art from Winslow Homer to the Ashcan School [Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Luks, etc.], as well as the early period of American modernism, including the work of artists like Marsden Hartley, Yun Gee, Georgia O’Keeffe, Helen Torr and many more.
GM: The new Bruce has five permanent galleries, where the old Bruce had none. What works from the basement are you especially eager to bring up?
MK: The Bruce Museum’s art collection comprises some 3,200 objects, and I’m particularly impressed by our strong holdings of Indigenous art. Though I’ve been focused on the museum’s reopening exhibitions, I look forward to researching the collection further and showcasing it in the new Bruce.
GM: What exhibitions can we look forward to reasonably soon?
MK: We’ve planned a robust slate of exhibitions, including a major survey of Lois Dodd’s paintings; a focused installation of work by the self-taught artist James Castle; and a new, site-specific installation by the Dallas-based artist Gabriel Dawe [who constructs large works out of brightly colored thread]. We’ll also debut a series of thematic exhibitions drawn from the museum’s permanent collection and private collections in Greenwich. These include an installation focusing on American modernism; history and constructs of past and present in the work of contemporary Black artists; masterworks of French Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Surrealism; Connecticut Impressionism; and, finally, a sculpture exhibition devoted to the Polish-American modernist sculptor Elie Nadelman.
GM: Will special attention be paid to Connecticut artists?
MK: One of the galleries will feature work drawn entirely from the Bruce Museum’s permanent collection, with a particular focus on Connecticut Impressionists and the contributions of women artists such as Mina Fonda Ochtman and Florence Gotthold. This installation will explore the formation of the Greenwich Society of Artists and Cos Cob Art Colony, in tandem with the Bruce Museum’s own institutional history. We’re excited to showcase works that have never before been on view, along with perennial favorites from the collection with which visitors are already familiar. We’ll also have work on view by artists such as Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, and Barkley Hendricks—all of whom studied at Yale University.
GM: What exhibitions do you dream about putting on one day?
MK: I would love to curate an exhibition about the history of art colonies across the United States, particularly in Connecticut and New England, but also farther afield, in locations ranging from Pennsylvania to New Mexico and California. I’m fascinated by the ways in which art colonies facilitated opportunities for women and artists of color who sought professional opportunities outside of traditional academic instruction.
MANAGER OF SCHOOL AND TOUR SERVICES
GM: How many people do you expect to reach through the educational programs?
KH: We have set a goal of reaching 50,000 people through educational programs in our first complete year of operation. While many of the people we reach through our programs are children, we also host programs for adults. The programs our department creates are wide reaching and varied, from field trips for educational groups to drop-in activities for families and lectures with world-renowned scholars for adults. We plan on expanding our programs to better accommodate our surrounding community’s needs and interests. For example, we’re really focusing on expanding offerings for teens, adults and Spanish-speaking visitors.
GM: Tell us about the education space, brought to us by the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation.
KH: It will completely transform how the Audience Engagement Department carries out its work. In our previous spaces, we had one multi-use classroom and shared the entrance with everyone going in and out of the museum. The Education Wing will have three multi-use classrooms and a lobby dedicated as an entrance. The additional classrooms, along with the expanded exhibition areas, will allow us to host larger groups at one time. A common issue we ran into with the old space was teachers wanted to bring larger groups than we were able to accommodate, such as an entire grade of eighty-plus students. We’ll be able to host much larger groups.
GM: What at the museum do students respond most vividly to?
KH: Children love animals, both living and not. So, I find they respond just as vividly to the living animals in our marine tanks as they do to the taxidermy animals in our dioramas. Children of all ages love animals; but the way they interact with them, the way they learn about them, what they want to know about them will change as they mature.
GM: You have also curated exhibits. Tell us about a few.
KH: I’m very proud of the work I have done on exhibitions of children’s book art. Children’s book illustrations are some of the first exposures to art that many kids have, and I think it takes real talent to create well-crafted imagery that both connects to the story and appeals to or catches the attention of children. So, I have really loved having the opportunity to bring talented artists to our visitor’s attention and persuade them to consider book illustrations at the same level of any other artwork you might view in a museum.
GM: You’ve been at the Bruce since 2012. What have been some of your favorite exhibits?
KH: I really love when the Bruce examines the intersection of art and science. So, one exhibition that immediately comes to mind is “Electric Paris,” which examined how Parisian artists responded to the advent of oil, gas and electric lighting in their artwork [including that of Sargent, Degas, Cassatt, Toulouse-Lautrec and Bonnard]. We supplemented the art with a science exhibition of interactives that explained how electricity works. There are plenty of art museums and there are plenty of science museums, but the Bruce is unique in its mission to look at both; and I think looking at those two areas at the same time allows our visitors to see those subject areas in new ways. It certainly has helped me!
On our way out of the museum, Robert Wolterstorff introduced us to security associate Larry Corney, who is perhaps the most visible public face of the Bruce. We sat and talked. “There’s nothing I don’t love about this job,” he says. “I’m getting an education, my ‘family’ is here, and I’m getting to meet people. I love meeting people. I met Diana Ross once—she was here with her grandson. I met [athletes] Bob Beamon, Donna de Varona and Herb Adderly during a Summer Olympics exhibit.” He pauses for a moment. “And, of course, I love the art. Especially miniature paintings, with little people in them. Whatever they bring in here, I’m down with it.”