New Britain Museum of American Art is an easily overlooked jewel in the crown of New England culture. I confess I had never been to New Britain, Connecticut, let alone to the New Britain Museum of American Art before stopping by last week on my way to a soccer tournament. New Britain on a Sunday afternoon in May proved to be a sleepy little post-industrial city with a wonderful side street museum devoted exclusively to American art.
Set against the backdrop of Frederick Law Olmsted’s lovely Walnut Hill Park, the New Britain Museum of American Art opened a new 43,000-square foot Chase Family Building designed by Ann Beha Architects in 2006. The ochre sandstone of the new gallery building complements that of the Landers House, the handsome Victorian mansion that previously housed the museum exhibition space and now houses its administration.
The featured exhibition at the moment is All Things Bright & Beautiful (through June 29), an exhibition of California Impressionist paintings from the Irvine Museum. All Things Bright & Beautiful reprises an exhibition that toured the country a decade ago, but it looked fresh and new on the walls of New Britain Museum. California Impressionism, which flourished back in the Age of Innocence and peaked in the 1920s, is kind of the AA minor leagues of Impressionism, following from Class AAA American Impressionism on the East Coast at the turn of the century and major league French Impressionism in the late 19th century. Filled with frothy confections of color and light on themes floral, landscape and marine, All Things Bright & Beautiful was curated by William H. Gerdts, whose three-volume Art Across America is the Bible of regional American art.
As it happened, I was down from Maine for the last day of an exhibition of new work by artist Kate Cheney Chappell, co-founder of the Tom’s of Maine line of natural personal care products. Chappell was born in nearby Hartford and raise in Manchester, CT, where the Cheney family once owned a prominent silk factory. Chappell’s collagraphs, constructions, monotypes and watercolors were exhibited in the Mary and George W. Cheney Jr. Gallery named for her late parents, a most fitting and poignant setting for works of art that attempt to answer “questions about her existence and purpose on earth” prompted by the loss of her mother and father.
New Britain is also featuring a small, 13-painting exhibition of Eric Sloane’s America (through August 3), all but two of the fetchingly realistic paintings depicting the New England barns for which Eric Sloane (1905-1985) was so well loved. The other two paintings are of aviation and skiing subjects.
New Britain’s big upcoming summer show will be Contemporary Glass: Dale Chihuly and Beyond (July 11 to October 26), an exhibition of work by some 50 glass artists to celebrate the museum’s acquisition of one of Chihuly’s signature free form chandeliers. Those who love contemporary glass art might want to combine a trip to New Britain with a visit this fall to the Rhode Island School of Design Museum where RISD will be inaugurating its own new Chace Center gallery with Chihuly at RISD (September 27 to January, 2009). At least that’s what I’m planning to do.
New Britain Museum of American Art, 56 Lexington St., New Britain CT, 860-229-0257, www.nbmaa.org.