The art of leadership: Jeffrey Andersen marks 40 years as the Florence Griswold Museum's director

Jeffrey Andersen might not have seemed the most obvious choice to be hired to run the fledgling Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme in 1976. He was from the West Coast, having grown up in the San Francisco Bay area, and was fresh out of graduate school.

He had expected he'd return to the West Coast after attending the grad program at the State University of New York at Oneonta that trains museum directors and curators. But the dean there told him about a job he thought would be of interest to Andersen. It was at a historic house in Old Lyme.

“He said, it’s basically about the intersection between art and history. Even from my undergraduate days, that was my special interest — American cultural history,” Andersen says.

That historic home was a boarding house owned by Florence Griswold. In the early 1900s, artists gathered there during the summer and painted, becoming known as the Lyme Art Colony. This was the home of American impressionism.

Andersen was hired as director and sole employee of what had been a volunteer-run organization. Andersen figured he’d be at the Florence Griswold Museum two or three years.

It has turned out to be 40 years — and counting. During that time, the Florence Griswold Museum has flourished.

George Willauer, who was a charter trustee of the museum, says Andersen “made a small-town historical society into a nationally recognized museum. The way he has done that is to rely on his own artistic sensibility but also on his talent as a professional museum director.”

Board president Ted Hamilton, whose mother was involved with the museum when Andersen began, says, “When Jeff started, the Florence Griswold Museum was really an historical house with a couple of nice Old Lyme paintings in it — to today, where it’s a big campus, it’s a significant museum with a tremendous collection and an historical house.”

Hamilton notes that, of course, there have been a lot of people who have helped over the years, including museum employees and trustees, but he gives the lion’s share of credit to Andersen.

“He’s a very nice guy and, at the same time, he’s a very good manager and a very good academic student of art,” Hamilton says.

A current exhibition has Flo Gris taking a look back at its history on the occasion of two major anniversaries — Andersen’s 40th as director and Amy Kurtz Lansing’s 10th as curator. “Ten/Forty: Collecting American Art at the Florence Griswold Museum,” which is on view through May 29 in the museum’s Krieble Gallery, explores how the museum built its impressive collection.

Andersen says how much he admires what Kurtz Lansing has done with collection development at Flo Gris. He says that “one of the joys of having a position like this and staying as long as I have is the association with people, with colleagues, people who join our staff, volunteers.”

Andersen adds that, with the exhibition, it “was kind of thrilling to have an opportunity to reflect on the trajectory of the museum.”

That trajectory began, of course, with the Florence Griswold House itself. Andersen actually lived there when he first arrived. When he couldn’t afford to pay for the electric heat in an above-the-garage apartment he had found, the Flo Gris board agreed he could live in a little apartment in the back wing of the Flo Gris House.

“Work and life seamlessly blended,” Andersen recalls. “I poured myself into a place that very quickly got under my skin.”

He saw that the way to reach a broader public was to tell the story of Florence Griswold and the colony artists and to treat the site as a museum and historic house of American cultural history.

“I felt it when I came here, and I still feel it today — there’s a spirit to this place that tells the story of an experiment in communal living, of creative people coming together and living under one roof. The fellowship, the jealousies, the petty animosities, the enduring friendships, the jokes and hijinks are things that I think people can relate to in their own lives with their friends and families and so forth,” he says.

The spirit and generosity of Florence Griswold herself is a vital part of what people relate to, as well, he believes. She went through challenges to make ends meet, but she kept her optimism, and she found it fulfilling to gather other people around her.

One of the things that struck Andersen about the Florence Griswold House was that the dining-room panels and doors that the Lyme Art Colony artists created were still intact.

“That became, for me, the touchstone. I just thought they were so unusual and extraordinary,” he says.

They weren’t, though, set in a context where they’d tell the story of Florence Griswold and the Lyme Art Colony, so that became one of his first goals.

Efforts began, too, to restore the house, to change the exhibitions and to develop the program. And, of course, acquiring art became a focal point, following on the heels of an art recovery committee in the early 1970s. Andersen recalls talking with the descendants of Florence Griswold and of the Lyme Art Colony artists. He says he was like a salesman, explaining what the museum was going to be and how these people’s ancestors would fit into this specialized institution of American cultural history.

One watershed moment came when the widow of internationally renowned painter Willard Metcalf called Andersen and said she was trying to figure out what to do with some of Metcalf’s paintings and items. Metcalf and Childe Hassam were two leading lights of the Lyme Art Colony.

“She said, ‘Some of my husband’s happiest days were spent in Old Lyme, and I would love to help you develop the museum, and I’d like to give the Florence Griswold Museum works by my husband that were really family pieces,’” Andersen says.

The museum now has some funds for acquisition, but, back then, it built its collection through the generosity of families, donors and collectors. 

Exploring the art of Connecticut

Arguably the most vitally important time in the museum’s history since its founding were the years of 2001 and 2002. It acquired the Hartford Steam Boiler Collection in 2001, and it opened its newly built Krieble Gallery in 2002.

As for the former, Andersen says, “That was transformational in the sense that the collection had a lot of Lyme Colony work, but it was much, much broader than that. It was really the art of Connecticut.”

The collection was owned by the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company and was created under the aegis of company chief executive officer Wilson Wilde. Back when starting the project, Wilde had asked Andersen to be part of a committee that would help create this collection.

When the Hartford Steam Boiler company was being bought out by AIG, its board donated the collection to the Flo Gris museum. Flo Gris president Hamilton says that Andersen was instrumental in convincing them to give the collection — which Hamilton describes as the best corporate art collection in the country — to the Old Lyme museum.

While this was in the works, the Flo Gris was, coincidentally, constructing the Krieble building, which was going to feature two galleries and then a third space that could be turned into an additional gallery five or ten years down the line. With the acquisition of the Hartford Steam Boiler collection, Andersen encouraged the Flo Gris board to create that third gallery right away, and the board agreed.

“Where we are since having acquired this collection is how do we build on that, how do we tell more fully the story of the 20th century and even the 21st century?” Andersen says. “What has been a really fun exploration has been to consider bringing, in a sense, the Hartford Steam Boiler Collection forward and consider the role that Connecticut played in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s ’60s and on to the present.”

Among the recent significant acquisitions that are on view in “Ten/Forty” are Miriam Barer’s “The Skaters,” a 1943 painting depicting skaters at the Rockefeller Plaza rink that her family gave to the museum last year, and Martin Lewis’ “Dawn, Sandy Hook, Connecticut,” a 1933 piece that Kurtz Lansing felt the museum should pursue after she saw it in New York; in the work that Andersen notes evokes Edward Hopper’s style, a dark figure walks near a shadowy series of tract houses.

Flo Gris continues to flourish under Andersen’s leadership. Hamilton says that it’s extremely rate for a director to stay at a museum as long as Andersen has.

And, Hamilton adds, “We’re so lucky to have kept him all this time.”

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