WORCESTER - The Worcester Art Museum, which has one of the nation’s great collections, is entering a period of momentous change after many years of relative stability. That stability, personified by its beloved director James A. Welu, who has worked at the museum since 1974 (as director since 1986) has served the 115-year-old museum well: Welu’s contributions, both to the institution and the city, have been immense.
But Welu announced his retirement in September last year. And although no one wants to come even close to criticizing him, many are privately hoping that the imminent leadership change will help lift the museum out of its current funk.
Welu is a tall, trim, fastidiously dressed man in his late 60s who exudes kindliness and an infectious optimism. Those who know him speak of him as one would of a great professor or former mentor - with reverence and affection. If he has a weakness, they say, it’s simply that he wants to make everyone happy.
“Jim is the reason so many people are engaged with the museum, and it’s his personality that keeps them engaged,’’ says Cliff Schorer, WAM’s president.
A collector and entrepreneur, Schorer became involved with the museum after dropping by Welu’s office to enthuse about the collection. The two have become friends.
“The universal accolade I always hear,’’ says Schorer, “is that Jim is the nicest guy anyone knows.’’
Welu was born and raised in Dubuque, Iowa, and trained as a studio artist before getting into art history. To some in the art world, he represents one of the last of a dying breed of museum directors, among them the late Anne d’Harnoncourt of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Philippe de Montebello, ex-director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Like them, Welu has a background in scholarship (he wrote his dissertation on Vermeer and cartography, and organized important shows on Dutch and Flemish art) and rose up through the ranks of curators to become director, despite having no experience or training in financial management.
“He is what I call a purist,’’ says Chris Collins, a former WAM president who is now senior vice president and deputy general counsel for the insurance company Unum. “He has such respect for the art and what it can mean in people’s lives.’’ (Several times when speaking of Welu over the phone, Collins had to pause to fight back tears.)
Anne (Nancy) Morgan, who was the museum’s first female president, serving from 1981-85 and 1989-90, says, “you’re just as likely to see him in one of the galleries as in his office.’’
You can easily see why: By any standards, WAM’s permanent collection is breathtaking. It is tremendously strong in Asian, European, and American art, from ancient times to the present day, and boasts masterpieces by the likes of Paul Gauguin, Claude Monet (WAM was the first American museum to acquire two paintings by Monet, in 1910), El Greco, John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, Piero di Cosimo, and Mary Cassatt.
It has deep and impressive collections of works on paper, photographs, and contemporary art. It also has one of the finest sets of mosaics in the world (including a Roman hunt scene that covers about 500 square feet) and installed miraculously inside the main building, a 12th-century chapter house from a Benedictine priory in France.
Welu describes WAM as “the classic American art museum. It was founded on the principle of education. It’s a real community museum - built by the community coming together - in our case, the older industrial families, but also men and women coming together from various backgrounds to teach people through the arts here in Worcester, and then to build this world-class collection.’’
Collins recounts how, when his company was trying to decide what to do with its inherited collection of Paul Revere silver - one of the world’s largest - Welu was invited to explain why it would make sense to give it to WAM.
“Jim kept visiting, and he would bring with him a slide deck - every time a different deck - and start talking about WAM and its collection. It was amazing, what he said. He taught you to look, and then look again. You would start to see things you hadn’t seen.’’
Morgan, who chaired Welu’s first fund-raising campaign, remains in awe of his ability to communicate his passion for art “to anyone and everyone.’’
“He’s very much loved by the community,’’ she says. He has been an effective fund-raiser, she adds, simply because “when he asks for something, people hear him out.’’
Asked how he would characterize WAM, Welu flashes his characteristically fond smile. “People say to me it’s the doable museum. It’s not as vast as the Louvre, or the Met, or the Boston museum [the MFA], but it is the same level of quality to be sure. And it’s the same operations. We’re very involved in collecting, exhibiting, conserving, and educating, which are the cornerstones of any major museum.’’
The economic squeeze
Those operations, and the museum’s ability to finance them, have faced several threats during Welu’s long tenure. He has twice risen to the challenge, mounting successful fund-raising campaigns in the 1980s and again in the late ’90s.
But WAM, despite its solid endowment of about $94 million, is feeling the pinch again. And various symptoms suggest the situation is not just a hiccup. It’s chronic.
The museum is closed two days a week - one day more than most comparable museums. Curators and other staff have been on a four-day week since before 2001. (Many reportedly still put in hours equivalent to five days a week.)
For at least three years, ambitious exhibitions of the kind mounted by WAM’s peer institutions have been scarce (exceptions include several solo exhibitions organized by contemporary curator Susan Stoops). And the museum’s galleries are too commonly empty.
WAM’s front entrance, which leads straight onto its spectacular Renaissance Court, with its wonderful mosaic and grand staircase, is closed to the public during the week, in part to economize on staff. The public must instead use an unprepossessing entrance at the back of the museum, shared by the museum’s school.
Meanwhile, an architectural model representing a master plan for the museum, involving substantial renovations, languishes on a shelf behind Welu’s desk. The plan is more than 10 years old, and although Welu still hopes it will come to fruition, according to one wistful insider, “No one else in the building even pretends to believe in it.’’
Says museum president Schorer: “The master plan was very ambitious, and has guided a number of important decisions. But the reality of the market place dictates that some of those dreams be either deferred or changed.’’ He, for one, would rather see the museum expand its operating hours, and step up its exhibition programming.
“I’m a firm believer that programming begets audience,’’ he says. “Without it you quickly become irrelevant.’’
According to Welu, “We don’t get a penny from the city and never have. We love that independence, for all the reasons you can imagine. We’re still that grass-roots museum. When I go through the galleries here, about a third to a half of all the works are from the local community, local collections.’’
However, the days of a few wealthy local families presenting masterpieces and big sums of money are over, as Welu freely admits. The phenomenon is by no means confined to Worcester, but it’s acute here: The city’s early days as an international center of manufacturing are past. New industries - particularly biotech, education, and insurance - have grown up. But few of the leading companies have been involved in art collecting or arts philanthropy in the old way.
“Historically,’’ says Schorer, “the museum has rested on the pillars of several prominent families. As those families dispersed, and their businesses were sold, we have found we need to broaden that support base. As we go forward, gifts [to the museum] may be smaller, but we will have to have a larger and broader outreach. We have to look beyond the city of Worcester. We have to think nationally and internationally with collectors and enthusiasts.’’
Welu concurs, and says the museum may benefit from adopting the same approach as colleges: Like college alumni, people with a connection to the museum, or an affinity for aspects of its collections, may be spread far and wide. But the museum can profit from getting them involved in its activities.
When Welu took over as director in 1986, WAM was in deep financial trouble. Asked if he understood the extent of the problems at the time, Welu replies: “I have to say I think I was naive. I had no financial experience. The board knew that, but they just had faith in me I guess.’’
Welu was immediately sent to a three-day management course in Boston. (With a smile he adds: “I still think the principles you can learn in about three days.’’)
Those early years were tough, and not just on Welu. In four years, he says, WAM expanded from a “mom-and-pop’’-style operation to a multimillion dollar operation. A new wing was built, and security and climate control were revamped.
The budget remained in deficit for eight years. There were people, says Welu, who had worked at the museum for 20 years without a raise. Trustees were asked to contribute large sums.
Things improved, and over the years, Welu continued to conserve and upgrade the museum’s buildings, and revamp its pioneering art conservation operation. Air conditioning was introduced to the Renaissance Court and a leaking skylight mended. Salisbury Hall, the heart of the original building, was restored. The old galleries were gradually renovated.
In the meantime, Welu oversaw the staging of several ambitious exhibitions, including “Antioch: The Lost Ancient City’’ in 2000, and “Hope and Healing: Painting in Italy in a Time of Plague, 1500-1800’’ in 2005. No other museum was willing to take a show about the plague. But “Hope and Healing,’’ notes Welu, “ended up getting the best publicity.’’
William Keyse Rudolph, a curator of American art who recently left WAM after two years to join the Milwaukee Art Museum, says that Welu “never succumbed to the ‘Oh my gosh, will anyone come?’ mentality. He has wanted to feel part of a lineage of directors that encouraged scholarship and connoisseurship, and he should be celebrated for that.’’
With the museum’s board on the verge of announcing his replacement, Welu says he will stay on at WAM as director emeritus. He plans to write a history of the museum and to continue to teach.
“I just love learning, and teaching. That’s something I’ll do till I drop.’’
Asked if Welu’s continuing presence might hinder the incoming director’s freedom to operate, Collins says: “If it was someone other than Jim, it would be an issue. But he’s a unique person. Being who he is will make that easy. He loves the museum so much he doesn’t want to do anything to disrupt its future. He’s not an egotistical person.’’
Besides, adds Schorer, Welu and his Rolodex are “a resource that any director would want to have access to.’’Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this story included a photo caption that misrepresented the accessibility of the museum’s Renaissance Court.