WORCESTER — The horse is pink.
Strawberry pink, to be perfectly clear, stresses Matthias Waschek on the cusp of what the director of the Worcester Art Museum describes as the potential “game changer” for the 116-year-old institution.
For decades, the horse, in a shade of brown, could be seen across town at the popular but cash-strapped Higgins Armory Museum. But the Higgins closed Dec. 31 and as of Friday, visitors to the Worcester Art Museum will encounter the repainted equine in Salisbury Hall. The remodeled space is meant to draw people into a new exhibit that has demanded most of the museum’s resources in recent months.
“Knights!” is a permanent exhibition, curated by Waschek, featuring more than 100 works from the Higgins collection, ranging from medieval helmets to coats of armor. It will also serve as a jumping-off point for Waschek’s unapologetic attempt to attract some of the tens of thousands of visitors, including many children, who, every year, walked through the doors of the Higgins’s steel-and-glass building on Barber Avenue.
The Worcester museum has even taken Helmutt, the armored dog at the Higgins, and adopted it as a building-wide mascot, with a cheery, redrawn canine on polyboard installed in three galleries.
“This exhibition is basically the institutional turning point,” said Waschek as he walked through the “Knights!” galleries on a recent afternoon as museum installers worked to mount a mannequin onto the horse. “The goal is to transfer the audiences that went to the Higgins to the Worcester Art Museum.”
By that, Waschek means drawing some of the 80,000-plus people who visited the Higgins over the last year to walk through the Worcester Art Museum, which had an attendance of about 74,000 in fiscal year 2013. Half of those art museum visitors also didn’t pay for admission, talking advantage of the second, free summer on Salisbury Street.
The show is also an unabashed play for the nearly $6 million Worcester needs to pay for a $12 million renovation to allow more of the Higgins collection to go on display. So far, the museum has raised $6 million, mainly through foundations.
“You can only start fund-raising if you have something to show for it,” said Waschek.
But why the pink horse?
For Waschek, who has curated the show despite admitting he knows little about arms and armor — his doctorate is in French symbolism — the horse is meant to deliver a clear message. The Higgins material is not going to be displayed as it was on Barber Avenue. Hence, Waschek has borrowed a life-size Batman figure from a car museum in Los Angeles. This Batman, with the face of Michael Keaton from the 1989 film version, allows “The Dark Knight” to share space with other, more traditional symbols connected to the mounted warriors.
A few steps beyond Batman, the museum has installed a model of the Arc de Triomphe, also strawberry pink, which is meant to make visitors think about symbols of war. The gallery even has a soundtrack pumped in through a speaker above: Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”
“I want to establish a new template, I didn’t want to use an existing template from the Higgins,” he said. “By painting that horse strawberry pink, we made it more abstract. By making it more abstract, we are opening a completely new, magic door. When it looks like horses do and then not because of the color, all of a sudden you are in fairy tale land. Think about kids who like their dinosaurs in pink or baby blue. Hopefully it would appeal to them. Or adults, it makes something that looks like a not-so-good copy of how horses look into something abstract.”
It was just over a year ago that the Higgins stunned its loyal visitor base by announcing plans to close. Museum leaders said its small endowment made it impossible to balance its budget.
But rather than auction off the collection, Higgins’s leaders came up with a way to keep it in town. They made a deal with the Worcester Art Museum to hand over nearly 2,000 pieces for display.
The details of that deal required both negotiations and approval of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, which oversees nonprofit institutions.
The WAM not only got the Higgins collection. It received nearly $4.1 million with $3 million more promised, money Waschek said is needed to hire staff and maintain the arms and armory collection. The arrangement also offered assurances to the Higgins board that the works would be put on display within five years and that some money would be used to acquire new pieces.
So far, WAM has hired six former Higgins staffers. And last Tuesday, the museum announced it would hire a seventh, longtime Higgins curator Jeffrey Forgeng. He will start in August as the museum’s first curator of arms and armor and medieval art.
On a recent afternoon, it was clear how essential those hirings have been, particularly when installing objects that only recently arrived on Salisbury Street.
“On paper, this is going to work great,” Bill McMillan said, and then he laughed out loud.
McMillan stood next to the horse with two other Worcester Art Museum staffers. After 25 years at the Higgins, McMillan was recently hired as a staff conservator at the Worcester Museum.
Patrick Brown, the Worcester Art Museum’s longtime preparator, held a pink horse’s ear as McMillan explained the process. The mannequin would appear to be sitting on the horse, but in reality, would be suspended by a steel rod. It was important not to damage the saddle below it.
“This is original so we don’t want to put much weight on it,” McMillan explained. “We built the mount so the guy sits on the saddle but an inch above it.”
As McMillan and Brown talked about where to drill a hole in the horse’s head to connect the ear, the conservator could not resist. He tugged at the horse’s mouth and chortled a “Wilbur.”
Brown said the museum couldn’t have installed “Knights!” without McMillan and his Higgins colleagues. It is not just about their collective, intellectual knowledge of arms and armor. It is the practical knowledge developed by decades of breaking down and reinstalling the works, whether identifying fragile parts or knowing just how a mannequin is attached to a base.
The Worcester Art Museum hasn’t had much time to work with the collection. Higgins leaders didn’t want their building to feel like a going-out-of-business sale in the months leading up to the closing.
“In meetings, of course, I expressed my concern that I couldn’t access the objects,” said Brown. “But in reality, the Higgins had to go out with as much of a bang as they could, which meant not making it look like a deserted museum before it closed.”
“We couldn’t denude our galleries,” said Forgeng, the Higgins’s curator. “So there were ongoing discussions and what could we do at any given stage. I think both sides understood perfectly well how the other felt. In the end, we did things in a way that not either of us would have chosen but it was fine.”
Though some observers have wondered why Forgeng didn’t curate “Knights!” Waschek said it was important for him to do. He believes many of his touches will help redefine how the Higgins collection is used. Beyond that, Forgeng says that he could never have curated “Knights!” He’s been too busy. The Higgins, over the last two years, has deaccessioned hundreds of works that Forgeng determined were either duplicates of other pieces or not up to museum standards but attractive to private collectors. That money has gone to the Worcester Art Museum.
For the long term, Forgeng is thrilled to have a chance to work on Salisbury Street overseeing the Higgins collection. The agreement between the two institutions called for the hiring of such a curator.
And with “Knights!” opening, Forgeng is eager to see how Waschek’s vision translates at the ticket counter. Forgeng is intrigued by the use of Batman and the other contemporary flourishes. The Higgins, he notes, hosted its own Star Wars Day.
“The proof of the pudding lies in something that we won’t know yet,” said Forgeng. “That’s the visitor response. That will hinge on people’s gut feelings in the space, and that’s hard to predict.”