From the Founder: The Magic of the Bruce



Just one hundred years ago the wealthy cotton merchant Robert M. Bruce deeded his baronial mansion overlooking Greenwich Harbor to the Town of Greenwich to be dedicated as a museum of natural history and art. In the early 1900s many of the renowned artists of the Cos Cob impressionist school exhibited in what later became known as the Bruce Museum of Art and Science. However, for many decades the museum languished under benign neglect from a split management by the town and a private board. Those who took their children to see the natural history exhibits may recall that the stuffed wild animals really didn’t look too wild, and they definitely hadn’t improved with age.

Yet, within just the past twenty-years this underbudgeted and somewhat neglected town museum has become an exciting, regional institution offering a variety of exhibitions and programs that draw an average of 100,000 visitors annually from all over Fairfield and Westchester counties.

What brought about this amazing transformation?

Its renaissance began when a newly energized private board of trustees assumed a leadership role in charting its future. If the museum were to grow and serve the larger community, it would have to greatly enlarge and reconfigure its space for exhibitions and activities. Following a successful capital campaign, construction began in 1992. Since demolition of the mansion was restricted by the Bruce deed, it was retained as a core and the present museum was built around Mr. Bruce’s renovated home.

But, bricks and mortar tell only part of the story. The Bruce Museum has been blessed with a dedicated staff and excellent directors: Jack Clark cataloged the outstanding minerals collection. He was followed by Hollister Sturges, who helped guide the museum through the difficult expansion phase, and in the past ten years giant strides have been made under the leadership of its current director and CEO Peter C. Sutton. Sutton brought to the Bruce his management and curatorship experience from the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He is also an internationally recognized authority on Northern Baroque painting and has personally authored a dozen magnificently illustrated exhibition catalogs, some the first to be published on the subject.

The vision of the trustees is that the Bruce should be a “world class community based museum.” Under Sutton’s auspices and in pursuit of that vision, the Bruce has mounted an impressive schedule of continuous exhibitions. Among Old Master works they include Rubens oil sketches, the “Reclaimed” collection of Jacques Goudstikker, “Drawings by Rembrandt,” “Love Letters”—Dutch Genre paintings in the age of Vermeer and Jan van der Heyden. A number of exhibitions originated by the Bruce have travelled to larger museums here and abroad earning the Bruce a national and international reputation — unusual, says Sutton, for a museum as small as the Bruce.

He hastens to point out that many of the most impressive exhibitions have been on loan from the homes of local collectors. No other area in the country, he claims, has a higher concentration of great private collections as do Greenwich and nearby towns. The willingness of collectors to loan their private collections has contributed to the high quality of the Bruce’s exhibitions, which in turn, has led to its receiving accreditation from the American Association of Museums, an honor granted to only 5 percent of all museums in the country.

For those whose taste runs more to the contemporary, the exhibitions offer a wide variety: the recent Walter Wick show, “Games, Gizmos & Toys in the Attic,” was a sellout, as intriguing for children age three as for those age eighty-three. Multigenerational also was “Circus: Art and Science under the Big Top.” The exhibition of Cindy Sherman’s nationally acclaimed photographic self- portraits preceded the show now on view at MOMA. One who attended both exhibitions observed, “At the Bruce, though smaller in number, they were more effectively displayed.” Besides the three to four exhibitions that run concurrently, three major ones rotate annually in the main gallery — an altogether remarkable undertaking for a relatively small regional museum.

A visitor entering the Bruce is immediately aware that it is indeed a museum of science as well as art. Bearing right one enters the awe-inspiring minerals collection, assembled by many generations of donors. This leads to the permanent natural history exhibits. Especially popular with young students is its diorama of a woods scene in which they are challenged to find the birds and animals hidden among the trees.  Setting a record for attendance was “Robots,” in which visitors were greeted by a twelve-foot high giant. Often Art and Science overlap, as in the exhibition on alchemy or Arctic photographs. Opening this month, “The Olympic Games: Art, Culture and Sport” will present a history of the Olympics and the first U.S. showing of “SuperBodies,” a video exploring the physiological challenges of top athletes. The exhibition will also include NBC broadcasts, cable telecasts and webcasts of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Whether it’s art or science or something in-between, creativity and an ability to appeal to a wide variety of interests are hallmarks of the Bruce.

Education is an important part of the museum’s mission, and each year the Bruce reaches as many as 13,000 students from Yonkers to Bridgeport who visit the museum, or are visited by the Brucemobile, the education department’s outreach program that brings the museum into the classroom. The department’s calendar lists nearly 100 public education programs serving from 200 to 300 groups, primarily of elementary schoolchildren. These are often in collaboration with other educational organizations or based on the museum’s exhibitions. Three quarters of the students are from outside of Greenwich. For adults there are the Hascoe lectures and the Lunch & Lecture series covering every imaginable arts and science subject, plus numerous special events.

Not all the attractions of the Bruce lie within its walls. Twice a year large crowds descend on the grounds for the two popular outdoor events — the Arts Festival in October and the Craft Festival in May. They are among the most highly attended arts and crafts festivals in the region with artists and craftsmen from as far away as California displaying their latest work.  And in a new departure, the past year saw the introduction of the museum’s Seaside Center as part of the Floren Family’s Environmental Center in the newly restored Innis Arden Cottage at Greenwich Point.

Still the Bruce Museum is challenged. “There just isn’t enough display space,” says Sutton. “We would like to offer a permanent gallery of art, as we have for science, so that we could teach art and also attract gifts to the permanent collection. Potential donors like to know their work would be displayed.” The Bruce does in fact have some unusual and interesting things tucked away in its basement: its costume collection, Kashmir shawls, Cos Cob Impressionist paintings and landscapes, and wartime posters among other treasures. These are brought out on display when space is available.

Though it seems just yesterday that the Bruce broke out of its near century-old cocoon with the 1992 renovation, there are intense discussions among the trustees and supporters over reviving plans suspended in the face of the recession to expand the museum in order to create more gallery, classroom and activity space. Meanwhile, within the present space the Bruce team continues to do its magic and attract more and more visitors from neighboring towns by bringing the best of art and science to our doorstep.

— Jack Moffly

 

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