Campus museum boasts ‘best kept secret’
Housatonic Community College (HCC) student Justin Almonte is inspired by all the art on public display at the college’s Bridgeport campus.
“It’s cool to have a lot of artwork around,” Almonte said as he headed to a class. “I love the colors and the vibrancy. It keeps your mood up.”
Housatonic hosts what is considered one of the premier college art collections in the country, part of the Housatonic Museum of Art.
And much of the collection — including paintings, drawings, lithographs and sculpture — is on continuous display throughout the institution. It can been seen in lobbies, hallways, offices and outdoor courtyards.
Museum Director Robbin Zella said up to 2,500 items in the 6,000-piece collection are exhibited at any given time in the college’s 300,000 square feet of building space. She called it “the best kept secret” in the local arts scene.
“People in Connecticut are always telling me they never knew about Housatonic Community College’s art museum,” Zella said. “Meanwhile, we get inquiries from Australia, Japan, China and Germany. They know about our collection.”
Housatonic’s collection includes works by such famous artists as Ansel Adams, Milton Avery, Roy Lichtenstein, Pablo Picasso, Saul Steinberg and Andy Warhol, plus many well-known contemporary artists.
It includes art from Africa, Oceania and the Americas, including Native Americans.
Since being founded in 1967 by now-deceased Housatonic professor Bert Chernow, almost all the museum’s artwork has been donated by artists or art collectors. The museum includes the Bert Chernow Galleries, a space used for temporary exhibits.
Chernow encouraged the donations, many through his and his artist wife Ann’s involvement with the Silvermine Art Guild and Westport Arts Center. He collected 97 items in the first year, including from expressionist painter Elaine de Kooning and pop artist Alex Katz. Chernow’s goal was to make modern and contemporary art accessible to students.
Many artists who now exhibit at the gallery will donate one piece after a show.
Some art in the collection is now valuable, “but that wasn’t the case when it came in,” Zella said.
One example is a piece donated in 1968 and then valued at $250. It’s now worth seven figures. “Time is your friend if you’re an artist,” Zella said about art values, noting, unfortunately for artists, any increase usually occurs once an artist dies.
She emphasized artwork can have aesthetic value without being worth much, noting this is true of many art pieces at Housatonic. “Someone can be a wonderful artist and never be famous,” she said.
Young, emerging artists often donate work to Housatonic so they can become part of a respected collection, while more established artists are pleased to know their art will be prominently displayed there rather than shown occasionally at larger institutions.
“Artists like for their work to be seen,” Zella said.
The public drops by the college campus all the time to view the art. “Perhaps they want to see the work of their grandparent or are a student doing a paper on a particular artist,” Zella said.
Local school groups, art societies and scholars visit the museum to look at the art.
Visitors are exposed to art when they attend a lecture, job fair or other event at Housatonic. “They have no expectation of seeing the collection and when they do, they are completely bowled over and want to come back,” she said.
Zella works closely with the HCC art department and some gallery-featured artists participate in student workshops, classes and panel discussions at the college. One museum program introduces Bridgeport schoolchildren to the art at Housatonic, teaching some to become docents.
Exposing younger students to art can help them learn about local history, civic pride and art-related career paths, such as being a curator, architect or preservationist, Zella said. “Maybe they didn’t know these jobs existed,” she said.
In addition to students and visitors, HCC staff marvel at the quality of the art that surrounds them.
Andrew Pelletier, HCC Center for Academic Progress coordinator, said it’s “absolutely wonderful” to always see the artwork. “It’s nice to have as part of our institution,” said Pelletier, who has a Calder lithograph just outside his office.
Being a part of HCC, the museum is a state-supported institution but also receives assistance from foundations, businesses, individuals and the National Endowment for the Arts.
The current Chernow Galleries exhibit, “In a Dark Wood, Wandering,” highlights two dozen large-scale sculptures by North Haven artist Joseph Saccio. It continues through Dec. 14.
Saccio is inspired by mythology, nature and the struggle of living and works from wood, natural materials and found objects. Zella said Saccio’s art may both encourage HCC students to work with different materials and “approach work through literary, religious or even philosophical avenues.”
Zella’s hope is to one day have a separate museum building for the collection, where the art would benefit from appropriate lighting and climate control and the more valuable pieces could always be on view. “This would preserve it for future generations,” she said.
The Housatonic Museum of Art, 900 Lafayette Blvd. in Bridgeport, is free and open to the public Monday through Saturday. It sponsors lectures, gallery openings and artist tours. For more information, visit HousatonicMuseum.org.