Aldrich museum director retiring after 30 years to pursue his own art

As exhibitions director of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, where he has worked for over three decades, Richard Klein has experienced the museum in a way few have.

He joined the museum in 1990 as registrar and preparator when visionary founder Larry Aldrich was still at its helm. He has seen the museum undergo leadership changes and even stepped up several times to help shepherd the museum through transitions, including a major expansion and name change in 2004.

Klein’s passion is in working with artists though. In his current position since 2004, he has curated or co-curated nearly 100 exhibitions at the museum and worked with hundreds of artists from Frank Stella and Sol LeWitt to Kay Rosen and Brad Kahlhamer, to name a few.

Come June, he will step down and the final exhibition he organizes will debut next February. Tentatively titled “The Elements,” it will focus on artworks featuring a single element on the periodic table, such as copper, zinc, silver and iron.

Though Retirement had long been on his mind, he says he will remain invested in art. “In March, I’m going to be 67 years old and I’ve been considering this for a while,” he said. “I just want the freedom to pursue various things that full-time institutional employment has prevented me from doing.”

Richard Klein, Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum exhibitions director and curator of James Esber's exhibit of Osama bin Laden drawings, discusses the project at the museum with WestConn photography students. Photo taken Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Richard Klein, Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum exhibitions director and curator of James Esber's exhibit of Osama bin Laden drawings, discusses the project at the museum with WestConn photography students. Photo taken Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Scott Mullin/ for Hearst Connecticut Media

Few visitors to the Aldrich realize that Klein is also an artist. As a sculptor, he is known for his works made of found objects, particularly glass, assembled into biomorphic abstractions that explore deep time and geology. He is looking forward to spending more time on his art as well as pursuing independent projects, whether curatorial or art writing. Asked where he has left his biggest mark on the museum, Klein points to taking the Aldrich from small museum (which the New York Times once called a rich man’s toy) into a leading contemporary art museum internationally respected.

“Really bringing more professionalism to the museum…I think that’s the main arc of the changes here over the time I have been here,” he said. “As a state-of-the-art facility, we are not the largest museum certainly but the quality of the exhibitions that we do and the notoriety of them is known far and wide.”

A contemporary art curator must be passionate about what artists are doing, what motivates them and why they are creating the work they are. “If I am not learning something when I do an exhibition, it’s like I have failed,” Klein said. “I have to go into something not completely understanding it and realizing it is fascinating, compelling and out of that experience I am going to learn and become a more expansive person in this world.”

Shimon Attie: MetroPAL.IS. (installation view), The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, January 30 to May 30, 2011, Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Shimon Attie: MetroPAL.IS. (installation view), The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, January 30 to May 30, 2011, Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Chad Kleitsch/ Contributed photo

Klein has curated important exhibitions from one surveying art made by Connecticut’s prison population and Chinese artist Xu Bing’s “Tobacco Project” to a 2011 show with Israel-born artist Shimon Attie. In “MetroPAL.IS.,” Attie recruited Israelis and Palestinians to read from their country’s Declarations of Independence in an immersive video installation that sought to find middle ground between the two diametrically-opposed sides.

“It was a very moving and potent work of art that people still talk about,” Klein said, noting the two documents were written about 30 years apart but were remarkably similar. “So it’s kind of pointing at this midpoint where both these people want the same thing but they can’t seem to get it.”

“Over his 30-year plus tenure, Richard Klein has helped the Aldrich build a strong foundation of artist-centric programs and visionary exhibitions,” said Board Chair Diana Bowes. “A virtual walking encyclopedia of all things Aldrich, Richard is a young soul who has embodied the spirit of the museum — curiosity, energy, a sense of adventure.”

There have been light-hearted moments as well as controversial ones too. Who can forget “Big Baby” in 2004? “A work of art is open to interpretation obviously but putting a 12-foot high baby in front of a museum, especially because it was winter, evoked all sorts of reactions from the public,” Klein said.

A print from Roz Chast's "No Early Birds" collection. 

A print from Roz Chast's "No Early Birds" collection. 

Courtesy of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum

A fun memory was working on New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, a longtime Ridgefielder, in 2010 for her project, “No Early Birds'' poking fun at the tag sale phenomenon with her posters for a nonexistent tag sale that prompted a New York Times article and people to drive around to grab one of these limited edition posters like a scavenger hunt. He and a museum staffer drove around lower Fairfield County stapling Chast's posters to phone poles and trees for a “Huge Multi-Family Tag Sale” at the fake address of 145 Old Moccasin Lane.

Then there is the time that Klein and Korean-American Michael Joo were cutting and polishing Vermont marble in the museum’s parking lot while snow fell. Joo’s 2014 exhibition here, “Drift,” explored the idea of landscape lines having political ramifications, such as the bisection of the Korean peninsula or an ancient fault line running from New York to Vermont. The exhibit, which used a high-tech sealant to encase the marble in a frost layer, was one of Klein’s most challenging exhibits. “The logistics and the technology to pull this off were incredibly complicated,” he said. “When we invite artists to do things and build things here —  those are the challenges because you can blow budgets really easily.”

Helena Hernmarck: Weaving in Progress (installation view), The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, October 14, 2018 to January 27, 2019. 

Helena Hernmarck: Weaving in Progress (installation view), The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, October 14, 2018 to January 27, 2019. 

Jason Mandella/ Contributed photo

Paintings are easy to borrow for exhibitions, but Klein shares Aldrich’s reputation for inventiveness. In 2019, he invited local weaver Helena Hernmarck to set up her 5-foot wide loom here and weave in front of audiences. He’s also hosted a pair of artists when they lived in part of the museum galleries 24/7 for several weeks.

Cybele Maylone, the museum’s executive director, quipped that it’s hard to believe the Aldrich existed before Klein. “For over three decades, he has been a guiding force at the museum, shepherding generations of artists through our galleries, building community, and serving as a valued colleague for everyone on our staff,” she said. “While his departure is bittersweet, we will continue to enjoy the fruits of Richard’s career at the museum, and the incredible program he has been instrumental in building.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that Klein hung the Roz Chast posters with a museum staffer not the artist.