Caught in the Act

Go to Worcester for the Art

By Jared Bowen

October 10, 2012

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Inside the Worcester Art Museum

There was a time that the Worcester Art Museum was considered one of this country’s best, but as that city’s luster faded, so did the museum’s.  Now it’s coming into prominence once again, however, as a new director with ties to one of the world’s greatest museums takes hold.
It is a shame that for so long, praise for the Worcester Art Museum has gone unsung. It is, without question, world class.  The Roman Mosaic in its Renaissance Court is the largest in the Western Hemisphere. Its colonial portraits are by far the oldest. It has the second largest Paul Revere silver collection and a first rate assemblage of European masters.

Matthias Waschek, Director of the Worcester Art Museum (
“We are one of the first museums, if not the first, to have a Gauguin. We’re definitely the first museum at the beginning of the 20th century to buy – in America – to buy a Monet,” said Matthias Waschek, the museum’s director.
The Gauguin that Waschek refers to was once owned by Degas, and many of the museum’s works, like those by Monet, Hassam and Whistler, were purchased while the canvas was virtually still wet.
“Museums are always the expression of civic pride, and Worcester was an incredibly wealthy manufacturing town. The museum reflects that,” Waschek said.
Sadly though, the Worcester Art Museum has been a sleeping giant—its reputation swallowed up by the city’s economic decline over the last several decades.  Attendance took a nosedive. Museum staff was cut down to four-day work weeks and the front doors were shuttered.  That’s what the museum’s first new director in 25 years discovered when he arrived. 
When asked how much work is this, he agreed that it’s fairly overwhelming.  “Yes, but that’s also exhilarating. I mean, what I found exhilarating from the beginning was all the potential,” he said.
Waschek comes to Worcester from the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis. Before that, he was at the Louvre in Paris, where he was director of Academic programs. He arrived here with a splash—this summer he reopened the museum’s front doors and announced two months of free admission. Attendance exploded.
“It went from 5,000 over two summer months — which was pretty lame — to 14,000, and we got a lot of visitors who had never been to a museum. Which was fascinating,” Waschek said.
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Image from the Kennedy to Kent State exhibit. (Worcester Art Museum)
His internal focus is just as thunderous. He’s intensifying marketing and fundraising efforts. And he’s placed Worcester Art on a high-profile exhibition schedule starting with the unfailingly gripping photography show Kennedy to Kent State. Longer term, though, he wants to reconfigure the museum’s entire collection to present it more by chronology and less by nationality as mostmuseums do.
“You just say Whistler should be next to all the great French painters that we have. Whistler and Rodan are very good bedfellows, if you will. Or you have some of the American Impressionists, put them together with Monet, and you see that they’re actually in a very interesting league,” he said.
When asked how big a risk it is to introduce very unconventional ideas, he isn’t concerned. “I think the risk is actually not so high because we have to tell a different story from the Met and the MFA. The very moment we tell the same story with less depth of collection, why would you want to go to Worcester?”
There is a definitive buzz here—awakened from its slumber and with new lifeblood. At the moment, the Worcester Art Museum certainly looks the picture of promise. 
About the Author
Jared Bowen Jared Bowen
Jared Bowen is WGBH’s Emmy Award-winning Executive Editor and Host for Arts. 


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