What began as Miss Florence’s private boarding house for Impressionist painters more than a century ago has been completely transformed over the years into The Florence Griswold Museum as it’s known today, a nationally-recognized art history museum that attracts more than 72,000 visitors each year.
Now a multi-building complex situated on a tree-lined country road in the village of Old Lyme, the centerpiece of the museum remains the charming 19th-century Florence Griswold House, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1993. Fully restored and refurbished, it reflects the era of artists living and painting in what later became known as the Old Lyme Art Colony, home of American Impressionism.
Included on the expansive grounds facing the Lieutenant River is the Krieble Gallery exhibition space; Hartman Education Center; Rafal Landscape Center; numerous restored historic gardens, and Café Flo.
It takes a team of devoted, art-loving individuals to operate and maintain the Florence Griswold Museum. A staff of 18 and more than 250 volunteers work day and night to provide visitors with an optimum experience. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at how five key players get the job done.
Jeffrey W. Andersen, Director
After receiving his master’s degree in museum studies in 1975, Jeffrey Andersen was hired as the first director of the Florence Griswold Museum. A fifth-generation native of Northern California who had never been to Connecticut, he thought he’d be here for a few years, tops. Forty years later, he’s still here.
“I was brought on to advance the process of professionalizing the museum,” Andersen recalls. “It was a historic house with a very modest collection managed by volunteers and I was director, curator, chief cook and bottle washer.”
Old Lyme’s rich, deep heritage as an artist colony appealed to him.
“I started college as a history major, but I became completely absorbed in art history, particularly American art,” Andersen says. “When I came here, it was the perfect [opportunity] for me to explore my professional and scholarly interests. It’s such a unique and dynamic place.”
Andersen is especially proud of two accomplishments during his tenure as museum director. In 2001, the museum acquired the Hartford Steam Boiler Collection, 190 works of art by artists with Connecticut connections that catapulted the museum to national prominence.
Earlier this year, after the conclusion of a decade-long campaign to acquire all 13 acres of the original estate, the museum finally accomplished that goal; when Andersen first arrived, the museum owned just over an acre.
Andersen is married to Maureen McCabe, an accomplished professional artist. When he’s not working, he says he likes to do things he can absorb himself in and get serenity from, including gardening, traveling, and golfing.
Amy Kurtz Lansing, Curator
When Amy Kurtz Lansing graduated college in 1996 as an art history major, she was faced with the decision of whether to become a professor or work in a museum. During graduate school, she had her first position as a curatorial research assistant at Yale University Art Gallery, where she discovered she really liked collaborating with other people in a museum.
And that’s just what she’s been doing for the last 10 years at the Florence Griswold.
“It’s very hands-on here, “she says. “We do four to five exhibitions a year and work as an installation team. Everyone picks up a hammer, puts sticky squares on the labels…each time we pull off an exhibition, I’m proud of it and know how much work we’ve put into it. “
She also enjoys working with contemporary artists, witnessing their creative process, and supporting their work.
In addition to her “normal” work week, Kurtz Lansing gives after-hour talks in the community and is involved in special events on weekends at the museum. As the mother of two young sons, she tries to balance work and family life, and enjoys being outdoors and, believe it or not, going to museums.
“I always loved going to museums in my spare time,” she says, “even before I realized it was something I could study that would become [my career].”
As much as Kurtz Lansing loves to do research, she also loves talking about art with museum visitors.
“One of the things that makes being a curator feel worthwhile is making people feel comfortable looking at art and reassuring them that there is no right or wrong way to respond to a work of art,” she says.
Ted Gaffney, Facilities Manager
“I do everything everybody else doesn’t do,” says Ted Gaffney, describing his job in a nutshell.
That’s a lot. In addition to overseeing the whole physical plant – heating, air conditioning, structural repairs, roof, buildings and grounds –
Gaffney supervises the cleaning staff and manages the annual budget for grounds and repairs. And then, he points out, “There’s the whole winter thing.”
“I coordinate snow plowing, I run the snow blower,” Gaffney says. “The rest of the staff has a snow day, I never have a snow day. I have to make sure everything is cleaned up for the museum to open the next day.”
Gaffney is on call 24/7. A museum security team acts as first responders if an alarm goes off.
“And then, if there was a major problem like a burglary or fire or flooding, I’d have to come in,” he says. “Once I had to come in late at night when there was a water leak in the ed [education] center, to find it and stop it but no artwork was threatened. And one morning the fire alarm kept going off until we discovered that it had been tripped by spiders.” Gaffney is generally the last person out of the museum. “There could be four hundred people at an evening art show opening,” he says. “[Before I go home] I have to make sure that the doors are locked, alarms are all set, visitors – and then the staff – have all left.”
Gaffney even handles art.
“When they’re hanging a show, I take down art and put up art, patch and prepare the walls for the next exhibit,” he says. “In smaller museums like this, you end up wearing different hats, and that can be fun.”
In 2004, after retiring from 20 years in the submarine service as a chief electronics technician, Gaffney was looking for a job and wanted to do something entirely different.
“I saw a help wanted ad for a facilities manager and I thought, ‘Hey, I know this museum. The job appealed to me. It looked like it had enough variety and challenge.”
Although he admits there are some mundane aspects to his job, such as having to maintain the bathrooms on the days the cleaning service doesn’t come in, he likes the work environment. “I enjoy interfacing with the tradespeople and my coworkers,” he says. “They’re all really good people.”
Donna Carlson, Executive Assistant to the Director
On a daily basis, Donna Carlson assists her boss, Jeffrey W. Andersen, with whatever is required. But she’s also in charge of handling outside rentals for weddings, private parties, and garden club events, and is a liaison between Café Flo and the caterer that runs the seasonal restaurant, Gourmet Galley in North Stonington.
As a result, Carlson’s hours are a bit unpredictable. She works four 10-hour weekdays and comes in weekends for weddings, often staying until after midnight on a Saturday night, coordinating with vendors, caterers, and security to make sure things run smoothly.
“I enjoy working with the couple and their families,” she says. “It’s so nice to see a wedding all coming together. And they’re so happy. I also like doing the corporate dinners and meeting different people in different situations.”
Carlson says of Andersen, “Jeff has always had a great vision for the museum. He has been the director since 1976, and when you look back to the museum when he started and where it is now, it’s really impressive.”
Prior to starting in 2006 at the Florence Griswold, Carlson worked in the development office at Quinnipiac University and was president of the Chester Historical Society Museum.
“When this position came up, it was the best of both worlds for me,” she says. “I get to work in a vibrant museum and also utilize my administrative, event, and research skills.”
Carlson is also a jewelry artist designing and selling pieces featuring natural stones and metals.
She says she loves working with the small museum staff.
“There’s always something going on and we all work together to make it happen. We’re more like a family.”
David Rau, Director of Education and Outreach
When David Rau first came to the Florence Griswold, his mission was to develop personalized, interactive programs for families and adults.
“I didn’t want people to have a cookie-cutter experience,” he says. “And so for the last almost two decades I’ve led the development of great hands-on family programs in the education center; summer camps; painting on the grounds on Sundays, as well as college-level courses for adults during the winters.”
Rau is at the museum almost every day and even stops in on his days off.
“Museum educators often need to be at a museum not just 9 to 5, but when visitors are here, on weekends and evenings. I don’t mind. It doesn’t feel like work to me.”
Also a mixed media artist and an instructor at Connecticut College where he teaches museum education, Rau says, “My creativity and artist-ness can be expressed here at the museum. We always approach a new exhibition with a fresh eye. I think of a museum like a carousel that goes around and around and each time is an opportunity to try something new.”
Rau was the first person in his family to complete college. He started out in a pre-law program, but after taking an art history class he was hooked on the idea of working at a museum and has done so ever since.
Rau even met his partner, Daniel Hansen, a recently retired assistant superintendent of schools, 15 years ago at an educational arts conference at a museum – the Lyman Allyn in New London. Hansen proposed to Rau at the Florence Griswold Museum and the pair will be married there next summer.
“One reason I like coming to work so much is that we all like and respect each other,” Rau says. “There’s not a lot of rivalry or inner-office tension. Jeff [Anderson] promotes a very friendly, ego-healthy work environment. He wants us all to be successful in our own ways. I saw something on Facebook that said, ‘The only person enjoying Monday morning is retired.’ I have never felt that way working here.”
Amy J. Barry is a seasoned freelance writer and expressive arts educator, who lives in Stony Creek. For more about Amy visit www.aimwrite-ct.net
Photography by Catherine Kiernan. Catherine Kiernan is a frequent Seasons photographer who specializes in relaxed and natural photography. To learn more about Catherine, visit www.kiernanphotography.com