by LAURA WATKINS
photograph by AMANDA LUCIER
For William Hennessey, museums have always felt like home.
Since 1997, he’s been director of the Chrysler Museum of Art, which boasts an imposing collection: Ancient Greek statues, a Bernini bust, an Egyptian sarcophagus and a Warhol are among the more than 30,000 pieces in what arguably is Norfolk’s crown jewel.
Hennessey, a native of Summit, New Jersey, felt drawn to art – and particularly museums – at an early age. “Growing up outside of New York, I was always in them,” he says. “I liked the way they looked and felt and smelled.”
He nurtured his picture-gazing pastime into a professional appreciation with undergraduate work in art history at Wesleyan, then completed both his master’s and Ph.D. in art history at Columbia. He was director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art before coming to Hampton Roads.
Under Hennessey’s direction, the Chrysler implemented a free-admission policy, which he says lends a sense of openness for those who might otherwise not partake. His job, he said, is to make the museum welcome and accessible.
Hennessey’s creed of accessibility doesn’t stay at the office – at his 1920s home in Norfolk, the living room walls aren’t graced with oversized, ostentatious pieces but small, intimate pieces that, he says, are “almost exclusively” gifts from friends.
“The nicest works of art to collect,” he says, “are those that have some personal meaning for you.”
Hanging in his living room is an unobtrusive silver-point drawing by Austrian émigré Victor Hammer, gifted to Hennessey by Hammer’s widow. To Hennessey, the drawing is striking not just for its aesthetic but also for its connection with a lost art form.
“It’s a technique in the 20th century that nobody does,” he says. “He’s a link here to things that haven’t been done in centuries.”
Hennessey goes on to explain a little of Hammer’s history: Having fled Nazi-occupied Europe, the artist dedicated his life to reviving the Italian Renaissance – not only its styles and techniques but also people’s awareness of them. This significance of preservation might indeed resonate for a man who grew up in museums.
And if in a moment of peril Hennessey could save only one work from his wall? He can’t imagine choosing only one to save.
“Fortunately, they’re small,” he says, laughing. “You can probably grab a bunch of them.”