WORCESTER, Mass.—James A. Welu knows the Worcester Art Museum so well he could write a book about it.
In fact, he is writing a history of the museum "which is the history of Worcester," said Mr. Welu, the museum's longtime director.
"Our job is to take those gifts our ancestors have given us, like the museum's incredible collection, and work with them."
Mr. Welu's friends and colleagues evidently feel that he's an important part of that history. Mr. Welu, who last fall announced his intention to step down as director, is the 2010 recipient of the Telegram & Gazette Visions Cultural Enrichment Award.
The award, which recognizes a person or group for making an outstanding contribution to the arts or cultural life of the region, will be presented along with four other Visions Awards at a public ceremony at 4:30 p.m. Feb. 9 in Mechanics Hall, 321 Main St., Worcester. The award includes a $2,500 honorarium.
Mr. Welu, at the museum for 36 years, announced in September that he will leave the directorship but stay on in the newly created position of director emeritus. His responsibilities will include writing the aforementioned book as well as other special projects.
"It's nice to be recognized but I always say when I look back on my career that I've just been so fortunate to be able to do what I do," said Mr. Welu, who became director in 1986. "Every day I come to work in this incredible museum in this great community. There are many people who should be recognized. I'm just the leader of a great group of people here."
One of Mr. Welu's talents is the way he uses his mastery of fine art and his mastery of the history of the Worcester Art Museum to make the experience of visiting the museum unique, said J. Christopher Collins, the former president of the museum's board of trustees.
"He tells the story of the Worcester Art Museum like no one else and weaves it into a larger story about the development of museums in the United States and how Worcester is a classic example of the American fine art museum," said Mr. Collins, senior vice president and general counsel for
Born in Dubuque, Iowa, Mr. Welu taught studio art in college before pursuing further studies in art history. He holds a bachelor's degree from Loras College, a master's degree and a master's in studio art from the University of Notre Dame, a doctorate in art history from Boston University as well as honorary degrees, according to the museum.
He served as president of the Association of Art Museum Directors and chairman of the accreditation commission of the American Association of Museums. He is an expert in 17th-century Dutch and Flemish art and has lectured widely and organized a variety of exhibitions. Among his many additions to the Worcester Art Museum are works by major masters including Andrea del Sarto, Frans Hals and Judith Leyster.
The painting of St. John the Baptist by Sarto, one of the greatest painters of the high renaissance, figures in an oft-told anecdote about Mr. Welu and how the venerated work came to the museum.
One day many years ago now, Mr. Welu was called to a local church to view the painting which was scheduled to be sold at a church auction.
"Would he have been called if he were not so approachable?" Mr. Collins said. "The painting had literally been sitting on the floor of an office and regarded as nothing of great value. Jim almost instantly saw it as potentially a very rare painting. He took it back to the museum and then had several renowned experts verify his first impressions. There are only three Sarto's in the United States. It typically takes a trip to Florence to see works by Sarto. His knowledge of art, his knowledge of the community and his love of the Worcester Art Museum all came together at just the right moment."
Mr. Welu enjoys a strong reputation in the local community, in which he takes an active role beyond the museum. His extends far beyond Worcester as well. He was chairman of the accreditation committee of the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of Museums from 2006 to 2009 and still serves as a member. The commission evaluates museums for accreditation which is the highest standard any museum in the United States can achieve, whether it's an art museum, a zoo, a children's museum or science and technology center.
"Jim has been a leader in the art museum community which is great," Ford W. Bell, AAM president, said. "So he's been a leader in his discipline but he's also been a leader in the broader museum field through his service on the accreditation commission."
It's not just the official side of an organization that benefits from Mr. Welu's expertise and enthusiasm. One of his favorite things is to come to the museum when there is a family night or on First Night when the education wing studios are filled with parents and children.
"Those kids are just so looking forward to what's going on in the studios," he said. "You can see it in their faces and that's when you see what you're doing for people's lives, and you'll never know what it means to people young and old."
The meaning is clear to onlookers such as Mr. Collins, however.
"When Jim came to Worcester to work at the Worcester Art Museum he gave all of himself to our community," Mr. Collins said. "The result has been a victory for Jim, the museum and all of Worcester County and I would say the museum world as well. His contributions to the arts in Worcester will remain for longer than any of us can envision."
Information from: Worcester Telegram & Gazette, http://www.telegram.com/article/20110118/NEWS/101180432/1101