Westport Arts Center leaders have unveiled plans to relocate their headquarters to a new building on Jesup Green in downtown Westport, a proposal that won enthusiastic support from several town officials.
Since 2002, the nonprofit performing and visual arts organization has been based at 51 Riverside Ave. on the west bank of the Saugatuck River near downtown. A 3,600-square-foot gallery anchors the riverfront complex, where the arts center hosts contemporary art exhibitions, arts education programs, chamber and jazz music performances, and film screenings. With about 11,000 people passing through the center's doors each year and an annual schedule of about 200 events, WAC officials argue that the nonprofit has outgrown its current home.
"Things are firing on all cylinders at the arts center, but we're kind of bursting at the seams," Lance Lundberg, the chairman of the center's Board of Directors, told the Representative Town Meeting's Long Range Planning Committee when the project was unveiled Tuesday night.
Under its proposal, WAC would move across the Saugatuck River to an approximately 10,000-square-foot building on Jesup Green adjacent to the Westport Public Library. That new complex would approximately double the Arts Center's current gallery space and also accommodate several classrooms and offices, Helen Klisser During, the arts center's director of visual arts, told the Westport News.
"We want to be an intimate place for the community, where people can enjoy what's being presented and get to know each other," she said. "We don't want to be a mausoleum, we want to be a town jewel."
WAC officials envision a Jesup Green complex for their organization linking with the library to create a cultural campus in downtown Westport. Related to that goal, the center has hired Henry Myerberg to design the new building; Myerberg is also the architect for the library's "transformation" project, which will likely entail a major renovation of that institution.
"The thinking is that Jesup Green is like a quad and there are facilities of education and lifelong learning for the arts, sciences and humanities," Myerberg told the Long Range Planning Committee. "It's like a liberal arts college for all ages."
While a Jesup Green home for WAC would operate independently from the library, an expanded library with an auditorium would be ideally suited to host larger arts center events, such as popular chamber music performances and film screenings, WAC officials told the Long Range Planning Committee.
Jesup Green is a town-owned property bordered by the library, Police Department headquarters and the Taylor municipal parking lot. The arts center would like a 99-year lease of that tract for its new building, Lundberg added.
The center's Jesup Green plan would also involve relocating the Taylor lot from its current riverfront location onto the green, where it would "burrow" into the green's hillside, Myerberg said. In turn, the current site of the Taylor lot would be replaced with greenery. That reconfiguration would maintain the Taylor lot's current parking inventory, according to Myerberg.
Arts center officials have tentatively targeted a 2015 start date for construction of a new building at Jesup Green. Building a complex there would cost the center between approximately $5 million and $7 million, Peter Van Heerden, the WAC executive director, told the Westport News. The center has already secured commitments totaling several million dollars from three "donor prospects," according to Lundberg.
The nonprofit organization would not seek any town funding for a new venue, WAC leaders added Tuesday.
The center's officials have considering a move for several years. They considered during the last 18 months moving a few hundred yards upriver to the National Hall complex on the west side of downtown, but they have now shelved that option.
Concerns about long-term financial viability have also motivated WAC leaders to explore relocation. More than 10 percent of the nonprofit's annual budget goes toward the rent of its Riverside Avenue building, according to Van Heerden.
The Long Range Planning Committee did not take any votes Tuesday on the Westport Arts Center's Jesup Green plan. The committee's chairman, Jonathan Cunitz, District 4, encouraged the nonprofit to pursue the relocation proposal and submit a conceptual plan to RTM members and eventually to a yet-to-be-determined consulting firm, which will produce a master plan of development for downtown.
"The role of this committee is to plan change, not to stop change," Cunitz said. "We're trying to facilitate all these things that are going on."
First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, an honorary director of the arts center, also expressed his backing for the project.
"The moon and the stars ought to align to make this happen," he said. "I think it's very exciting."
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