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Out of the Woods / Jesup Green right for expanded arts center

Published 1:33 pm, Friday, March 1, 2013
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With its rich history as a haven for artists of all kinds, Westport has long deserved a major arts center worthy of the reputation of our town, comprised of many sophisticated, creative people who first came here in the 1920s and 1930s during the Great Depression. It now appears as if that time has arrived.

The Westport Arts Center unveiled plans last week to relocate to a formidable new 3,600-square-foot gallery on Jesup Green, one of the town's most attractive sites and an ideal location for townspeople and visitors.

It could be one of the most innovative improvements in modern Westport history, located only footsteps away from the Westport Public Library, which -- under the imaginative leadership of Library Director Maxine Bleiweis -- has blossomed into our town's multimedia cultural center.

As far back as 1931, the New York Journal American described Westport as "the cradle of genius," referring to its rapidly-growing population of "chiefly artists, writers, sculptors, editors, and painters." The article said "the art invasion" began in 1920 when artists began moving up from Greenwich Village in New York.

The nonprofit WAC is currently located in a modest, 2,600-square-foot gallery at 51 Riverside Avenue on the Saugatuck River. But, according to its officials, with about 11,000 people visiting every year to view some 200 events, the gallery has outgrown its space.

"Things are firing on all cylinders at the arts center, but we're bursting at the seams," WAC Board of Directors Chairman Lance Lundberg told the Representative Town Meeting's Long Range Planning Committee last week, according to an article in this newspaper by reporter Paul Schott.

The WAC holds exhibitions, concerts, lectures and film screenings. Children's workshops are held in a studio on the premises and a smaller Studio Gallery annex hosts smaller exhibitions. There is no doubt that, as one of our town's most vital institutions, it deserves to be a showplace in the center of downtown.

The origins of the WAC date to 1934, when the town appropriated $3,000 (a huge amount of money at that time) to form Westport's first official arts organization.

Since then, the arts have continued to enhance Westport's reputation as an intellectual community with a broad variety of artists still living here.

A landmark breakthrough took place in 1947 with the opening of the Famous Artists School. At its peak the school had 800 salesmen deployed across the country and 55 people at the full-time teaching faculty. It had an extraordinary enrolment of 65,000 students ranging in age from 16 to 94 at its peak after World War II. It folded in 1971 for financial reasons.

The Center was first incorporated as the in 1969, when its mission was "to sponsor and encourage cultural and educational activities in the creative and performing arts in the towns of Westport, Weston, and the surrounding areas."

The organization was formally named the Westport Arts Center 1986 and, until 1998, it was located in the Greens Farms Elementary School, which offered gallery and performance space as well as studios for member artists.

However, overcrowding in the school system ignited a fierce battle between education and arts enthusiasts -- putting many supporters of both institutions torn between competing needs.

The schools superintendent at the time, Paul Kelleher, wanted the building converted back into a school. But, WAC board chairman John Simon stood his ground.

He successfully argued that the arts organization should be compensated by the town for having spent nearly $1 million on improvements on the building.

Meanwhile, Ann Sheffer -- an influential member of the WAC board -- resigned to serve as a mediator between the town and the arts center in an epic power struggle over which agency should occupy the former Green's Farms School building.

As an RTM member, she skillfully rounded up the votes necessary for the RTM to pass a $625,00 buyout by the town.

Perhaps the veteran artist Howard Munce put the role of the arts here in best perspective when he told me some time ago: "On the chance that one might think that Westport's art history has mostly to do with the past, however memorable that past surely is, have no fear: This is how things stand now. At the beginning of this new century, the glory days of illustration as we've known them have passed. However, people of visual talent still abound here, though many hands now guide a mechanic's mouse rather than a pencil."

Woody Klein is a Westport writer. His "Out of the Woods" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at woodyklein12@gmail.com.