Art Town: The Westport Museum

Portrait of George Hand Wright, an internationally acclaimed early Westport artist, by Karl Anderson, another of Westport's famed artists.

Portrait of George Hand Wright, an internationally acclaimed early Westport artist, by Karl Anderson, another of Westport’s famed artists.

Contributed photo /

In 1999, for Westport’s Millennium celebration, Arts Advocate, Ann Sheffer commissioned documentarian Martin West to create a film “A Gathering of Glory,” celebrating the history of Westport as a pre-eminent ‘Art Town.’

The video, available from the Westport Library, explores all the arts including visual, theater, literary, music and dance. It presents many of the artists in those fields who had garnered national and international acclaim. The film prompted many to wonder why there wasn't an actual museum to commemorate the work of some of the renowned visual artists from the past.

Thirty years before “A Gathering of Glory,” artist Leonard Everett Fisher and Professor Burt Chernow had begun a personal conversation about why Westport, the ultimate “Art Town” did not have a Westport Art Museum. At that time, it was only a hopeful idea without a plan. During the following decades, the idea percolated between them, but there was no serious space or money to realize their dream.

On a fateful day in June 1997, Leonard and Burt were coincidentally on the same flight to Florida, and the museum idea was a subject of conversation. Burt suddenly died in Florida that week, but Leonard, back in Westport, began seriously to develop a museum plan.

By 2017 he had contacted a group of Westport artists and art-minded residents, including artists Ann Chernow, Miggs Burroughs, Niki Ketchman, photographer Larry Silver, and collector Ed Gerber among others. And so the Westport Museum committee was formed, chaired by Leonard under the auspices of the former Westport Art Center. Over the next two years this committee met monthly and created a blueprint for developing the museum that Leonard and Burt had always dreamed of.

While plans were evolving, the Westport Art Center had to vacate their home on Riverside Avenue and find a new space. They had their sights set on the property referred to as “Baron’s South” off South Compo Road, which had been gifted to the town, but remained unoccupied for a long time.

As part of the application process, Leonard prepared a video for the Planning and Zoning meeting. This video displayed the work of the greatest artists in Westport’s history, demonstrating how important the museum would be to the town by preserving its international reputation as an arts community. Visitors to the museum would contribute to Westport’s economy by patronizing local restaurants, shops and other services.

The proposed use of the “Baron’s South” property for the Westport Arts Center, which would have also housed the Westport Art Museum, was ultimately denied by the town for a variety of reasons, which ended that chapter but not the dream.

During those two years of meetings, many important works of art had been sourced, and some had actually been acquired from private and public collections.

Here we are at the end of a tumultuous year with other priorities and anxieties monopolizing our time and energy, but as someone once said, ‘Art is the oxygen that breathes life and ideas into a community’ and so, stay tuned...

Ann Chernow has been a Westport resident since 1968. Her artwork has been exhibited locally and worldwide. Chernow is an honorary member of the Artists Collective of Westport, member of the Westport Museum Committee and other arts organizations.