Art Town: The history of WestPAC - a museum without walls

Note: This is the first column in a series about Westport’s Public Art Collections (WestPAC).

It is with great pride that we can say that Westport Public Art Collection is one of the largest in the United States.

Created around 1934, it has functioned under various single designations, but recently the entire breadth of the collections is now under one title: The Westport Public Art Collection — a museum without walls.

A bit of background history: As early as l929, several major newspapers reported that Westport was “home of the most distinctive (art) communities in the world. Two of Westport’s noted sculptors had already received commissions for “The Minute Man” (1909-10) and “Doughboy” (1929-30).

In 1934, the town appropriated $3,000 (a huge amount in those days) to form Westport’s first official arts organization: the Westport Arts Committee. Formed by then First Selectman King Mansfield, the committee was headed by Henrietta Cholmely-Jones who oversaw WPA projects. During the next three decades, the visual arts flourished as artists of all disciplines made their home and workplace in Westport. Works of art began to populate many public spaces.

In 1964, Burt Chernow, a pivotal figure in Westport’s burgeoning art scene (until his death in 1997) became the art teacher at Greens Farms school. During those years, he earned a Master of Arts degree from New York University. There, he was a student of professor Howard Conant, who urged his students to bring original art works into the schools as visual libraries for the students.

Chernow executed Conant’s vision — for original art to be a daily part of Westport’s educational environment so every student could be exposed to original art just as they were exposed to written and performed works. And so, in 1964 the Westport Art Collection began in the schools.

Conant recognized that money to buy original art from known artists would not be readily forthcoming from a school’s budget, so he espoused his graduate students to find ways to collect the art on no budget. Chernow began contacting some of the most famous artists in Westport and the New York area, calling upon them to ask if they would be willing to give an original work to this nascent public collection. These were the years when an artist could claim a tax donation if the work was given to a public institution. When years later the donation laws changed because of President Richard Nixon’s abuse of them, Chernow turned to collectors and galleries for donations.

To his amazement, artists were most generous in their responses, loving the idea of “visual libraries” in schools. There are now over 1,600 works in the collection. Among the initial works collected were Ben Shahn’s lithograph, “Singing Policeman” and Victor Vasarely’s serigraph “Ondho.” The nature of the collection was, as it remains today, eclectic, and contains examples of every media.

Over the decades the collection has literally exploded in size and breadth, and is now housed in all Westport schools and many of our public buildings.

In 1968, Chernow was offered a professorship and to become Art Department chair by the then-president of Housatonic Community College, if Chernow would build a collection for the college. That has become an amazing $10 million dollar museum where art is an integral part of the several buildings open to the public, and is probably the best kept visual art secret in Connecticut.

Acknowledgements for this column include Kathie Motes Bennewitz, Elizabeth Strick and Eve Potts.

Miggs Burroughs is a lifelong Westport resident and full-time graphic artist since 1972. He is co-founder of The Artists Collective of Westport and a member of the Westport Arts Advisory Committee, among other accomplishments.

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