The year was 2014. Helen Klisser During, the passionate creative director of the former Westport Arts Center, chose five like-minded but diverse artists — Nina Bentley, Miggs Burroughs, Duvian Montoya, Jahmane West and Tammy Winser — to form a new community of artists in Westport.

Their mission was to create a virtual and vital new home for working artists in the area, who, until then, had no common space to meet or exhibit.

Known as the Artists Collective of Westport, they met once a month and presented popup art exhibits at the WAC and at other venues in town. In 2018, Ann Sheffer introduced the group to Michael Barker, executive director at the Westport Country Playhouse, who offered them the Sheffer Rehearsal Barn as a gallery space for exhibits and meetings.

With this new partnership, the Collective not only found a new home, but a supportive new team who shared their vision of community engagement and the importance of Westport’s arts heritage.

The Collective soon became a nonprofit organization, striving to enrich the community through the arts and partnering with the The Playhouse, Westport Library, Project Return, CLASP Homes, Homes with Hope, Home for the Brave, Neighborhood Studios, and the Downtown Merchants Association.

The Collective’s logo, created by founder Winser, is a retro graphic of toast popping up (get it?). The logo soon became a distinctive and offbeat brand for the group’s popup exhibitions and resulted in the governing body to become affectionately known as “the Toasters.”

As the Collective thrived, new talents were needed to manage the group and plan or the future. Artists Dale Najarian, Eric Chiang, Jen Greely, Susan Fehlinger, Michael Brennecke and Dan Long (1948-2019) were added to the team.

The Collective now boasts 150 members, who gather for meetings each month in the barn at the Westport Playhouse to discuss and share plans, ideas, skills and opportunities to engage the community, display current artwork, and spread news of exciting exhibits they may have seen. Along with members’ work, each new exhibit in the Gallery at the Westport Playhouse often features work by students from local schools and organizations with art programs taught by Collective members.

Thanks to generous donations from the Drew Friedman Community Arts Center and the Daniel Offutt Charitable Trust, the Collective has grown to become Westport’s premier arts organization. This infusion of funds helps the Collective underwrite studio tours, exhibitions, art instruction, and to sponsor member artists who have demonstrated outstanding dedication to the community, scholarships, and educational opportunities.

This spring, the Collective will be honored by Neighborhood Studios at their annual gala on April 26 at 5:30 p.m. at the Quick Center for the Performing Arts at Fairfield University. The event will feature a performance by the acclaimed Ailey II Dance Group. Tickets can be purchased at www.quickcenter.fairfield.edu.

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 an honorary member of the Artists Collective of Westport, member of the Westport Museum Committee and other arts organizations.