Woog’s World / It must be the Fine Arts Festival weekend
If it’s mid-July, it must be the Fine Arts Festival weekend.
And it is.
For the 45th year, downtown will be taken over by artists, sculptors, photographers, and folks who admire (and hopefully buy) their works. It’s an annual rite of summer, as timeless as the asphalt-baking heat that always settles in on this particular weekend.
The scene seems to have changed little since the first show in 1973. An astonishing variety of work is on exhibit and for sale. Much of it is quite good. This being art, of course, some is unfathomable or god-forsaken. But one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. And there’s something about the Westport show that attracts scores of artists and hundreds of visitors, year after broiling year.
But the seemingly timeless show has changed. For one thing, the sponsoring Westport Downtown Merchants Association has rebranded it. The erstwhile “Art Show” is now a “Fine Arts Festival.” Music and food has been added to the mix.
The event is now back on Main Street, after a few years on Parker Harding Plaza. The move was initially made because store owners (or managers — most “owners” now sit in corporate headquarters many miles away) did not like the road being shut down for two days. (Never mind the foot traffic it brings.)
But the parking lot behind Main Street apparently did not sit well with artists, who felt cramped (some also felt “exiled” to Gorham Island). So now it’s back at its previous home, with an extension on Elm Street.
If they look beyond the booths, visitors who stream here from wherever will see a downtown in transition. Those who have come for years will notice the changes. Those who have never been may be perplexed that the town they’ve heard so much about looks so — well, weird.
They’ll notice, for example, a ton of empty storefronts. There’s no denying it: Main Street looks dead. Butcher block paper and “Space Available” signs on what was once prime real estate tell a grim tale.
If they want to shop they’re in luck — provided they’re looking for women’s clothes, or chain stores they could find in malls across America. The locally owned retailers that once gave Main Street such flavor are almost all gone.
(Almost — but not quite. Visitors who wander in to Savvy + Grace and Brownstone, two new shops just north of Brooks Corner, will find many unique offerings.)
But as bleak as Main Street is, there’s lots of life around the corner at Bedford Square. Pop-up galleries, artisanal honey, a meat market, trendy hair salon — all housed in a handsome, fun-to-walk-through two-level brick enclosure — all bring new energy to that area, literally a few feet from Main Street.
Yet Bedford Square still seems separate from downtown. It’s oriented east, on Church Lane. That may change, when construction on the old Onion Alley property is done. But right now, Fine Arts Festival-goers may not even realize what lies beyond Main Street.
Though they may go there to eat. The Main Street restaurant scene has also died a slow death. Bobby Q’s and Acqua/Boca are gone. Westport Pizzeria decamped to the Post Road. Tavern on Main remains. Rye Ridge Deli has taken over Oscar’s — but its prices raise eyebrows.
Around the corner, there’s a buzz. Spotted Horse, Pink Sumo, Amis, Jesup Hall, Rothbard Ale + Larder all draw devotees. Aux Delices is often packed too.
Arts Festival guests may wander Main Street looking for a spot to rest. Once upon a time a pocket park sat at the Post Road corner. It was supposed to exist in perpetuity, but new owners poured concrete over it. That was that.
If visitors find the few benches along the Saugatuck River, they may sit for a while. Hopefully they’ll catch a breeze. Surely they’ll wonder why Westport has neglected its waterfront. The parking lot, and the backs of the stores lining Main Street, can be described in one word: gross.
Perhaps, though, they’ll cross the Post Road. If so, they’ll see what a riverfront should look like. The green, spacious and very inviting Riverwalk winds all the way behind the Levitt Pavilion.
And if they gaze away from the river, they’ll see the Westport Library’s 26th annual book sale. It’s as mammoth an undertaking as the Fine Arts Festival. This year — with the library in the midst of its transformation project — it will be held entirely on Jesup Green.
A year from now, the new library will be open. It may have a transformative effect on downtown — including Main Street. Perhaps new life will spill onto the old street.
Let’s hope so. In the meantime, one thing is certain: This weekend will be a hot one.
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.