Woog's World: Some things don't need to change

Last month’s kerfuffle over the renaming of their exhibit hall took Westport Historical Society officials by surprise.

Okay, it’s not the “Historical Society” anymore. That’s part of the problem.

To recap: Last year, the nonprofit organization rebranded itself as the Westport Museum for History and Culture. Of the people who noticed, some did not care. Others were aghast.

The new name was part of a new mission. A new director had been hired. Her goal was to change the image and activities of the institution, from a fusty-sounding, perhaps elitist “society” to a more modern, presumably more welcoming “museum.”

She wanted to run with the bigger dogs. But to attain museum status at state and national professional levels meant doing business differently.

To some members, “business” became the operative word. The museum sold off a number of items that had been donated over many years, including costumes and furnishings for the “period rooms” (which themselves were remodeled, for other functions).

The gift shop was reimagined to make more money (and its long-serving director dismissed). The archives are sequestered behind a $40-per-hour wall.

Those were moves the public saw. Behind the scenes, there were changes too. New faces joined the board. Longtime volunteers were told or felt that their services were no longer needed. Privately, they commiserated with each other. Publicly, they said nothing.

Then, last January, came news that the Sheffer Gallery — the main exhibit space — would bear the name Daniel Offutt. He was a Westonite, with no apparent connection to the Westport Historical Society or museum. His estate donated a large sum of money, however, so the Sheffer family — who had donated substantial sums themselves in the past and volunteered plenty of sweat equity too — was consigned to the dustbin of this particular historical organization.

That was bad enough for many Westporters. The fact that Ann Sheffer was told the news through a cheery, isn’t-this-great email, was the final straw. Long-simmering resentment of the museum’s changes exploded into the blogosphere.

But the museum is not the only institution to feel the wrath of former supporters who feel they’ve been wronged.

A couple of miles away, MoCA Westport has moved into new digs: Martha Stewart’s old Newtown Turnpike television studio.

You may not have heard of MoCA, but you certainly know its previous iteration: the Westport Arts Center.

Like the historical society, that nonprofit has a long history in town. Founded as a way to bring Westport’s many artists, art patrons and art lovers together, it had an itinerant existence until landing at the then-closed Greens Farms Elementary School. There — as artists rented individual studios, worked in close proximity and mounted shows in the hallways and the old gym — a true community flourished.

When the school reopened, the WAC moved to Riverside Avenue. The space was long and narrow, but it worked as a gallery and for educational programs.

As with the historical society, a new board and new directors brought new ideas and visions. It too became a “museum,” in the process alienating longtime members, who felt their contributions and ideas were no longer valued.

Many banded together to form a new group. The Artists’ Collective of Westport has carved out a new niche. They work collaboratively on artistic and educational projects. They’ve formed a true artists’ community. They’ve even found their own permanent exhibit space at the Westport Country Playhouse. It’s called the Sheffer Studio Space. You can’t make this stuff up.

Troubles at the two organizations raised important questions: What is the role of a nonprofit cultural institution? Who do they serve? How should they grow? When is change good, and when is it too much?

And, even thornier: Who is to judge?

The historical society seems to have misjudged the devotion a good number of Westporters felt for its mission, and the way it was carried out. This was, after all, a “historical society,” and in its race to re-invent itself, it seemed almost to be erasing history.

Of course, a town like Westport is always changing. There’s something to be said for looking to the future, for not doing things the same way all the time, for bringing in new faces with fresh ideas. The key is to do it without making the new blood seem like cold blood.

The Westport Arts Center’s metamorphosis into MoCA appears to be less controversial. Still, they’ve lost the support and membership dollars of a sizable group of important Westporters. They’ve got a lot of space to fill out on Newtown Avenue.

The Artists’ Collective has a nice, comfortable home now. The Sheffer name still lives there. Some things don’t need to change.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.