Woog's World: With new executive director, can MoCA bounce back?

For over a century, Westport has punched above its weight in the art world.

It’s odd to use a boxing metaphor to describe artists of all kinds — painters, illustrators, sculptors, photographers — but it’s apt.

From the days of Rose O’Neill, George Hand Wright, John Steuart Curry and Harold von Schmidt, through Hardy Gramatky, Stevan Dohanos, Tracy Sugarman, Howard Munce and Ed Vebell, up to still-working legends like Leonard Everett Fisher, Larry Silver, Roe Halper and Miggs Burroughs, Westporters have designed magazine covers, book jackets and postage stamps; drawn and photographed the world; and brought artistic renown to what otherwise might be just another suburban town.

Our artists always formed a tight community. In the 1950s, Burroughs’ father Bernard was president of the Westport Artists Club. It was a great way to get out of the studio, socialize with like-minded people, and feel part of something bigger than oneself.

Founded that same decade, Famous Artists School featured some of the biggest names in the art world. Many had local roots or came here on occasion for school business. Though some of its hundreds of thousands of “students” may not remember it fondly — they did not become the next Picassos or Van Goghs — for a decade and a half, its Wilton Road headquarters and matchbook cover advertisements proclaimed to the world that Westport was one small place where the arts flourished.

In 1969 — as executives from companies like IBM and Stauffer Chemical flooded into town — a group of artists banded together to advocate for their interests. The Westport-Weston Arts Council grew, then became an actual Westport Arts Center in 1986. Members bounced around between a variety of locations, before landing at Greens Farms Elementary School.

The building, closed due to low enrollment, was a perfect spot. Artists and sculptors had their own studios, and the gymnasium became a gallery. It was a true community, filled with local artists who felt valued and validated.

But the school population grew. The town reclaimed Greens Farms Elementary. The Westport Arts Center moved again, this time to an airy, narrow building on Riverside Avenue. Artists lost their studios, but gained gallery space not far from downtown.

A few years ago, a number of local folks began feeling as if the Westport Arts Center was neither “Westport” nor a “center.” Shows featuring non-area artists became the norm, not the exception. Westport men and women, who had long supported the organization with their work, their time and their money, felt ignored, shunted aside, disrespected and devalued.

A new group — the Artists’ Collective of Westport — arose. Just as in days of old, they held fun, energetic meetings. They collaborated on projects, including themed shows. They found their own space: the Sheffer Barn at the Westport country Playhouse. Just as importantly, they found in each other, and their growing number of supporters, a new sense of the old artists’ community.

The Artists’ Collective tried to live under the Westport Arts Center umbrella, but Collective members felt the WAC had little use for, or interest in, them.

The coup de grace came last year. The Westport Arts Center announced they’d be moving from Riverside Avenue to 19 Newtown Turnpike — Martha Stewart’s former TV studio (actually, a few feet over the Norwalk border). The 6-acre property enabled them to triple their previous space. They promised more exhibitions, state-of-the-art classrooms, concerts, a cafe and office.

Oh, yeah. The Westport Arts Center also announced a name change. It’s now MoCA Westport, which stands for Museum of Contemporary Art.

The change from “center” to “museum” signaled one more “betrayal” of the organization’s tradition, Burroughs says. He called the last four years a “methodical destruction of all the good will, community engagement and support of local talent” that the WAC had been known for.

But now, to use another boxing metaphor, MoCA is about to embark on a new round. It seems the board has recognized how much ill will it’s created recently. Last week, a new executive director took over.

Ruth Mannes has extensive experience in the art world (she’s a noted collector), business (executive managing director with HarperCollins) and local civic organizations (longtime PTA executive board member, Staples Players fundraising).

During her first week on the job, she promised to reach out to groups that had felt marginalized by MoCA, including local teachers, PTAs and the Westport Permanent Art Collections. She promised a new emphasis on youth educational programming, and the highly regarded Heida Hermanns International Music Competition.

Most importantly, she wants to reconnect with, and bring back into the fold, local artists. For over a century, they’ve made Westport a thriving arts center.

Can Mannes do it? Can MoCA be a “Westport arts center” in practice, if not in name?

The bell is about to ring for the next round.

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.