Why The Arts — And The Arts Center — Matter

The news that the Westport Arts Center is considering a new building on Jesup Green brought out the “06880” commenters. Some opposed the site; others opposed the WAC itself.

Lost in the discussion was an appreciation of the long — and important — role the arts have played in Westport.

Here — far more eloquently than I could say it — are some insights into that subject.

We can quantify our arts services. We can show how many people visited the Arts Center this past year for concerts, exhibits, lectures and classes. But the story is much more.

It is offering programming that nurtures creativity and broadens opportunities for learning. It is providing affordable studio space for artists, allowing them to remain productive in our community.

It is generating audiences to and from the Center, and in that process providing stimulus to local merchants and restaurants.

It is being a visible symbol to people looking to settle in our region, that we value and support culture.

Peter Van Heerden, the Westport Arts Center's dynamic executive director. (Photo by Helen Klisser During)

Peter Van Heerden, the Westport Arts Center’s dynamic executive director. (Photo by Helen Klisser During)

Corporate and foundation grants, individual gifts and money generated from our concerts, classes and lectures is money that is all returned to the community in services purchased, salaries paid and opportunities provided to people of all ages.

The arts are good business and good sense.  They contribute day in and day out to the quality of our region’s social, cultural and intellectual life. Support spurs us to renewed faith in ourselves, and doubles our commitment to even broader and more exciting arts services in the future.

Wise words indeed. And they are as true today as they were 21 years ago, when they were written by Ralph Sheffer. In 1992, he was president of the Westport Arts Center board.

56 responses to “Why The Arts — And The Arts Center — Matter

  1. Having just read back through the comments on the initial 06880 blog about the WAC, I do not see any comments opposing the WAC itself…only criticism over it’s decision to enter into a deal with the town to build on Jessup green to further enhance ” the Downtown area”. I get the complimentary usage with the library but not at the expense of open space. Open space is under attack all over… and what has attracted so many people to our area to begin with! It erodes a piece of what differentiates Westport from so many other homogenous suburban towns. There is almost double the downtown space being planned for the Y site… And David Waldman and his team have done a great job listening and embracing many people’s vision in a thoughtful way. Maybe a renovated Gunn House would be a great place to relocate the WAC?? Cheaper than building a new structure…take a page out of David Waldman’s success story transformation of the Sherwood House, and it does not become a lightning rod use of open space. During a recent hearing David Waldman did suggest a developer might create a below market rent to support local business and other interests! The WAC is an important part of Westport and what a way to make some delicious lemonade out of a lemon of an idea to move the WAC to Jessup Green!

    PS: and the size is about right and it would never flood unlike my last suggestion…using the Save the Children site.

  2. Oh another ironic thing… Think of how green the reuse is…instead of building next to the site of the former town dump…you will prevent a historic structure from going to a dump!!! Now that is a true piece of Art!


  4. And who is questioning that the arts contribute to the uniqueness of Westport? Of course the Arts do and so does the WAC! That is not the issue or the point! The WAC has other options than Jessup Green. Why destroy a piece of open space when there are other options to explore.

    • Comments on my first post about the WAC moving to Jesup Green called the Westport Arts Center a “special interest” group. Someone else wrote “Westport, the town that puts the arts first before the kids.”

      • It is a special interest group. If the WAC occupies Jessup some one else cannot. It is public space; the ruling class should not be giving away public assets to a special interest group.

        • Emma is correct. WAC is a “special interest” group. Notwithstanding the fact that the head of the WAC (hmmm, any potential bias there) made a bold statement that WAC was good for Westport 1) doesn’t make it a fact or 2) doesn’t justify giving away town owned open space to it. That Dan Woog likes “the arts” and WAC doesn’t change the fact that it is a special interest group.

          It is amusing that part of Ralph Sheffer’s argument for WAC is economic – “…money generated from our concerts, classes and lectures is money that is all returned to the community in services purchased, salaries paid and opportunities provided to people of all ages.” – which is pretty much the same arguments for throwing money at Bridgewater (and other companies) to keep them and their jobs and their spending and their employees’ spending in CT. Sure maybe companies don’t “contribute day in and day out to the quality of our region’s social, cultural and intellectual life” but they do provide the basis for the “Corporate and foundation grants, individual gifts…” that preceded the above.

          The amusing part, of course, is the relative lack of love for the Bridgewater giveaway and apparent love, at least in some quarters, for a WAC giveaway. Hypocritical, much? Special interest? Nahhhhh.

          Don’t get me wrong. I love “the arts” though my tastes appear to generally be different that WACs. Those that want to support them should. But there are a lot of other things I love too. Ice hockey – we need an ice hockey rink. I’m sure most Westporters would agree that sports and physical fitness are essential for health and well-being not to mention learning important life lessons. In fact, given all the gyms, fitness centers and yoga centers in town, Westport should probably give over Jessup Green to someone that wants to build a combination Ice Hockey Rink/Fitness Center (maybe a 50 meter pool too for budding Olympians). Pinball machines – love those. Maybe an arcade for the kids to hang out in on weekends rather than drinking and drug use. I could keep going…

          I would imagine if an unbiased poll were done across the entire population of Westport, the WAC would not be in the top 5 things the good citizens of Westport would think as good ideas for use of town property. Now you could go all Joni Mitchell on me and say they don’t appreciate what they’ve got [WAC] ’til it is gone, because unlike the enlightened few, the great unwashed don’t know what is good for them.

          To that, I can only say “Thank you, massa, I didn’t understand what was really good for me”. Or maybe I’d go all Joni Mitchell back and say “They paved paradise and put up a WAC”.

  5. Being a relatively new resident here – only 14 years, I don’t know the history. but didn’t the WAC once occupy a former school in town? What happened there?

    • Another Citizen

      What happened there was disgusting. The WAC would not get out of an old school that we desperately needed to use as a “school”. KHS had about 800 kids in a building built fot 400. We bussed kids all over town to accomodate space needs. It took years of fighting and a lot of money to get them out so we could then first start the process of rebuilding the school. Talk about selfish. The arts are great but they are not the only ones to consider. Let them stay where they are or go somewhere easy for everyone. Enough of this giving away our town land to appease the all important “artists”. They’ve gotten plenty. How about a thank you instead of “What have you done for us lately”. I think Westport taxpayers have thanked them enough!

      • That’s a pretty unfair analysis of the situation. The town leased the school the WAC when they didn’t think they needed the school anymore (for a $1, I believe). The WAC invested in the space, and then the town compensated them to leave to reclaim it as a school. It could be be debated that the initial decision to lease the space to the WAC was ill-conceived or the financial deals to use and then leave the school were too generous, but that was not the WAC fault. They dealt the hand that they were played.

        Hyperbole does not help.

        • “They played the hand that they were dealt”

        • Ned is correct – the town freely leased WAC a school (that was clearly worth mores as developable land in nothing else) for $1. Shortsighted maybe, but a deal was a deal.

          Hmmm, anyone else think there are any lessons we might learn from that?

  6. Westport 4 Life

    Dan, I think you’re jumping to the defense of the WAC way too quickly.

    If I gave you the truth serum and asked for your thoughts, I have a sneaky suspicion you’d agree with us that a sweetheart deal under the table, between WAC and the Town, is completely uncalled for and just plain dirty.

    Let’s get real here.

  7. To call criticism of the WAC’s previously unknown desire to occupy Jesup Green as being “against the arts” is specious and completely unfair, and unfortunately indicative of how the future debate about downtown development will play out.

    This bad idea appeared out of nowhere, and has the appearance of an opportunistic land grab. I’m sure it was a hot topic of conversation at all the cool cocktail parties, but since open meetings laws don’t apply there, we’ll never see the notes.

  8. Support WAC, just Not on Jessup Green. No special deals with Gordon and the town!

  9. The question begs to ask whether or not the WAC wants to engage the public’s opinion which, ultimately they will have to do if Jessup Green or the Gunn Property were to be considered. I really like Lemonade!

  10. One would think “THE ARTS” would see the folly of destroying open space. They are getting into the same boat with the Y…BAD REAL ESTATE DECISIONS.

    • Anonymous, 1

      ”Veteran’ and ‘LL Westporter’ are right. In addition, Westport became a real bohemian cultural art locale when there was much more open space and because there was then much more open space. Maybe the town’s over-development is too far gone but if not, think about preserving what made Westport attractive to deeply talented artists in the first place.

  11. LLWestporter

    This tiny green, earth and sky are more to arts imagined than for the self aggrandizement of a few. Put up a tent, take it down, another ugly brick and mortar building and relinquished green space is forever. Leave it en plein air.

  12. The Dude Abides

    Another article about how Westporters think they are some grand colony of creative geniuses who patronize the arts with their cocktails parties and slapping each other on the back. Yawn. That boat sailed many decades passed when this town was truly an artisan family and its inhabitants were too busy creating art to worry about where a museum might be constructed.

  13. Westport artist

    I am an artist and come from a family of artists. I treasure the WAC and think Helen During is incredibly talented, and I love what she has contributed to WAC and to Westport. That said, I do not see why WAC needs to take over open space. There are plenty of other creative ways to utilize resources and real-estate that already exist in this town. Let them put their vision and creative juices to good use– and find a home that does not destroy the beauty of our town.

  14. Proud to live in Westport.

    Just yesterday I entertained some out of town guests who are thinking of moving to Westport. They saw a Chorus line and were blown away– yet, one of the stand out features they commented on was the “open space”– and how rare and precious it is. To them, it made Westport desirable and special.

  15. Westporter since 1970

    Does earmarking Jessup Green for the WAC mean the WPL will have no room to expand? On many occasions the WPL users file the library lot, the police station lot and the lower Jessup Green parking lot.

    • Library lover

      Why does the library even need to expand? It seems to be doing that internally within its existing walls.

  16. Westporter since 1970

    Fill the library… That would be

  17. Well said Westport Artist!!! Nothing against the WAC…they do contribute and enhance the community for our fellow residents and some local and not so local artist alike, however this is not about the arts or the WAC as an organization…this is about a decision to build on a Town green…a piece of open space where kid play and cartwheel and climb the sculpture and eat lunch or READ A BOOK on the grass and then meander over to the Library. This is about taking a perfectly balanced piece of property….a town green where temporary tents are erected for the book sale ..great..and for the annual summer Levitt fundraiser…great…and Japanese drummers and dancers perform annually and holding a bonfire at New Year’s first night celebration… Building a new structure to house WAC on Town owned land is not a great decision. Using an existing building to house the WAC is just a better idea… Of course, just my opinion!

  18. Just to clarify…by town owned land… I mean one green open space that is being used for passive use… As I have described above.

  19. Anyone else find it weird that no one from the Town or from WAC — not including the posthumous written word of a longtime donor and Board member — has come on here to reasonably justify this bullish move??? Amazing how much the silence speaks for itself.

    • lance lundberg

      Westport Arts Center-Lundberg
      The WAC has not weighed in because it is so premature to do so. Our idea of Jesup Green is one of several options we are investigating. The idea was that in this tough economic climate to partner with the Library to share meeting space and auditorium facilities was fiscally responsible–we can only do that if we are proximate.
      One iteration of the idea also removes all parking from the riverfront in return for WAC space at the top of the hill. Would readers like to see green grass by the riverside once again? Can they imagine any other turn of events that would bring back that green space? Is that reasonable compensation for use of the top of the hill?
      Over the coming months, this and other ideas will receive public exposure and full transparency, and anyone who is interested we encourage to speak their minds.

    • lance lundberg

      Westport Arts Center-Lundberg
      see my various comments, below…

  20. Flipping the Green

    Some time around when the library was rebuilt for the second time, the idea was proposed to flip Jesup Green with the existing river-side parking lot. The premise was simple: why should we park cars along the river when we could have a park there instead. Never happened. Money! Now WAC has proposed doing just that, even — I have been told — adding more square footage to the flipped “green.” Maybe the WAC could be conjoined with the library, so that the latter would not have to tear down its existing building and both organizations could share facilities, linked perhaps by a common theatre/auditorium.

    • lance lundberg

      Westport Arts Center-Lundberg
      Thati s exactly the thought process we have been undertaking. Shared resources in a time of austerity, trying not to overbuild facilities, perhaps re opening the green space by the river

      • Why should Westport support WAC with cheap rent of open green space? They should find privately owned land to buy.

  21. Thanks Flipping the Green. You have been told that more square footage will be added to the green! When does the powers that be at WAC plan to share openly with the community their plans? I also find it odd that no one from WAC will comment or share their insight.

    • It’s an inside game in Westport. There is no profit getting into it with the riff-raff online. They did there thing contacting 06880 for the article

      • Corruption is as prevalent in Westport as it is in a place like Chicago. It is harder to see sometimes. The deals are cut to benefit a few. In part this corruption is a function of the structure of the town’s government which protects the corrupt from ever having to own up to their decisions.

    • lance lundberg

      Westport Arts Center
      I just did…see above comments

  22. The WAC should consider the the Gunn property as a solution. Everybody is winner. WAC saves money not having to build a structure out of the ground…A historic property is saved and open space is preserved for all to continue to enjoy!!! This I am sure would create great public support and ground a lightning rod issue!

    • lance lundberg

      Westport Arts Center-Lundberg
      Jamie, thats a good thought, and Im going to research it. I’m not sure where the Gunn house could go…I heard the lot near town, but isnt that steeply sloping…and displaces parking. Any ideas?

  23. Westport Mama

    The arts do contribute to the collective character of the town, of that no one here disagrees. However, the fear is that in their desire to foster the WAC’s continued success, some leaders attempts seem to be backroom, secretive, and tone deaf to the public’s overall wishes for the town. What other options have been explored? How much space does the WAC actually need? Have creative space solutions like been floated? (I know some want the locale for other purposes, but it would probably be less intensive of a use to create an addition onto the area where the Senior Center is, maybe with some shared space between the two, and utilize that. There could be some overlap in programs that provide services to the town’s populations, and bring generations together even more.)
    It’s concerning that the administration is working to give with one hand, and take with the other. Why does an expanded WAC (kept downtown,) have to be at the expense of public open space? No developer has an incentive to keep their space open, so it’s up to the town to ensure this limited resource is shepherded wisely. Right now, this situation feels entirely misbalanced to the point of becoming one-sided.

  24. Flipping the Green

    “The idea was that in this tough economic climate to partner with the Library to share meeting space and auditorium”…great idea…no reason why a 17-yearold library has to be torn down for more meeting space and an auditorium that could be shared, albeit with compromises, by both WAC and the library

  25. Anyone get the feeling that Barron South, Jesup Green and Parker Harding will be forever covered in concrete, and that driving through downtown Westport will continue to be a nightmare during the morning and evening rush and around the lunch hour and whenever ’95 has an accident?

  26. Thanks Lance for chiming in! Yes, the site placement would be placed in the Elm Street lot. It would swallow up a few parking spaces TBD…nothing significant and not open space… however, parking may be available for those shopping in the New Bedford Square development. I certainly can’t say if parking in that lot will be free. Anyway, this location would place WAC in the center of the action… Restaurants and shopping are a stones throw away. So this,is how it could work… The town does a one time 99 year net..net…land …with fair escalation. The current owner of the Gunn House David Waldman and his partners have graciously offered to move it from it’s current location to a spot in the approximity of the Elm Street lot. Seems like a win win to me? Any thoughts?

  27. That would be net net land lease!

  28. I also want to qualify… That assuming that the Gunn House can be adapted and configured in a way that meets the WAC’s space requirements…it then would involve some candid procedural discussions with several commissions, sub committees, RTM…public review…ect. The great thing about this is it takes an inconsequential amount of parking in an area not used as open space…and to address the sloping…a lot less than currently exist at WAC’s current location. In fact, it can be graded and sloped with complimentary plantings…sculptures…the sky is the limit!

    • less slope than Jesup Green. They could build a parking garage at the Baldwin lot and share a theater with WCI, much better idea…

  29. It is ridiculous that the ToW is so intent on giving away public property to private entities (Jesup Green for the WAC, Barron’s South for an elderly facility, downtown parking land for an old house that no one wants). If the ToW wants to lease land and/or property to private concerns, we should be getting market rate for those scarce assets and no lease should be given for more than, say, 10 years.

    This would put an end to all of these land grabs that are going on around Westport.

    • Think “special interests”. These debates are not about the best use of public resources, rather they seek to justify rewards for favored special interest groups. The ruling class rewards its friends; the rest of us pay for the rewards.

  30. Emma…don’t you think your being just a little harsh?

    • I have lived in Westport long enough to think my comment is much more accurate than it is harsh. In this case, the WAC is a special interest looking for a handout from the taxpayers of Westport. Why would they feel entitled to such a handout? I think we can follow the dots and draw our own conclusions.