[OPINION] Dorothy Curran: Westport History Museum Broke Faith

Dorothy E. Curran has lived in Westport since 1977. She has served on the boards of the Westport Library (trustee; co-chair, River of Names community capital campaign) and Westport Woman’s Club (past president, chair/co-chair, many Yankee Doodle Fairs).

Dorothy Curran

She is also — most importantly for this story — a Westport Historical Society past president, chair or co-chair of 5 Holiday House Tours, and co-curator of multiple exhibits, including the original “Cover Story: The New Yorker in Westport.”

This morning, Dorothy reacts to the news that the Westport Museum for History & Culture — formerly the Westport Historical Society — changed the name of its main gallery. It previously honored the Sheffer Family, for their contributions of funds and time. It is now named for a new donor, Daniel Offutt. Dorothy writes:

No one needs to be a member of a historical society, pay annual dues, contribute to annual giving, volunteer to support its educational work, catalog its collections, staff its fundraisers, buy tickets to those same fundraisers, or then buy back donated auction items.

Yet in Westport for more than a century, many have done just that, and some have done even more: leaving substantial bequests to the Westport Historical Society’s modest endowment in their wills or contributing major capital to the campaigns that purchased the historic Bradley-Wheeler property, restored the rare heptagonal cobblestone barn, refurbished (what used to be) the period rooms, built the underground climate-controlled archive and constructed the exhibit gallery addition.

The Westport Historical Society was a people-friendly place with a devoted shoestring staff and intelligent, enthusiastic members and volunteers who contained the costs and raised the funds to keep it going. Most of them grew up somewhere else, but after moving here (Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman among them) were drawn to the WHS by the energy, camaraderie and front-row seats to the remarkable story of how this amazing little (population 25,000) coastal 06880 Zip Code came to be.

The Westport Museum for History & Culture — formerly the Westport Historical Society — on Avery Place.

How was it that Westport grew from the Pre-Contact era through the Puritan Colonial era, the farming, fishing and maritime commerce eras, the American Revolution, the War of 1812 embargo, the rise of small manufacturing, the market boat (local produce to NYC) era, the 1835 formation of the town, the building of the Maine to Georgia (and, in particular, the last piece: New York to New Haven) railroad, the onion (supplying Grant’s troops during the Civil War) and apple farming eras, the 20th century arrival of the nation’s leading artists, illustrators, writers, actors and performing artists, the 20th century leadership in breaking “the gentleman’s agreement” and other discriminatory practices, the building of Westport’s link in I-95 (Maine to Florida), the welcoming of the (United Nations) world through “jUNe Day,” ground-breaking models (like Save the Children and Newman’s Own) for social entrepreneurship, and now, in the 21st century, to providing a base for everyone from hedge fund managers to a burgeoning farmer’s market, from a humongous annual Maker Faire to Interfaith Housing and Homes With Hope, from the Westport Country Playhouse to pop-up art shows, from early adopters of front-line climate change resistance technology to the vigilant volunteers who staff the Historic District Commission?

It’s an amazing saga for a small, but nationally and globally influential town, and the primary place for the public to access this story, told in “chapters,” through exhibits and programs, has long been the Sheffer Gallery of the Westport Historical Society. When the WHS membership purchased the Italianate (built over the original saltbox) Bradley-Wheeler House, it had very limited exhibit and gathering space, and the financial burden of acquiring and refurbishing the antique home for WHS use had left many wallets thin.

The Sheffer family was in a position to help with a major, restricted gift: If the WHS accepts our capital, the new construction will be named, in perpetuity, “The Sheffer Gallery.”

An action that relies on a promise is a contract.

The Westport Historical Society gratefully agreed.

The organization’s recent name change does not give it license to break faith with its past contracts, nor would that be a wise choice for an institution committed, through the benevolence of donors, to preserving the memory of how today’s Westport came to be.

51 responses to “[OPINION] Dorothy Curran: Westport History Museum Broke Faith

  1. My outrage and sadness over this as stated in the earlier post remains.

  2. John F. Suggs

    Well said Dorothy Curran. Ann Sheffer, you and your family deserve so much better than this.

    Ramin Ganeshram and Sara Krasne – SHAME on you!

  3. Thank you for expressing so eloquently how many (most?) of us feel. The Sheffer family deserves better.

  4. Well put. Thank you for writing this. Ann and her family deserved so much better than the current leadership just showed her.

  5. Beautifully stated. I’ve yet to see a single post in support of what the historical society is doing.

  6. Dorothy, what a thoughtful perspective you have written. Your knowledge of this town’s history serves us all and to Ann and Bill, please know that everyone in this town appreciates everything that you have done over the years to make it such a desirable town to live in, be in, and to visit. Thank you Ann, thank you Dorothy. I can tell you that we spent 5 wonderful years giving sold-out concerts in the Sheffer Gallery at “Coffeehouse at the Wheeler’s”. On behalf of Suzanne Sheridan and myself, that amazing space will always be the Sheffer Gallery.

  7. Dorothy, your retelling of Westport’s history made my heart swell with pride. This is a unique and special place, as is the Society, and those who helped create, protect and nurture both deserve to be treated far better. History and Culture indeed!

  8. Thank you for this thoughtful and measured piece, Dorothy. As a preservationist and someone whose family roots in Westport extend twelve generations, I’m saddened to see this valuable cultural organization lose its way. This latest development seems to be of a piece with other, regrettable recent news – including the placing of the organization’s archives behind a $40 an hour paywall.

    • Linda Gramatky Smith

      Morley, where did you get this news? I haven’t seen it, and if it means that the newly-named Westport Museum is charging $40/hr for people to access their archives, shame, shame, shame! Thanks for bringing this news to our attention.

      • Hi Linda,
        A group of us concerned citizens learned the unhappy news regarding the new $40 an hour paywall about a year ago while researching the famed journalist (and Westporter) Sigrid Schultz for a public monument to her memory. Since we were simply doing this for the benefit of the community, the demand took us by surprise to say the least. Although we politely asked the Society to please consider waiving its fee under the circumstances, the response was unyielding. And the tone was inexplicably hostile. We got the message and took our research effort in another direction in order to avoid triggering such burdensome fees.

  9. Michael Calise

    Thank you Dorothy. Well said. Its almost as if the WHS has lost its sense of history!

  10. Bravo, Dorothy.

    • Dorothy, your eloquence and dedication to the WHS speaks volumes. It seems, as Morley Boyd stated, to have “lost its way” as is so often the case in today’s “highest bidder” society we find ourselves living in. I second John F. Suggs’ comment: Ramin Ganeshram and Sara Krasne – SHAME on you!

  11. Thank you Dorothy, you have summed up 300 years so exquisitely. Perhaps there is another suitable venue or gallery in town that deserves the Sheffer’s name and can highlight their time honored commitment and dedication to unlocking Westport’s history. As it is said, “One door closes, another door opens.”

  12. I have known Ann Sheffer and Bill Scheffler since 1983 when I moved to Westport. I also knew Ralph and Betty. The town has been the extremely fortunate beneficiary of their good will, good deeds, commitment and financial support. It pains me to see how callously the Westport Historical Society — I use the old name deliberately because a historical society celebrates history and that includes retaining a historical name — has treated them. It’s a sign of how Westport has changed from a community that was known for literary icons, artists, musicians, TV and theater personalities and scientists to one that holds Wall Street in the highest esteem, attracting people with gobs of money and little appreciation for anything of intellectual value. I’m saddened by how the Historical Society has treated Ann and Bill. But am I surprised, given the new Westport? No!

  13. Charles Taylor

    Well said. We don’t break faith with those whose shoulders we stand on to get the WHS to this point!

  14. Caryn Friedman

    While I’m not in a position to comment on Dorothy Curran’s point, I do appreciate her deep knowledge about and obvious affection for Westport.
    As a librarian, I am struck by museum management’s decision to limit access to town archives by charging a significant hourly fee to researchers, historians, scholars, writers etc. Some of these archives were housed at the Westport Library, prior to the extensive weeding project done in preparation for the renovation. Those files were available to all, and I remember former town historian Alan Raymond, searching through them for some nugget of information and delighting us librarians with his anecdotes about Westport.

    Limiting access to the rich history of Westport in the 21st century? Seems backwards and elitist to me. Why not fund a digitization project to preserve Westport’s rich history, and make it accessible to all online?

  15. I completely agree with Dorothy’s last paragraph. If the Museum for History and Culture (aka Westport Historical Society) stands for honoring history, how can history be foregone by dishonoring its own most significant founding members, the Sheffer family, in this way? No donation, no matter how sizable, should be allowed to pre-empt recognition of its most dedicated early supporters.

  16. Well said, Jessica. Thank you.

  17. Carolanne Curry

    I agree with Dorothy Curren without hesitation.
    This is a poor decision that should be reversed citing all the comments as well as Curran’s.

  18. Thank you Dorothy for your thoughtful insight. Many have expressed disappointment with the lack of thoughtful and meaningful involvement and dialogue of so many who committed both time, money and effort to WHS. Clearly, the leadership of the Westport Museum of History and Culture has shown absolute disregard and disrespect to so many committed and caring Westporter’s like the Sheffer family. This will go down as a historically disrespectful and a total disaster.

  19. As a former Westporter, now Westonite, thank you all who are taken aback, and outraged by this insulting, misguided (and possibly illegal?) decision and have communicated their opposition to it here. Yes, Westport has changed dramatically. I hope those here and many others who are part of Westport’s still-existent ethical core will continue to speak up and then pursue all of their options to block this nod to big Wall Street money.

  20. Very well said, Dorothy. It’s very sad what is happening given the history and many people giving of themselves through the years.

  21. Amen, Dorothy! Let’s hope we can undo this proposal.

  22. Bill Boyd , Staples '66

    It seems to me the next meeting of the former historical society ought to be well attended and our thoughts and feelings generously shared with them.

  23. Elizabeth Devoll

    I was honored to work at the Historical Society for many years prior to the current administration as Education Director. I was surrounded by highly intelligent knowledgeable historians with a real passion for Westports unique and fascinating past. I learned so much every day from those Westporters who supported and made with the Wheeler House the welcoming community place it was. The new administration has alienated these very people who founded the place! It saddens me greatly that it has become an institution centered on individual ego and profit. It surely has lost its way. Thank you Dorothy and Ann for being caretakers of our wonderful heritage and for speaking up!

  24. I think the Current leadership should be removed , and the original name restored. Enough of this politically correct nonsense. It’s the Westport Historical Society , period. The Sheffer family has grounds for a lawsuit for breach of contract .

    • Elizabeth Thibault

      This is about money, political correctness has nothing to do with it. There’s no shame that the Sheffer family brings that the WHS would need to get rid of it’s name.

    • Arline Gertzoff

      Like Ann I am a native and this nonsense I was told that Westport Historical Society is old fashioned is absurd .This decision needs an immediate review .Nobody with any real understanding or knowledge of Westport would put forth such an idea.Bravo to Dorothy Curren ,and all who disputed this arbitrary decision There at least should have been a members forum to discuss this plan

  25. Well this takes the cake. I cannot bring myself to go there since my stint on the Exhibit’s Committee when it was I, Mollie Donovan and Wally Woods. The committee became larger after the Sheffer Gallery was built and included Anne Levine and Sue Kirby. We were like a well oiled machine. And with Elizabeth DeVoll we put together some amazing exhibits. Somehow, along the way it seemed that the Board got taken over by people who cared more about being a corporation than the stated mission of the Historical Society. This just makes me so sad.
    .

    • Linda Gramatky Smith

      So well said, Ellen. You also were working on the new Westport Museum of Contemporary Art (originally the Westport Arts Center for 25 years) out on Newtown Turnpike that was going to celebrate the longtime art that been part of Westport. Now it seems to be going the same way downward.

  26. Deb Rosenfield

    Well said, Dorothy. Just as I’ve been evaluating whether to stay in Westport or to move, your words remind me of why I moved here nearly 50 years ago. With the Westport Arts Center moving out of town and changing its name to something I am never able to remember, to the recent changes at the Westport Historical Society, it’s as if the new guard seeks to rewrite the town’s history. Removing the Sheffer name from a wing of the building funded by the family tops just about everything, though. This move, which might not even be legal, is disgraceful and disrespectful to Ann and Bill, who have been there throughout the decades helping to make this small town a better place. I hope this decision is reversed, and frankly, that the name “Westport Historical Society” is reinstated, too. Why complicate things that don’t need to be complicated?

  27. I am not a wealthy person who can be a major donor in the future. So I’m not sure if my comments will matter to the current administration.

    But I am a longtime resident who has enjoyed the exhibits over the years at the WHS/WMHC and I have donated various items/memorabilia to the archives. I even co-curated an exhibit at the WHS in 2017 and, in connection with that, helped arrange two fundraising events at the WHS.

    I think this decision re the name change is wrong on several levels (and might be illegal). I received my membership renewal form not long ago; I will not renew until the situation with the Sheffer family is remedied in some manner.

    PS—is the current administration willing to publicize the donation amount (which is frequently done by non-profits when naming rights are announced)? Also, given the loss of longtime board members and supporters (and thus their institutional knowledge), how do the current executives know for sure this is the largest donation in the history of the WHS?

  28. Billy Nistico

    Thank you Dorothy, for your very thoughtful perspective. Ann Sheffer, Bill Scheffler and their incredible family legacy do not deserve this stick in the eye. While I don’t live in Westport any more, maybe a petition is in order?

  29. Daryl Styner-Presley

    Very well said, Dorothy Curran. However, are you sure that this current Board, completely understood your diplomatic, and very polite message about honoring previous commitments & contracts?

  30. Westport is unique in many ways but this move to change the name of a dedicated named facility is totally unheard of, it is beyond believable! I was in shock reading this last night. The new donor is very generous and I am sure deserves to be recognized but not in this way!
    Even the name change from the WHS was hard to believe!

  31. Amy Schneider

    Well said, Dorothy.

  32. Kate Mozier-Tichy

    I posted this to the original posting about the name change, but I’ll put it here too:
    Often the old names are incorporated into the new name, thus why you get hyphenated names of places. If you go the website, the archives have been renamed in honor of Offutt, as well. Did both parts of the organization need to be named for him? By doing so, they erased two former donors’ contributions (Sheffer and possibly Stumberger, who the “Library” portion was named for before).
    And sometimes, legal action can be taken. Many large gifts to historical organizations have stipulations included. This has actually caused problems for some museums. Here’s an interesting article on it: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/05/arts/design/museums-grapple-with-onerous-restrictions-on-donations.html

    Basically, I think they best option would have been to honor both donors, acknowledging the importance of both contributions over time.

    • Linda Gramatky Smith

      Oh no! Was the Stumberger (named for Sandy and Ray Stumberger, Compo Beach Road, who are still residents of Westport part of the year and have been such dedicated volunteers and donors to the WHS) name deleted from the Library of the WHS? This is a double travesty. I hope the Town steps up to judge the legality (or illegality) of these changes. And Fred Cantor, I won’t be renewing at this time either!

  33. Sandra Lefkowitz

    Dorothy has written a thoughtful and significant commentary on what happens when there is to little attention paid to how and why we got to a significant historical place but are now not gathering enough financial support to address the evolving nature of a cultural institution. It is surprising that the Board of the Westport Historical Society did not involve more of the community in the decision to change the mission as well as the name.
    Our local History belongs to us all and perhaps this is a good time to rethink a decision that may seem to try to solve institutional and financial concerns that may not be necessary if Westport’s citizenry does not see the evolution of the WHS as going in a direction that they would like.

  34. Seth Goltzer’s above comment is exactly correct: The current Director of the Historical Society and her assistant should be, sooner than later, removed from their positions. To insult the Sheffer family is outrageous; they are and have been for many decades primary supporters of the Arts and Westport’s history, their generosity has helped keep Westport’s arts and history alive. This administration at the Historical Society has, in the recent past under this new Director, appallingly ignored verbal contracts with impunity, and they should be held responsible for this latest breach of contract. The current Board must understand what the Director and her assistant must be accountable to the entire Westport community by their action. The Sheffer/Sheffler family know that the outpouring of reader’s comments could be multiplied by the many Westport residents who are grateful for the family’s largesse.

    • Kate Mozier-Tichy

      Here, here, Mrs. Chernow! My father (Dave Tichy) was a student of your husband’s at Housatonic back in the 70’s and I know that you know what is up!! (He spoke very highly of both of you.)

  35. Elise Plate Russi

    I completely support Dorothy’s statements, and I’ve been privileged to work with Ann and Miggs (Westport Arts Advisory Board) and Dorothy (Westport Women’s Club) on Arts events and fundraising. Sadly, I stopped contributing to WHS and attending events in 2019 due to the organization name change, and the gallery name change reaffirms my prior decision. I could have donated funds, time, and objects important to Fairfield County history, but I have found other avenues.

    The Board President and Executive Director owe Ann’s family a private and a public apology, in my opinion. And the public has the right to know why the Sheffer gallery barn is receiving a major renovation since it had a major renovation in 2002. What, exactly, are they planning that requires hundreds of thousands of dollars?

    In my mind, what the WHS needs is ongoing program support because of the many new employees recently hired, and the new donation could have gone towards funding ongoing and planned exhibits in this gallery.

  36. John F. Suggs

    I posted this on the original blog story and thought I would post it here as well.

    For those who are interested, here is the list of the current WHS board members – and its advisory council:

    https://westporthistory.org/officers/

  37. Louise W Demakis

    As a former Volunteer Archivist Historian, renaming the Sheffer Gallery for a new donor, regardless of the amount of donation, raises a serious question about the historical integrity of the newly named WMHA.

  38. Louise W Demakis

    As a former Volunteer Archivist Historian at the Westport Historical Society, renaming the Sheffer Gallery for a new donor, regardless of the amount of donation, raises a question about the historical integrity of the newly named WMHA.

  39. Louise W Demakis

    That should have been WMHC. I guess they prefer to forget about the Arts!

  40. Dorothy:
    Kudos on your thoughtful and articulate commentary. This is yet one more slap in the face of dedicated caring loyal Westport residents – removing the library river wall and shockingly deciding to reinvent Westport’s “face to the world” by replacing its unique identifying Minuteman with a nebulous meaningless “W” – all done without community support.

    The shamefulness of the act is surpassed only by the callousness of the means.

    Dr J

  41. Jo Shields Sherman

    Since Mr. Offutt lived in Weston, I wonder why his generosity wasn’t directed to the Weston Historical Society, or perhaps it has. My initial checkbook reaction to all this has been an immediate donation to THAT fine organization. I hope here in Westport it is only temporary that the Sheffler and Donovan names (and any others so honored) are not displayed. I hope too that we will see those names properly restored as sure as we will see, treasure and delight in Mollie Donovan’s daffodils in the spring.