In 1998, amid great fanfare, the Westport Library unveiled the River of Names. It quickly became a beloved attraction, on the lower level.
To help with its renovation, nearly 2,000 donors had contributed $350,000. Award-winning artist and sculptor Marion Grebow created a 6 foot-by-26 ceramic mural.
Eighty-four tiles depicted important events in Westport history. Over 1,000 more bore the names of individuals, families and organizations who also helped fund the Library expansion.
In 2017, preparing for a new “transformation” project, the River of Names was professionally removed, and stored in a climate-controlled warehouse. Library officials worked with Grebow and others to find a new spot for the mural.
But the artist did not want it to “bend” on 2 walls. No suitable site could be found that was long enough, and able to support its weight.
Each piece was digitized. The mural is now available online, with accompanying narratives. (Click here to see.)
In addition, each donor’s name was put on a plaque. It hangs on the main floor.
In the quarter century since the River of Names was commissioned, Americans have looked at our history through a new lens — one that seeks to acknowledge formerly overlooked groups, and right past wrongs.
And in just the 5 years since the mural was stored, statues and monuments have been removed. Buildings and foundations have been renamed.
In accordance with its motto — “Open to All” — the Library consulted with 3 groups: the Westport Arts Advisory Committee, Westport Museum for History & Culture, and TEAM Westport.
All found significant issues with the River of Names’ depiction of town history. (The WAAC’s Diversity Task Force report appears at the end of this story.)
Major events, like the presence of hundreds of enslaved people, the existence of a Black neighborhood at 12 1/2 Main Street — and the never-explained fire that destroyed it — were not included.
The history of Indigenous people was portrayed inaccurately — including, significantly, the massacre that ended the Great Swamp War, and the “sale” of Machamux by the Pequannock tribe to the Bank-side Farmers. Native Americans were portrayed as white.
There was no acknowledgement of the presence and achievements of non-Christian communities (or earlier restrictive covenants). No tile depicted Rev. Martin Luther King’s appearance at Temple Israel, and the congregation’s strong support of the civil rights movement.
Eight months ago, Library officials offered to work with Dorothy Curran — a longtime local volunteer with a passion for history, who had been a driving force behind the River of Names project — and others.
The goal was to gift it to someone, or some group, willing to find a new home for the mural, or continue paying for its storage. The Library has been responsible for those fees since 2017.
A deadline of this month was set.
Library trustee Scott Bennewitz, who serves as vice president, says there has been “very limited response,” and no offers to house the mural, or pay for storage.
Recently, the 19-member board of trustees voted unanimously to terminate the storage contract. The mural may be disposed of by January 15.
“This decision was not made in a vacuum,” says Library director Bill Harmer. “A great deal of research and discussion went into it.
“The bottom line is, the mural is no longer appropriate. It is exclusive, obsolete and offensive, in ways no one could conceive of in the 1990s. It does not represent the inclusive Westport of 2022.”
Donors contributed with “good will,” he notes. “Everyone who participated had good intentions. We are grateful for their generosity. and acknowledge all of them, on a plaque in a very prominent place.”
“The Library is not a town organization, but we do receive substantial funding from it,” Bennewitz adds.
“We should align ourselves with the town’s values. There’s a new plaque behind Town Hall, and others downtown, that depict a better view of our history than before. The Arts Advisory Committee has a DEI statement that we align with also.”
“We think this is a reasonable path forward. We still hope we can work with Dorothy, or any other reasonable party, toward funding.”
Individuals or groups interested in the River of Names should contact Library board of trustees president Jeremy Price: email@example.com.
Dorothy Curran disagrees strongly with the Library decision. She writes:
Most Westport Library users remember the River of Names historical bas-relief ceramic donor tile mural.
Until the Library’s 2019-20 renovation, it graced the Riverwalk level hallway. Admirers included nearly 2,000 donors, who in 1997-98 contributed $350,000 to commission award-winning artist and sculptor Marion Grebow to create the work, along with the tens of thousands who visited each year, often accompanied by awed children or grandchildren, or envious out-of-town visitors.
The 84 “picture tiles” and their brief captions offered a glimpse at 4 centuries of local history. If one stood close to the mural at the far end, looking west across the surface toward the Saugatuck, the light shimmered on the gleaming white bas-relief wave tiles, just like moonlight on the river.
With patience and trust, since 2019 — when the Library hired a fine arts firm to remove the River of Names to safe, temporary storage to facilitate a new round of construction — these admirers have awaited its return.
After all, isn’t this work a Library-owned asset? Doesn’t the Library receive 75% of its annual budget from town taxpayers, and do right by its donors and patrons?
However, in a letter last week to Stephen Nevas (attorney for mural artist Marion Grebow) attorney Alan Neigher (on behalf of Jeremy Price, president of the Westport Library Association board of trustees) conveyed that the Library was terminating its River of Names storage contract and ordering that the popular work of public art — a 6’2″ x 26’4″ historical ceramic donor tile mural with 1,927 donor surfaces on 1,162 separate tiles — be “disposed of,” no later than January 15, 2023.
Isn’t this the same River of Names ceramic bas-relief mural that the Library paid a fine arts firm to remove in 2019 and store temporarily, in a fine arts storage facility, until library renovation and construction were complete?
Isn’t this the mural with 84 bas-relief historical picture tiles depicting 4 centuries of iconic moments, architecture and themes from the history of what today is Westport? The one with 50 rows and 29 columns of 2′ x 6″ gleaming white “wave” tiles (993 in all)? And 85 5″ x 12″ bookshelf tiles, each with 10 book spines, bearing donor names?
But this also is the same mural that the Library executive director and board then said could never return to the renovated building, because their plan never asked for a single flat wall for it.
Instead, near the children’s section, as consolation they offered a digital database flat screen display of the individual River of Names tiles so that young patrons could search for tile photos by donor name or subject. It now is dark.
And then — after construction was complete, and immediately following town approval on October 13, 2021 of a new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion policy — the Library sought to banish its return on the grounds of DEI content failure, with correspondence solicited from the Westport Museum of History & Culture, TEAM Westport and the Westport Arts Advisory Council.
In general, these organizations noted that 84 briefly captioned images were not a comprehensive, inclusive history of Westport. Of course, they never were meant to be. And the tiles depicting Native Americans relied on photographic source material from exhibit curators at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, before it even opened to the public.
Then, on the Library website, the text reference for Marion Grebow’s 3-dimensional ceramic donor tile mural initially became “the tile wall,” with no artist credit. Now it is “River of Names Interactive.” What does that mean? Where is the artist credit, or the history or meaning of this work’s creation?
According to Marion Grebow’s attorney, he “has been warned that unless her family agrees to pay for storage or immediately takes custody of the 26 foot ceramic wall, it will be destroyed no later than January 15, 2023.”
What would Marion Grebow think?
In 1997-98, former Second Selectman Betty Lou Cummings and I, as an RTM-appointed Westport Library trustee, were volunteer co-chairs of the River of Names Community Capital Campaign. We worked very closely with Marion Grebow on every detail of every one of the mural’s sculptural images and 1,927 donor spaces.
In 2019, despite her concerns for the mural’s structural fragility, it was cut by experts into 6 pieces and removed to storage, as the library renovation commenced.
Meanwhile, Marion was battling terminal cancer. Knowing that her end was approaching, she planned her own graveside service. In February 2020, a few weeks before the COVID lockdown, Betty Lou Cummings and I stood on the peaceful frozen hillside of Umpawaug Cemetery in Redding as a lone soloist rose to sing one song in the frigid air. Apparently it was Marion’s favorite: “Moon River.”
In November 2021, the Westport Arts Advisory Committee Diversity Task Force presented this report to the Library:
River of Names is a tile wall created in 1996 in the context of fundraising for the Westport Library. While the piece aims to tell the chronology of our town, factual historical events and the diverse populations of Westport that played a significant role in the story of our town were omitted. We highlight these omissions because the commission claims to have weaved our town history into the piece, yet it is incomplete.
Also of concern is that at least one tile depicts the face of a white patron inappropriately overlaid in scenes of indigenous people. The importance of historical storytelling grounded in fact is vital to our growing efforts to come together as a society and embrace diversity and inclusion. As River of Names is not an accurate depiction of Westport’s history, it is inappropriate to be displayed in 2021 Westport.
Yet this tile wall provides a learning opportunity. We believe the digital file should remain on the Westport Library website as a tool to understand the importance of diversity and inclusion initiatives and how the perception of history over the past 25 years has evolved.
We suggest that the River of Names web display include an addendum, written by a town historian, to add historical omissions and to explain the context of the time in which the wall was created. This would be a responsible and thoughtful approach to embracing this well-intentioned, yet anachronistic work.
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Your post says that, had the artist allowed the piece to be displayed on two walls, IT WOULD BE IN THE LIBRARY TODAY.
What a bunch of woke horse shit is this eschewing of imperfect representations of our imperfect history as evolving Americans.
Sure, the tile wall shows some Indians(sorry, Native Americans) as pale, shows no synagogues, no black neighborhood and gives no shout out to Holy Rollers. Shall we get rid of the books about Thomas Jefferson; he had salves, ya’ know. He had mixed race kids, ya’ know….and enslaved ’em. Let us dump the bastard.
Grow the f… up, TEAM Westport, Westport Art Advisory Committee, Westport Museum for Culture and History…this push to whitewash (sorry) the grievous errors in the evolving history of our nation, INCREASES the distaste for multiculturalism…it does NOT decrease it.
The vast majority of tiles contain donor names rather than having any historical value whatsoever.
All these people up in arms are because they want their names displayed on a wall. Throw that mural in the trash, it’s simply a vanity project for the wealthy.
Would it be possible to cut up the mural and return the tiles to the donors?
What about sustainability. Just what we need, more trash! Offer the tiles to the donors if the best you can come up with is to trash the whole thing. We discourage children from destroying their work. Edit and make it better. This is so sad and sends the wrong message to everyone
This artistic tile depiction should not be destroyed. It is a historical interpretation, not a PhD dissertation; but a precis, if you will. If any learned members of these ‘astute’ committees strolled through the Met, the Tate, the Louvre or any other major museum or library, I am sure they would find material that offended or rubbed them the wrong way. But that’s art folks. I suggest that before ‘disposing’ of this work, a suitable public location in town be found…how about Town Hall? There has to be a suitably sized wall somewhere inside.
Woke bullshit to the nth degree!
This is tantamount to piling up a bunch of books in the library parking lot and setting them on fire. The library board should be ashamed.
thanks for this one, John….great comment.
I read this post with great sadness. The mural was beautiful, even though imperfect. It was a loving tribute to the town we all love, and it should be preserved.
I missed the part about returning the sponsors’ donations.
I think Werner has this part of it right. If the ultimate outcome is that the wall will not be reinstalled, the appropriate thing would be for the library to return the original donations to those donors who want their money back.
Actually, from a legal standpoint, I think a case can be made that the donors are entitled to their money back. The library clearly had the space to accommodate the wall as originally designed—but it chose to set up the layout of the renovated library in a different manner.
As for the original wall not reflecting what is deemed a more complete and inclusive history from today’s vantage point: the answer is not to destroy the original wall; it would make far more sense to supplement it.
I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments of my 1964 Little League teammate Michael Rea: “We as a community can do better than this…”
Why not commission an artist to update with new tiles rather than destroy the old one? It was put up with the best intentions, not to offend. I find some of the comments ludicrous; the natives dressed very much as natives look white. Hardly. How many churches or synagogues can you fit on one small tile? Wow. Maybe we should put up new tiles, including one massive one, representing the size of homes being built in Westport. Or people in SUVs on cell phones blocking intersections when lights change. I think we could add one of a group of diverse residents — you know, millionaires and multimillionaires for example — looking under a rock to find some offense. That would surely represent a slice of Westport today.
Presentism on a level approaching absurdity. I will henceforth disregard any opinion or work product produced by the organizations which participated in this embarrassing decision.
I consider myself to be pretty middle of the road and taking a moment to consider both sides of an issue.
To my mind this is a prime example of misguided, woke, revisionism, that serves no cause in the issues they would wish to correct. History is history, and white washing it will not change it. On the contrary, this feeds into right wing portrayal of the “hopeless wokes.”
Destroying this work will taint the reputation of the library.
What are the Trustees names⁉️ Do they live in Westport?
It’s on the Library website:
it’s one thing to say the tiles are just too heavy for any wall in Westport to maintain, it’s another thing to say Westport doesn’t deserve to applaud it’s human and civil rights history within the story of it’s founding.
wow, this is really a hard slap in the hearts and minds of the people who have invested so much in what made & kept renewing Westport, Connecticut’s status as a ‘civil rights’ stand out in Connecticut, the USA North East, & even in some actually very important International arenas.
Westport Connecticut has been holding that spot in the hearts and minds of anyone & everyone who really knows anything about human & civil rights advocacy in USA and worldwide; I’m not talking about the arm chair human and civil rights referee, but the people who are really working on and impacted by human and civil rights policies in USA and worldwide.
it’s one thing to say the tiles are just too heavy for any wall in Westport to maintain, it’s another thing to say Westport doesn’t deserve to applaud it’s human and civil rights history within the story of it’s founding.
I haven’t lived in Westport for decades and I don’t know much about what goes on in Connecticut other than in Westport but I do know that Westport’s push to be the country’s high achievers when it comes to honoring civil rights – Martin Luther King Jr AND MalcolmX, for example – is consistent over several decades and even solidly referred to outside of USA.
I agree with most everything said above: 1) ridiculous wokeness that gives legitimate concerns a bad name, 2) either provide discussion of the offending tiles or replace them, 3) find a place in town to display the tiles (it sounds like there WAS a place in the library if the tiles could turn a corner which I’m sure the artist would have preferred to them being destroyed), and if the tiles are going to be destroyed, I want mine back.
I think the suggestion to hang it in Town Hall is a very good one.
We as a community can do better than this.
Please keep trying to come up with a better solution.
What do you think Jack would’ve said!
Having recently reviewed every single file in the Westport Library’s excellent new (local) History Room, I certainly hope this currently fashionable lense will not cause that resource to also be placed in “storage”.
I think the tiles should be returned to the donors if they want themm
I purchased a tile. Then, a few years ago, I donated to the fund for the “New Improved Library,” which eliminated the wall, but we were not told at the time of the latter fund drive that the wall would not be hung. This was a total misrepresentation. If the wall cannot be hung in the Library, then Town Hall would be an appropriate place. If the wall is going to be destroyed, then I want my tile back.
Suggestion–there is a huge empty wall at the beach where the picnic tables are between the concession stand and the lockers…..could it be somehow be assembled there?? Tiles should be able to withstand NE weather.
This mural is a Town asset. It is shameful that we let the Library Trustees dictate what happens to a Town asset. This decision should go in front of the RTM for a final resolution and be signed off by the First Selectlady.
Town asset? Um…. our tax dollars did NOT pay for that. It’s not a town asset; it’s just a list of donors. The Library can do whatever it wants, it doesn’t belong to the town.
That mural has become a white elephant.
I want my tile (memorializing my father Win Elliot) back. I want a name change for Hiawatha Lane as it could be offensive to some. I want a name change for Red Coat Lane (how can it be possible we memorialize British invaders who savaged our town). I want immediate investigations into the past history’s of Horace Staples, Ruth Steinkraus, the Jessup’s, and other prominent and historical Westport families…..I am sure we can find skeletons in their closets worthy of cancellation. 350k in donations, can you say class action law suit? Oh and one other thing, I publicly propose that we change the name of our bucolic town to “Wokeport”. What a travesty.
Did Win Elliott live on North Maple Avenue, near the Hyde Lane intersection, maybe 65 years ago?
I just want to take a moment and thank Dan for presenting all sides of the story in this article.
There’s an entire consulting industry that is profiting mightily from pushing for DEI initiatives everywhere. Just look at the recent announcement from the Westport Playhouse that they created a new DEI leadership position — not sure why they needed that; their programing is already ultra-woke. Companies all over are creating similar DEI positions, and mandating DEI training. It’s stuff like this that is polarizing the country, rather than uniting us.
I think the Library never wanted to re-install the mural because it didn’t fit with their aesthetic, and this is simply a convenient excuse to say it’s because of DEI reasons.
Agree. The DEI pronouncement that the mural is (now) insensitive is plainly a fig leaf. Casually smearing the character of the donors and the artist in the process seems awfully cynical.
And I bet you thin the “election was stolen” as well.
Very sad, but I’m honestly surprised anyone is surprised. Read history (cultural revolution in China, etc). Once the ball starts rolling it doesn’t stop. After the “bad” art and literature (I.e. that which is offensive to the destroyers) is destroyed, it just takes time to start finding that everything else is “problematic”. Let’s hope we can get some sanity back before we tear down more town monuments, art, history, books …
Sad for the artist’s memory as this was almost certainly an expression of beauty meant to be shared with and enjoyed by others, and I highly doubt it was intended to insult or degrade anybody ….
The decision to throw this “problem” away, rather than use it as a launching pad for deeper historical understanding and unity does seem like a bad one!
Westport is an island of privilege, which is why so many privileged people (can) live there. But many there can be won to looking backwards with an eye to a better kind of present and future. Why hand them over without a fight to the Ron DeSantis’ of the world?
The 6×26 foot grid could be supplemented with side tiles to make it a truer work of living history. It could be broken up into more manageable and supplemented segments rather than just tossed in a dumpster.
Seems like everyone would benefit from that. Could make great history assignments for future years of Westport kids!
This decision represents fear based leadership. I will no longer provide any financial support, or otherwise, to the library. The trustees should educate themselves about how other museums and libraries preserve history. Who are you to think You can erase history. You can update it or create a new mural, or updated tiles. There are many solutions other than the one the trustees voted for.
Just hang it at the Town Hall (where it should have been in the first place). And change the Wokey sounding name of Museum of (Politically Correct) Culture and Art back to the Westport Historical Society. Better yet!!!! Make it the Wetpants Hysterical Society.
This is an appalling decision. That wall was always one of the highlights of the old library and it is inexcusable to just throw it away. What reasons does the library give for this decision, besides no wall space? If I had donated for a tile,
I would be so very angry…and with good reason .
I understand the need for some to post wokeness or dollar value comments about the decision –
but where are comments about the kindness and consideration exhibited by the library, Westport Arts Advisory Committee, Westport Museum for History & Culture, and TEAM Westport?
And then move on to find a solution.
The executioner kindly allows spiritual guidance and provides a last meal
Please elaborate on “kindness and consideration.” What are they, and where are they on exhibit?
Curious where you see “Kindness and Consideration” from those groups in connection with this debacle? I see only cynicism on display in the mixing of this simple mural with a so-called DEI agenda. Simply put, the library is cynically looking for a politcally correct way out of owning an asset which it now finds economically inconvenient to own. And in the process it hurts actual needed DEI efforts. And for that those responsible should be ashamed.
Oh, and one last shot across the proverbial bow: the artist should never have been allowed to determine that the piece could not be put “around a corner” on two walls…it was not HER’s and she had NO right whatever to screw things up…yeah, it’s disrespecting the dead, perhaps, but had she just stayed out of it, non of the above
angst would be necessary.
I lied. one more word of genius: how about putting it in the Tunnel of Love between main and Parker Harding????????
Excellent idea. You’re the one who can make it happen.
Excellent idea Mr. Katz……right off Main Street and Parker-Harding Plaza, another reason to stroll Westport. Maybe the Downtown Merchants Association should chime in.
There should be a way to review the 84 historic event tiles and replace or edit those to reflect a more accurate historic account.
This is outrageous.. There has to be a solution. The family names (including mine) and businesses on this exhibit might not mean anything to the funewygies in this town but they do to me and many other’s…
A fascinating article about a good attempt by a town, Westport, to face the truth of its history, as we learn more about our previous biases. I never knew that my hero Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr visited Temple Israel, the neighbor to my UU congregation in Westport. At UU Westport our 7th graders in faith formation are currently asking similar questions about Connecticut history re: the depiction and records about treatment of the Indigenous and enslaved African Americans in the colonial era. This exploration is part of the Witness Stone Project. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This quote by William Faulkner reminds me that history is very much alive and requires continuous re-evaluation of newly uncovered facts and examination of old biases held in the light of current values of greater inclusiveness of diversity.
What are the Trustees names?
Do they live in Westport ?
It’s on the Library website:
The existing mural could be used as a teaching tool, culminating in a project that explores what would be included in a mural created today. Times change. Very close friends of mine in Westport chose a book in the River of Life with my late husband’s name on it in 1998. I would like that tile back.
I would hope that the mural could be rehung somewhere – library or other location – with a description that explains that it is not to be viewed literally in terms of historic accuracy and that there are important pieces missing. However, I would like to believe that the groups that weighed in took various perspectives into consideration and were trying to be constructive. I do think it’s important for the community to have the opportunity to add their thoughts, however, I wish some did so without so much negativity and vitriol. Say your piece, but maybe without ascribing sinister motives to others viewpoints. All these groups try to do their best for the town, whether you agree with their decisions or not.
I am now living in Redding. One of the most beloved assets of the Town is the Mark Twain Library. Maybe in the future some brainiac will decide that the Library should have its name changed because Mr. Twain (or Clement, if you prefer) wrote books in which African-Americans were referred to or called the n-word.
Oh — and does the Westport Library have books by Mark Twain? They must be burned immediately!
When my Father died, our family elected to have all remembrances from our family and friends donated in his memory to this “Historic Wall” campaign at the Library. My daughter was 4 years old at the time of my Father’s demise and we thought it would be meaningful for her to see a plaque dedicated to her grandfather at each visit to the Library. Fortunately, there were enough funds for 5 or 6 plaques to be placed on the Wall in his honor. She would touch them with a kiss.
Our family strongly disagrees with the Library Board’s decision.
If they are not to be rehung in the library or town hall or other public spot, we would like them returned to us.
There is a vehicle for all Town Residents to have their voices heard on this travisity. Half of the Library’s Board of Trustees are appointed to their position by the Full RTM. The RTM’s Library, Museum and Arts Cmt, which vets those appointees and recommends them to the full RTM, should call them all back before their cmt to explain their actions. And residents will be able to have that public platform to address them directly.
How do we get this “wall” up and beautiful. The citizenry has weighed. It is time for Town leaders to make this happen, namely, our Selectwomen, the RTM, members of the BoF and other great elected and appointed people, such as those on the P&Z Commission, the HDC, the Architectural Review Board, the Conservation Commission, many others and probably most important of all, the members of the Board of Education. With an e mail, any one of those leaders can create a movement to find a location. Inaction on this, e.g. only strong words from so many residents, would be and now appears to be becoming, a travesty.
Town leaders, show leadership.
Don, I completely agree. As a member of the BoE it saddens me that people with decision making authority in town government are so willing to erase portions of Westport’s history to the point where they find themselves preparing to destroy art work. It is especially upsetting given the meaningful personal ties of many Westport families to this mural and fundraiser. Even more upsetting is that the library is leading the charge to “dispose” of this art work, apparently on the recommendation of the arts committee! If there are any other elected officials in town who would like to be involved in a constructive solution here that preserves the mural, please reach out.
This announcement from the library is fairly perplexing. A year ago, when in conversations with Bill Harmer and Jeremy Price about the library’s refusal to dedicate a space to this piece during the renovation and their further refusal find a space for it once the library reopened, it was suggested that any potentially problematic content be acknowledged, revised and replaced. A single digit # of tiles is no reason to destroy an enormous piece of art when the most obvious solution is to seek an appropriation from the Board of Finance and the RTM to commission an artist to create a small handful of replacement tiles. Doing so might mean the piece could be rehung without issue. It is disappointing that the library and board would ignore this reasonable suggestion/idea in an effort to rid themselves of something they seemingly had no intention to hang and to ignore commitments to donors they seemingly had no intention to honor. Further, it is extremely troubling that the groups from whom Mr. Harmer sought out advice on this piece are being used as scapegoats for the decision when such a reasonable alternative has not been explored. The Library asked for their evaluation of the tiles; they provided that evaluation- what the library decides to do with that information, and on a confusingly tight deadline, is solely on the library.
I know my question wasn’t too important, but I’ll try again. Did Win Elliott live on North Maple Ave maybe 65 years ago?
While the 3 above referenced organizations were consulted and the “feckless” Library Board of Trustees made this apparent decision…the residents of Westport who are the true stakeholders had no say. These type of “woke” decisions do nothing to create unity but are divisive and downright sneaky. Let’s just erase or rewrite all forms of history…right wrong or indifferent!
I guess this begs the question: if we destroy this memorial that was built by townspeople, where do we stop? Do we plow under cemeteries from the Revolutionary War, like the amazing ones in Fairfield (when people from Westport were buried there)? Real estate developers would be lined up for that, I’m sure.
I’m on the “woke” (I hate that word) side of the line and see our history as a way of learning going forward. It’s not like this tile wall requires a huge area like the entire Jesup Green to accommodate it (hey, perhaps some of those big bucks being tossed at the Downtown or Longshore plans could be diverted to saving this tile wall, maybe even near one of the proposed playgrounds, but I digress).
While reading through Dan’s balanced presentation of the issue, and the responses, I was reminded of the time a few years ago that my daughter and I were looking at a small antique house for sale in Fairfield, built in the 1800s. It backed up to a cemetery and was smack dab in the middle of Fairfield, abutting the Post Road.
Out of curiosity, I started researching that cemetery, The Old Burying Ground, Fairfield’s oldest cemetery, and found Caleb Brewster’s headstone. If you’ve seen “Turn: Washington’s Spies,” you’ll know who Caleb Brewster was. In my excitement at finding this, I then contacted one of the people who wrote the screenplay, who promptly wrote back and gave me even more sources to check out, like the museum in Setauket which is devoted to Washington’s spy ring. A friend from Stony Brook on Long Island sent me a photo of a trail marker where many of the boats carrying these spy messages and commanded by Caleb Brewster set sail for Connecticut.
My daughter lost out on getting that sweet antique house to — yep– a developer, and within months of its sale, it became 2 spanking brand new condos. But, Caleb Brewster’s grave is still there, for people to see, research, learn about our history, both the good, the bad and the ugly. I wonder if the people who bought those condos have even checked out the cemetery behind their fence.
In addition, while researching, I found out that the town of Fairfield would supply things like silk gloves and scarves to families of those deceased yet who didn’t have money for finery in which to be buried. Sometimes, when there were battles going on, people were just buried on the side of the road where they died. I also learned that no slaves are buried in that cemetery. And, that Connecticut was the last of the Northeastern states to abolish slavery, in 1848.
The point is, without something that piqued my curiosity, I probably wouldn’t have done the weekslong deep dive to learn more about our local history. I feel that this tile board should be preserved, in an accessible place, with perhaps a video or audio tutorial about the “offending” tiles, giving those who are curious the opportunity to do more research. People donated to have a tile on this board (just like Brickwalk) for a variety of reasons, but all wanted to memorialize something about their history in this town, and that shouldn’t be thrown away.
what was the end result of the Westport Museum for History & Culture debacle? how do they get a say? didnt they do some shady stuff?
After Dan’s post, I asked for, and got back, from the newly purchased historical society, my aunt’s 1932 Bedford Junior High School Diploma! They gave out junior high diplomas because many didn’t go on to high school. Once I found out I wasn’t donating it to the Town of Westport, I wanted it back!
” funewygies ” ????? Uh-oh! I think Dave Eason just outscored Katz and Gouveia on the vocabulary test.
I read with great interest the many excellent comments relating to the planned destruction of the tile art wall. John McCarthys analysis of many facets of the problem particularly struck a true note.
I agree with many comments that if tha past were identical to the present there would be no need for the concept called History. More central however is the fact that the tile wall was never meant to be an exhaustive dissertation. It is a beautiful , charming, unique , excellent piece of historically inspired ceramic folk art.
What is disturbing is to most people objecting to this decision is the claim that this decision was widely discussed, that a justification was used that there were DEI concerns, and that a hard deadline for destruction was announced in a letter seemingly only a month before it would take place. Furthermore this month would begin a few weeks before the December holidays when many town residents would be distracted with holiday planning and then would be away on vacation . There are many reasons to be skeptical of the library’s analysis and one could debate this tile by tile.
At the least, funds for the short term need to be allocated, now, to continue the storage lease for 6 more months while town wide residents have a forum of some sort to look into various suggestions. Not all of these will be feasible, but some might be.
There are plenty of of gifted people in this town to offer expertise.
Among the first issues, it must be learned if returning some cherished tiles to donors is technically feasible, not just a rhetorical argument. It is very strange to imply that complete destruction is the only option. Just because that would be easy does not make it inevitable.
It would have helped if the library had instead made a statement saying “We apologize to the people of Westport who are unhappy about this situation . We did not plan the architecture sufficiently to be able to re-install this beautiful tile artwork. It did not fit our concept of design for the library. We have not budgeted enough money to re-install it now. We also do not have the money to store it. That’s the bottom line. We wish we had let you know about this sooner. Maybe we can allot some money for a broader group of people to investigate if there is some other location.”
That would have been simple and direct.
On a personal note. Many years ago I chose westport as my home, and when I made that small notation to have my name on a book spine on the tile I felt like I had laid down my roots like some many before me. That spine had my maiden name, Seippel. I am proud of that name and was proud to come show my kids when they were little that simple tile of a book spine.
I would like mine back too. And I will be sad that my grandchildren and beyond will not see that.
In 1998 our family made contribution to the capital campaign to renovate for the Library. We were inspired by the re-design, in particular the planned enhancements to the children’s area. Leadership givers had already made their substantial commitments to the project (and without whom this renovation would not have been possible.) The River of Names project was a very creative way to bring in broad support – many donors at a modest level. I do not expect to be thanked in perpetuity for that small gift. Our family already received an outsized ROI as our children enjoyed the space 2-3 times weekly for many years.
Fast forward 20 years: do I believe the plans for the recent transformation of the Library should have been modified to accommodate the River of Names across a single wall? Absolutely not. I think the forum design is extraordinary, and beyond what we imagined when we agreed to support (this time, without the contrivance of a tile wall.)
The current library board is an exceptionally competent, accomplished group. I know some of them personally through other volunteer efforts, and others only by their professional achievements – as profiled on this blog. I support their decision to not continue to pay for specialty storage for these tiles. I would rather see funds spent to expand programming or to well-compensate the Library’s wonderful staff.
Finally, to the historical narrative presented in the 84 tiles, including the one my family sponsored (1673), pictured above. I wish I could say I didn’t know or understand in 1998 how hurtful such a depiction could be, but that would not be true. I attended a college that in 1974 had discontinued use of an Indian symbol. When I arrived on campus 5 years later, the decision was still hotly debated with cruel caricatures of Native Americans appearing on T shirts and in mascot form at football games. I was 100% on the side of the school administration, as the offensive nature of the depictions was obvious. I likewise knew that Marion Grebow’s depiction of the Puritans and Pequots promoted stereotypes, but I bought in anyway, as I wanted to be well seen among a large number of supporters.
No, I do not want that tile back.
Destroying art is a way of erasing a history that we may not be proud of- and in doing so, denying that it existed. By pretending it didn’t happen, we are destined NOT to learn and likely repeat. I agree that the front hallway of the library is not the appropriate place for the mural but how about in the history section with commentary about what the intentions were originally and also what makes it offensive today? How about placing it in the Westport Historical Society or in Town Hall?
Confederate statues were removed from the main thoroughfare in Richmond, VA, and rightly so. They were not destroyed, however, but were sent to historical and cultural institutions like the Black History and Cultural Center for preservation and education. If I were African American, I would not want statues of the Confederacy staring me in the face every day as I drove to work.
I remember my son was asked to read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for AP Lit. They read it for literary merit and also had a robust discussion about what made it offensive and politically incorrect. The book was not burned or destroyed but examined for context. THAT is education. Destroying art sounds eerily like burning books. Let’s, as a town, figure out how to preserve it and where to display it or at least store it until an appropriate place is found for it.
J.B. No sir Win and RIta Elliot raised their ten children on Northside Lane just off North Avenue.
Westport is not alone in its struggle with displays of historical art that is now deemed offensive. The article below discusses WPA-era murals painted by noted artist Victor Arnautoff at George Washington High School in San Francisco:
The furor over the GWHS murals has existed for decades. In the late 1960s, activists from the Black Panthers defaced the murals and demanded that they be destroyed. In response, the city of SF engaged SF artist Dewey Crumpler to create a triptych of “response murals” entitled “Multi-Ethnic Heritage” at GWHS:
Please do not destroy or “tuck away” these beautiful tiles created specifically for Westport by renowned ceramic artist Marion Grebow. Find a solution that allows this generation and future generations to see them and learn from them.
All of us have made mistakes in our line of work and one thing I have always felt is important is how a business or nonprofit or government agency addresses that mistake.
I love Stew Leonard’s rules #1 and #2 re the customer is always right. And I think that has been an integral part of their success.
From my perspective, the library has mishandled the reinstallation of the wall from the outset and what they have done now is the equivalent of doubling down on a bad bet.
To try to claim the wall does not deserve to go back up due to diversity-related/historical issues…well, as the old saying goes: people who live in glass houses…
All one needs to do is take a close look at the composition of the library’s Board of Trustees or its top-level staff.
By the way, the same shortcomings hold true for the Westport Museum for History and Culture when you look at who comprises their small staff.
And for Bill Harmer to claim that (re the wall) “It does not represent the inclusive Westport of 2022”: well, one might say he has it completely backwards in a major respect.
The donor tiles that constitute a significant portion of the wall came, in part, from Westport individuals and families who had much more modest occupations/incomes than what is required today to buy a home in Westport. As longtime residents well know, economically Westport is now far more exclusive and less diverse than when we were growing up or first moved here. It’s not even close.
I think Bill Harmer and the library overall have done a terrific job over the years. But, from my perspective, they have absolutely blown it on this one. However, it’s not too late to rethink this from Stew Leonard’s point of view.
Sent from my iPad
Dropping unpleasant news on a Friday in mid-December is a great strategy. Sometimes it even works.
After campaigning for donations from Westporters for a tile wall, assuring people and their loved ones of a place in the library (if not in history), the library spectacularly botched the wall’s transition to a new building. The library board waited for a few years, maybe hoping those local yokels would downsize and move away, die out, or suffer enough memory loss to make the problem go away. No such luck.
As the library increases its offerings to the community, a town asset is becoming a regional hub, its country mice replaced by corporate mice. Instead of chasing relatively paltry, piecemeal dollars, the library is clearly looking to bigger donors, promises be damned.
The Westport Library will now gladly accept a million dollars from a right-wing donor and name a forum after him. The Westport Library will then rent out that forum to a QAnon-adjacent group and try to keep it quiet. In the guise of free speech and inclusivity, it’s an institution that prides itself on deed-blind acceptance.
But a tile wall without proper historical footnoting is the thing that generates a heretofore-unseen spine in the board? All of a sudden, the library has principles? It’s only now going to the mat for truthful representation and all that is right and good?
The tile money is long spent. Out of sight, out of mind. Now the board is trying to spackle over its incoherence and inconsistency with the threat of a Dumpster. Welcome to the Enlightenment.
Tom, nice try to obscure the facts here and make it look like the library has fallen victim to Qanon, MAGA money, or what have you. There is a very simple explanation here. Harold Bailey and his friends decided the mural was too white. So they pressured the library to get rid of it. And of course the library did, because no one in this town has ever had the courage to stand up to him. No need to mention Q. It’s all explained very carefully in the Westport Journal, which reviewed the documents.
Not my point at all. The approach to what is and isn’t acceptable is inconsistent. They took people’s money. Honor the commitment. Pretty basic third-grade stuff.
The only commitment that matters any more in Westport is the commitment to DEI.
The tile wall can be amended, edited, footnoted, curated, explained, or otherwise updated. That’s a separate issue from the board reneging on its institutional commitment. Using any perceived shortcomings of the wall as an excuse to finally jettison the thing is convenient, sure, but it’s also painfully transparent. Simply put, it’s a shitty thing to do to people.
“Qanon adjacent group”? Are you talking about parents who defend their children from paedophiles? About ex-FBI officer who spoke about the case he solved sending multiple paedophiles to a jail??
What is your agenda, I ask again? Why do you want other people children including mine to have pornographic and paedophilic materials to be shoved into their faces by their public school?!
As a member of Temple Israel, I do not believe MLK’s visit to TI needs to be mentioned in any and all work depicting town history. (This was noted as a justification for getting rid of the mural.) It was a great moment- so let’s acknowledge it in another artistic creation. You don’t just throw out a mural or psychopathically dismember it and mail the pieces to donors. Inclusivity is a worthy goal but if you find yourself destroying art to please political activists, it’s a good moment to reflect on what kind of person you’ve become. Shame on those who pressured Mr Harmer, and shame on Mr Harmer for capitulating. Now let’s find a solution that keeps this beautiful piece of folk art on public property. We cannot let it be “canceled” by taking it apart, throwing it in some corner or keeping it in a basement. We cannot let those who want to cancel our history and destroy our art have any sort of victory here.
To the Westport Library Boards/Management of 1998, 2017, and 2022 and to firstname.lastname@example.org (current chair as requested):
I became a Westport resident 6 years ago and a Westport Library user/supporter, just before the River of Names was removed (in pieces) from its imbedded position on the library wall (where I had seen it), sliced up and sent to storage. It was clear at the time —before the term DEI had become “common usage” – that the then Library Board/Management had no intention of finding a place for it in the to-be-greatly-expanded Westport Library. In fact, I would not be surprised if the current condition of this work of art would make it problematic to rehang anywhere. Has the Library’s designee inspected it recently?
Several things trouble me about this situation:
First, 2000 people contributed to the creation of this art, about 25 years ago, and were told it would have a permanent place in the Library. As it happened, the work, a product of its time, omits some events in Westport history which, with the benefit of hindsight, might have been nice to include. History, by its nature , is revisionist. And one could quibble about some of the details. But that is true of any work of art: Girl with A Pearl Earring, just to pick one famous painting (1665, J. Vermeer), tells us a great deal, but omits a great deal about its era. Should it be destroyed (along with most other works of art residing in museums or other public places) because of what it omitted?
Second, The Library has said: “The bottom line is, the mural is no longer appropriate. It is exclusive, obsolete and offensive, in ways no one could conceive of in the 1990s. It does not represent the inclusive Westport of 2022.” I really take issue with this statement, and with the decision to destroy this artwork (except for maintaining a digital copy at some incidental workstation. The terms “exclusive, obsolete and offensive” are highly personal. Many people would apply these terms to some of the 20th and 21st century’s most prominent artists. Others, however, eagerly collect their works. Westport is hardly totally inclusive today, nor was it in 1998. Inclusivity is aspirational, and in another 25 years, we may see other flaws in our aspirations of 2022. There is room to add art to incorporate other them, and to use a few aspects of the River of Names to teach about our “quaint” depictions of our “history” in the late 20th century.
Third, the Library leadership said in 2017 that it did NOT have a place for this work in its concept of the Library’s expansion. There is no need to clothe this in “DEI” language – a term which barely existed then. The leadership evidently didn’t want to make a place for it for other reasons; they should be honest and forthright about why as well as about the current condition of the mural.
Finally, if 2000 donors were promised a prominent and permanent position of the art they were funding, their promise is being vacated. I imagine the Library management has consulted relevant legal authorities and I presume they are within their legal rights, but is this decision ethical? They are abrogating a promise and they are being untruthful if not literally disingenuous about why.
Public statements from the Westport Library leadership call into question the trustworthiness of its promises. Ethics and honesty are – to many of us – as important as “inclusivity” (a relative term by any standards). Anyone contemplating a legacy to an institution that does not honor its promises and clothes its actions in deceptive explanations might well reconsider such a gift. Our Library leadership should reconsider its decision to destroy this work—and should not put forth such a deceptive explanation for its decision.
Respectfully submitted, Rosalie J. Wolf
Bottom line here is that the then Library Board never had the intention of rehanging the Mural. If they had, the architects would have provided the space. And now they are throwing lack of inclusiveness as an excuse to destroy it. What an insult!
Before any more tax money is allocated (Budget time draws near) the Library committee of the RTM. should seek answers to this decision.
There are solutions to be had. Do what is right here and save the Mural.
where is the town’s select woman in all of this?
Bob, the “towns select woman” is probably hiding and hoping she can avoid any involvement at all….interested to see whether she, in fact, has the spine to even enter the discussion no less make the right call.
Hmmmm; I don’t acknowledge that the statement denotes a bully but, if it does to you, then I guess I am one in :every day life,” Ed.
Dan that is exactly what I was thinking. Shows she is weak and prefers the more glam aspects of the role.
Having lived in Westport for 30 years and with a wall tile of my own family ready for destruction, all I can say is that I am disappointed but not surprised. The purpose of memorials is to reflect the times, and subsequent plaques and new memorials can help adjust to the times. The purpose of history is to instruct and help educate what it was like then and how we can learn from the past, not to destroy it.
Wouldn’t it be so much more useful and instructive to highlight how the tiles reflected the late 1990s perspective, what may be missing and what we have learned since then? Instead, we lose another teaching moment and succumb to the need to be perfect or nothing at all. In my world, we say “perfection is the enemy of good.” Same here.
My deep appreciation to Betty Lou Cummings who sold me the tile and who represents the best of what Westport once was.
I don’t think when you donate to an organization that your expectation should be that your name is displayed in perpetuity. However, there should be open communication. It does not seem like the library had any intention of re-hanging the art display after the renovation. It would have been better to be upfront about that and offer the mural to whoever wants to hang it somewhere – or back to those who donated. Maybe the intentions changed but then this should be communicated. What is concerning, in light of recent politics in town, is to now make a scapegoat of DEI committees and TEAM Westport. Just a month ago the library hosted a Q adjacent right wing group – for profit. They quite literally gave them a microphone and a seat at the table. That’s fine if they are their own business, But then to blame input given to them from DEI and TEAM a month later to not hang art work is not only disingenuous but is divisive.
“Q adjucent group”? Are you talking about parents who defend their children from paeodphiles and an ex-FBI officer who spoke about the case he solved and sent multiple paedophiles to a jail??
Btw, it is not the first time you attack your conservative neighbours who protect their children with sick-headed and defamatory statements.
The information missing from this article is as follows: the Westport Museum of History and Culture and TEAM Westport never had any agenda regarding these tiles. Their expertise was requested by the library. No one from TEAM or the Westport Museum of History and Culture ever recommended disposing the tiles. That seems to be a decision on the part of the library. In fact, when approached, the Westport Museum of History and Culture offered numerous solutions which could have kept the wall as a part of the library!
I believe that when only the end of the story is presented, without all the events that led up to it, it provides a playing field for people to confirm their biases over and over. That’s the world today: we are poised to blame and scapegoat.
It may be less exciting, but the details that led to this don’t support the demonization of TEAM or the Westport Museum of History and Culture – or any version of “wokeness.”
Now, for all of you who love Westport so much: how about refocusing your energy and supporting the Westport Museum of History and Culture, who provide extensive historical research about our town and it’s fascinating history, share resources, and host incredible events, walking tours and a new podcast? If you’re really proud to be a Westporter, this is how you show it! https://westporthistory.org/
John, You’ve missed the point of Darcy’s comment. TEAM and others were asked for their input. Everything that you quoted him saying as to the accuracy of the mural is true, but no where does he say he’s recommending, suggesting or certainly directing that the library not display it. In fact you’re own quote quotes him as saying in his personal view. That’s the exact point Darcy made. They gave input. And my point above is now they’re in charge of what the library does ? But a month ago when they hosted supremacists and Q followers TEAM and DEI had no influence? Which is it? This may have influenced the library’s decision or it may not have, but since they didn’t design a place to put it over 2 years ago it seems its not the only reason.
Lauren, first of all, I don’t know what you are talking about in terms of Q followers. As I understand it, the library hosted an event that was well attended that brought in experts on vaccines and child exploitation. You may disagree with the perspectives discussed, but the library has a first amendment obligation to host events that represent a diverse range of views. I realize you think the first amendment should only apply to people who share Lauren McNeil’s opinions but sadly it’s fairly “inclusive” of “diverse” ways of thinking. What were those nasty white male founders thinking, right?
Second, of course the library board made its own decisions. TEAM has no official power in Westport. But as we see time and time again, TEAM bullies everyone into following their agenda. Yes, blame falls on the shoulders of those who get bullied, in this case the spineless Mr Price. Nonetheless, this is how power actually works in this town. TEAM advocates for some absurdly woke position and everyone falls in line because they are afraid of being accused of racism. This is how power actually works in Westport and you know it.
“Supremacists and Q followers”? Are you referring to the parents who defend their children from paedophiles and an ex-DBI agent who spoke about the case he solved and sent multiple paeodphiles to a jail?
I mean wow.
You really are crazy about attacking your neighbours who defend their children with defamatory comments and insults.
I did not have room to include the entire letter in yesterday’s story. I just posted it here:
Your vitriol is empty of facts. You can’t just slander people like this. Dan, take it down please, this guy is pure hatred.
I find this entire thing disturbing.
Proper procedure would be for myself and other RTM members and electorates to contact by email asking for a meeting. However, our wonderful chair is looking at what steps to take next with collaboration with our also wonderful RTM Moderator.
In the event that there is no meeting or discussion, such 20 electorates can petition the RTM and if it’s within 14 business days of the next RTM meeting, it would be put on the agenda. If passed the 14 day minimum, it would go on the next calendar date.
The discussion, would be assigned to Library, Arts & Museum RTM Committee.
I cannot speak for my colleagues, but I strongly disagree with the actions of these appointed members and the opinions of others regarding the mural.
That mural, belongs on the wall, for all to see.
History is both beautiful and ugly. it’s a learning lesson, so that we never repeat such atrocities but remember and honor the victims.
Remember, you moved here because you fell in love with Westports amenities, culture, history, aesthetics, characteristics, small town New England charm, humanitarian respect and care, but also…it’s history. History is everywhere you walk, drive and travel. Respect it. Learn from it. Teach it. Never repeat it, but do not throw it away or let it hide.
Andrew–The faster method is that 2 RTMers sign the petition. That takes less work than getting 20 electors and has precisely the same effect.. Why don’t you and another RTMer do it?
Personally, I’d like to see the town, with assistance by the Library Trustees and the Westport Museum for Culture and History, create a small, freestanding glass structure, maybe on Jesup Green or adjacent to the main entrance of the library or even on Memorial Green downtown. Inside, the mural would be hung on one long wall. On the opposite wall, perhaps we could entice Miggs Burroughs to create a lenticular piece for each of the tiles in question. Alongside each of these lenticular images would be a button to push for audio describing the history depicted on the original tile, as we know it today. That audio could be updated as we learn more about our history going forward. This would be a true draw to the downtown area, plus, a learning experience for those interested in Connecticut and American history. A handout with resources for further learning would be available inside the structure, as well, even highlighting historical societies from other local towns like Fairfield. This would probably be more valuable to future generations than yet another playground with a water view.
Put it up, add some tiles, honor commitments. Win – win. Easy, done.
(esp since The Twilight Zone was partially birthed In Westport), the feeling of this destruction of the history-tiles instead of adding to them, via The Twilight Zone, right. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=54&v=U3quruHpcuo&embeds_euri=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F&source_ve_path=MzY4NDI&feature=emb_logo