The Westport Arts Center is a wonderful, vibrant place.
It’s also wholly inadequate.
Essentially one long room on Riverside Avenue — with a spectacular view of the Saugatuck River — it functions as a small studio and gallery. But it can host only one meeting, lecture, concert, class or exhibit at a time.
Given Westport’s long arts heritage — and the interest of so many Westporters, from senior citizens to kids, in art in all its forms — it’s no wonder the WAC has sought more suitable digs.
Last fall, town representatives approached the organization. Would the WAC be interested in preserving and using Golden Shadows — the main building on the southeast corner of 23-acre Baron’s South (named for the perfume developed by its previous owner, Baron Walter Langer von Langendorff) — for exhibits and performances?
The town soon came back with a new question: Would the WAC like to take over the other 3 long-neglected buildings there too?
Meanwhile, a group of veteran, well-respected local artists and photographers — including Leonard Everett Fisher, Ann Chernow, Miggs Burroughs, Niki Ketchman and Larry Silver — had been meeting regularly to discuss their own idea.
These “deans” of the Westport arts scene wanted a dedicated museum-type space to preserve the town’s artistic legacy.
And at the same time, folks like Burroughs, Westport arts curator Kathie Motes Bennewitz, RTM moderator Eileen Lavigne Flug and the Westport Historical Society’s Bob Mitchell were seeking ways to involve the WAC more fully with other arts organizations in town.
The result was a public/private partnership to create a “community arts campus” at Baron’s South.
As presented last night by 3rd Selectman Helen Garten, at a Planning & Zoning Commission pre-application meeting, there would be 3 phases:
- The Westport Arts Center would lease and restore Golden Shadows, retaining most of its decorative interior, for use as offices, classrooms and gallery space.
- The WAC would lease and restore the Tudor revival guest house at 70 Compo Road South as additional gallery space.
- They would lease the 2 units at 52 and 52B Compo Road South, for use as artists’ residences.
“Leasing all 4 buildings to a single user is the best way to ensure minimal impact on the public open space and surrounding neighborhood,” Garten said.
“Instead of 4 separate buildings, each accessed by its own roadway and each with its own use, there will be a single integrated property.” It would function much as the baron’s estate did, decades ago.
However, P&Z members gave the arts campus plan a frosty reception last night. A pre-app meeting is intended to give applicants a sense of what the zoning board feels about a plan. Commissioners insisted that the concept is too intense for the “light use” zoning of Baron’s South. It’s zoned as “passive recreational open space.”
Arts advocates were unsure last night what their next step will be.
Back to the drawing board they go.