In her 91 years, Susan Malloy was an exceptionally generous presence in Westport. Her time, energy and financial contributions aided countless organizations in town. The accolades pouring in after her death yesterday morning are heartfelt, well deserved, and broad in scope.
It’s hard to quantify which of so many institutions benefited the most from Susan’s generosity. But at least one most definitely would not be here today without her.
In 1947 a group of Westport artists began meeting informally — “and riotously,” according to a 2002 New York Times story — at various locations in town.
By 1969 they’d evolved into the Westport-Weston Arts Council. Their home was a tiny office in Town Hall.
In 1984, Joyce Thompson told the Times, the group needed its own home. They asked to use the former Greens Farms Elementary School — shuttered a few years earlier, when the student population declined.
After a year of negotiation, they agreed on a lease: $1 a year.
Greens Farms Elementary School was the Westport Arts Center’s first real home.
The newly named Westport Arts Center had to raise plenty of money, though. An oil tank had to be buried; steps needed to be installed — in addition to classrooms being converted into studios, halls painted white to use as a gallery, and the auditorium converted into a performance space.
The new center hosted art exhibitions, chamber concerts, children’s sculpture workshops and jazz jams.
But in the 1990s, the Times reports, the school population rose. The town wanted its school back. The Arts Center countered that they’d invested plenty of money in the building.
After heated negotiations the town paid the WAC over $500,000 to break the lease, and reimburse them for their improvements.
The Arts Center went on the road. They held concerts at the Seabury Center, the library and school auditoriums. They hung paintings wherever they could.
What they really needed was a home.
Heida Hermanns, a concert pianist who settled in Westport after fleeing the Holocaust in World War II, had set up a foundation to fund the Arts Center. But it wasn’t enough. And the settlement from the town had been designated for programs.
Susan Malloy stepped into the breach. “I could see the search was going nowhere,” the Times quoted her as saying. “Nothing was right. This place was too small, another wasn’t even in Westport, so I finally said, ‘OK. I’ll stake the arts center.”
Susan Malloy — an artist herself — helped the Westport Arts Center survive.
Her funds covered the rent for 2 years. It also inspired more donations. The result: In June of 2002, the Westport Arts Center opened its own home, on Riverside Avenue.
It’s been there for 13 happy, fruitful, artistic years. The WAC is now as permanent a part of the town as the library or Historical Society (2 other beneficiaries of Susan Malloy’s largesse).
It’s easy to forget the past. In Susan Malloy’s case, she wasn’t looking for praise, or even thanks. She simply saw a need, and filled it.
Think of that the next time you go to the Westport Arts Center. Or drive past it.
Or the next time someone asks you to help out your town, in any way you can.
The Westport Arts Center thrives today.