When the Westport Museum for History & Culture jettisoned the nod-to-local-history name of its Remarkable Gift Shop — it’s now the much-more-meh The Shop at Wheeler House — it thankfully did not also toss out the Remarkable Guy.
That’s the wooden, Edward Gorey-inspired dancing figure that greeted folks browsing for books, posters and other Westport-themed gifts at what used to be called the Historical Society, on Avery Place.
Remarkable Guy at Westport Historical Society (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)
The Remarkable Guy had been exhibited at the WHS thanks to the Kramer family. Sid and Esther Kramer owned the Remarkable Book Shop, a long-lived, much-loved funky bookstore on the corner of Main Street and Parker Harding Plaza, a few feet from Wheeler House. (Westporters know it now as the long-vacant Talbots building.)
WMHC officials tracked down Sid and Esther’s son Mark. Executive director Ramin Ganeshram emailed him that the Remarkable Theater — the new organization that hopes to bring a theater to Westport, staffed by people with disabilities — had asked for the “wooden die cut image.”
She suggested Kramer take it from the museum, and give or lend it to the theater for their events. (It is of course still in the early planning stages).
She noted that because the Remarkable Guy had never been “formally gifted or accepted into the collections,” it was not the museum’s right to lend.
Though the museum did not have the funds to ship the Remarkable Guy to Kramer, who lives in Massachusetts, they promised to keep it safe until he could retrieve it.
Or perhaps, Ganeshram said, he could officially donate it to the museum. Then, however, it could not be lent to anyone, because of insurance complications. She noted, “It is our understanding that the figure was brought to the museum but never intended to be an ‘artifact’ per se.”
Kramer worried that the museum might not treasure the Remarkable Guy.
A solution arose when Kramer’s longtime Westport friend Pam Barkentin offered to keep it in Westport, so it can be loaned when appropriate.
Chris O’Dell — whose O Living Experience builds high-quality, high-efficiency new homes and renovations — quickly agreed to move the Remarkable Guy to Pam’s garage. gratis.
Chris O’Dell (left), O Living Experience owner, and employee Chuck Hilman volunteered to move the Remarkable Guy.
That’s where he sits now, safe and sound.
And waiting to be loaned, to lend a bit of local history to organizations that appreciate and cherish him.
Pam Barkentin is keeping the Remarkable Guy safe for Mark Kramer.
Ann Sheffer is a native Westporter. The Staples High School Class of 1966 graduate’s family arrived here nearly a century ago.
Her father Ralph served on the RTM for 16 years, 10 as moderator. He chaired the Nike Site Committee, which managed the difficult task of bringing two military facilities to town, on North Avenue and Bayberry Lane. As chief fundraiser for the Westport Library, he helped spearhead the move from the Post Road to its present location.
Ann’s mother Betty was an active town volunteer. After her death at a young age, the Betty R. Sheffer Foundation provided major funding for arts, education, health care and history projects.
Ann has carried on the family tradition. She is involved in literally dozens of town committees and events, including arts, education, history and culture.
For many years, the main exhibition space at the Westport Historical Society was called the Sheffer Gallery.
The institution’s name change — it is now the Westport Museum for History & Culture — as well as new leadership has brought many changes. Among them: The Sheffer Gallery will now be called the Daniel E. Offutt III Exhibition Hall.
A number of Westporters who were long associated with the WHS have expressed dismay at the changes — including the renaming of the Sheffer Gallery. Ann Sheffer is among them. She sent this open letter to the Westport History Museum:
Last week I drove by Wheeler House. I was pleased to see that the bricks that I bought to commemorate my family’s tenure in Westport are still there (and my husband Bill’s name is now spelled correctly), as are Miss Liberty and Uncle Sam, who have graced the porch or lawn of the house since we donated them in 2000 as part of the Millennium celebration.
Bricks bought by Ann Sheffer and her husband Bill Scheffler, honoring the extended Sheffer family.
As the bricks note, my family has been part of Westport since 1930, and also very involved with the Westport Historical Society. I don’t want to recite all of the volunteer positions we’ve held, contributions to the archives we’ve made, and most significantly, the major contribution to the expansion of the building, which resulted in the naming of the Exhibition Hall in honor of my parents.
So I was dismayed to receive a letter from your board president, Sara Krasne, with the following vague, disingenuous “notice” that the Westport History Museum had received “a significant donation for the purpose of upgrading the exhibition hall to a modern, state-of-the-art standard in return for naming the hall after the donor.”
First, it’s very unprofessional of you to send me a letter rather than speaking to me in person — and trying to understate the fact that you are taking my parents’ names off of the Exhibition Hall. I’m disappointed that you don’t value our history of support for the organization enough to be honest about what you are doing.
Second, it is a fairly serious breach of faith and fiduciary responsibility to remove a donor’s name from a building without having the courtesy to ask their permission.
“Uncle Sam” and “Miss Liberty” — donated to the Westport Historical Society in 2000 by Ann Sheffer and Bill Scheffler — were almost sold last year. They still remain at what is now the Westport Museum for History & Culture. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)
I would note that my family’s contributions are recognized by a number of other cultural organizations in town, most notably the Westport Library — whose director, Bill Harmer, called me as soon as the plans for the recent renovation were announced, to discuss how we would like our family’s name to be displayed in the new design. Not only were we delighted to be consulted, but his approach resulted in our making additional contributions.
I’m very disappointed that an organization that is ostensibly dedicated to preserving and celebrating the history of Westport would be so insensitive and dismissive of the historical contributions that have insured their existence.
I have no interest in any further discussion with you. But I sincerely hope that you will not treat other donors in such a dismissive fashion, and that you will make an effort to honor the founding principles of the Westport Historical Society despite your name change.
Westport is, as we often say, a special place, with a long history worth celebrating — and the Westport History Museum has a responsibility to preserve that history in an ethical and professional manner.
I asked executive director Ramin Ganeshram to respond. She emailed back: “Please find the official press release regarding the exciting opportunity to upgrade the Exhibition Hall in order to continue the Museum’s transformative path toward excellence in providing world class exhibits in the tradition of our award-winning ‘Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport.'”
Here is that press release, dated Friday, January 10 but suddenly sent yesterday morning:
Westport Museum (formerly Westport Historical Society) is honored to announce that it will be naming its main exhibit hall after local philanthropist Daniel E. Offutt, III following a significant donation from the Daniel E. Offutt, III Charitable Trust. Mr. Offutt, who lived in Weston, was a generous donor to many local nonprofits both during his lifetime and via his estate.
The gift is the largest single donation ever received by the Museum. The main exhibit hall was formerly named after Ralph & Betty Sheffer, longtime supporters of the Museum who provided the major funding to complete the space in 2002.
“We are thrilled to be able to name this significant cultural resource after Mr. Offutt who was a generous and active member in the local community. His interest and support has helped many cultural organizations here and around the nation,” says Ramin Ganeshram, Executive Director of Westport Museum. “I only wish Mr. Offutt were with us to see the value his good work will bring to this and surrounding communities.”
Daniel Offutt had a lifetime interest in history and in art as both a collector and an artist. A self-described “farmer,” he was more aptly described as a “Renaissance Man”: a tennis player, traveler, sailor, metal sculptor, wood worker, fixer of anything, collector of everything, lover of projects, stock market investor, and a good friend. Mr. Offutt lived for more than 30 years in Weston, Connecticut in a house that he built himself.
The gift from Mr. Offutt’s Trust will enable Westport Museum to make much needed upgrades to its main exhibit hall, in keeping with national museum standards to provide quality experiences with universal access to the widest audience. The goal of upgrading exhibit spaces at the Museum is part of a multi-year strategic initiative to create a world class regional Museum in Westport.
“As Trustee, I am pleased to support the growth and improvement envisioned for the Museum,” said Richard H. Orenstein. “Working with Ramin has been an easy and creative endeavor.”
“Thanks to this significant gift we will be able to create our next ground-breaking exhibit with the highest standards in mind,” said Ganeshram. The first exhibit to open in the newly remodeled space will be in late 2020 about Westport’s indigenous people who inhabited the town and surrounds for 7500 years before European colonization.
While the name change is effective immediately, a plaque will be formally installed to rename the gallery “The Daniel E. Offutt III Exhibition Hall at Westport Museum” at a ceremony to take place at the opening of the 2020 indigenous people’s exhibit in November.
It’s not the only longtime Westport institution to shed its well-known name.
Sometime soon, the Westport Historical Society will be known as the “Westport Museum for History and Culture.”
Extremely alert “06880” reader Fred Cantor spotted the change in an intriguing way. The official state website’s Film, TV & Digital Media page has a section devoted to “Producing in Connecticut.”
The listing for “Westport Historical Society & Museum” — interestingly, the “& Museum” appears nowhere on the WHS’ own website or logo — says simply, “Soon to be renamed Westport Museum for History & Culture.”
Someone at the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development knows something the rest of Westport does not.
I emailed WHS — er, WMHC — executive director Ramin Ganeshram for comment. When is it happening? I asked. What are the reasons?
She was at a conference in Philadelphia, but got right back to me.
“We will be issuing a formal press release prior to our September 28 benefit
when it will be announced, and would be happy to fully comment at that time,” she said. “May I ask how you came to know the same?”
I sent her the CT.gov link.
“Thanks!” she replied. “Happy to discuss in detail with formal announcement. ”
I guess that’s all we’ll know until then. Stay tuned for that historic moment.
Ramin Ganeshram has been an editor for companies like Ziff Davis and Hachette. She was a cultural strategist for a major market research firm, a New York Times stringer, and a researcher and writer on culture, history, food and travel. And she’s a professionally trained chef.
Now Ramin has a new gig. This week she takes over as the Westport Historical Society’s new executive director.
It’s the next, entirely natural fit for the New York native and Columbia Journalism School grad.
Ramin Ganeshram (Photo/JP Vellotti)
Her father was Trinidadian, her mother from Iran. “They met in Brooklyn!” she laughs.
They assimilated into America. In fact, Ramin says, the only time her parents nodded to their cultures was around food. As he cooked, her father told stories.
She started writing about food 25 years ago. “It wasn’t as hip and trendy as it is today,” she says of that genre. “But shopping and cooking is really about history and anthropology.” Her writing focused on those elements of food.
She’s been a Westporter for nearly a decade. She and her husband, JP Vellotti, moved here for the schools — and so their daughter Sophia could learn her dad’s family’s history. (They’ve been in the Norwalk/Rowayton area for generations.)
Ramin wanted to be near a beach, no more than an hour from New York — with a downtown she could walk to. They fell in love with an old house on Evergreen Avenue. The seller grew up in it, and was thrilled that Ramin and JP would not tear it down.
Soon after moving, Ramin organized a fundraiser for Haitian earthquake victims. It raised $10,000.
That led to more volunteer work. She attended meetings of TEAM Westport — the town’s multicultural committee — and after a year, was appointed a full member. She welcomed the opportunity to address Westport’s diversity (or lack thereof).
She applied for the Historical Society executive director position knowing that “I don’t come to museum history and curation in traditional ways. But I love history. I’ve done a lot of research. And I have a strong business background.”
Ramin believes the WHS can be “a more expansive organization. Sue (Gold, the previous executive director) was amazing. But all businesses have to look at how they manage themselves.”
Right now, Ramin says, the Historical Society is “a consistent and well-thought-of part of the community. Lots of people go to lectures and exhibits. Lots of kids go to the camps. It’s high-quality, very professional, and and it fulfills its mission incredibly well.”
Ramin’s vision is for the WHS to extends its reach, and become more integrated into the community. “A historical society can be seen as aimed at only pockets of people — history-minded older people, young children. I want us to be more expansive.”
She’d like a better social media presence, interactive programs to accompany exhibits, “virtual” exhibits on the website, and livestream talks.
“I want the Westport Historical Society to be a place people want to come to and enjoy — a place where they know they can have an ongoing conversation.”
Ramin Ganeshram wants to make the Westport Historical Society a welcoming place for all. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)
Challenges include “the perception that historical societies in general are just repositories of old information,” and — of course — funding.
With enough money, Ramin says, the WHS can even do outreach to nearby under-served communities.
She’s spending her first week getting to know the staff and volunteers. She’s excited about the exhibit opening in May — it’s on Westport’s African-American history.
Ramin looks forward too to meeting directors of other non-profits: the library, Westport Arts Center, area historical societies.
So what’s been her favorite exhibit, in the hall she now oversees?
“The Danbury raid,” she says without hesitation. “I love that Revolutionary War era of history. It’s great there’s still a tangible link, with the Minute Man monument at Compo. It was mounted beautifully, with amazing artifacts.”
And, the multi-talented, food-oriented new director admits, she had a small part in the display: “I did something on colonial kitchens!”
Tomorrow (Thursday, November 6, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Imperial Avenue parking lot) is the final date for this year’s Westport Farmer’s Market.
They’re ending the year with a bang.
Staples High School’s Advanced Culinary Arts students of Cecily Gans will be among the chef demonstrators (10:15-11 a.m.). And “chef” is the right word. These guys are not just tossing together a Cobb salad.
They’ll feature a recipe by recent graduate Sarah Rountree. Her Crispy Brussels Sprouts in Honey-Mint Sauce was chosen for its seasonality, and the local availability of most ingredients.
But that’s not the only Westport connection. Sarah’s recipe is 1 of 5 featured in Future Chefs: Recipes by Tomorrow’s Cooks Across the Nation and the World. The handsome book — just published by Rodale Press — includes 150 contributions from teenagers around the world.
Sophia Hampton shows off her culinary skills. (Photo/JP Vellotti)
But Sarah is not the only Stapleite with a recipe in Future Chefs. Senior Sophia Hampton is included twice, for her Delicata-Crab Hash with Poached Duck Egg, and her Kale Caesar Salad.
Zach Reiser offers up his Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Bread; Deanna Baris, her Breakfast Cookies.
But it’s not only Staples students who are featured. Wes Beeler was in 8th grade when he contributed his Competition-Ready St. Louis-Style Spareribs. (The competition was the Blues, Views & BBQ Festival. He placed 3rd.)
But the book is not limited to recipes. Each young chef has a full write-up. Sophia’s, for example, notes that she volunteers one day a month — with the Culinary Club — serving food at the Gillespie Center, and that as features editor for the school newspaper Inklings she moved from fashion writing to the food beat.
But they’re not the only Staples students mentioned. Class of 2013 graduate Rusty Schindler was cited in the introduction, while last year’s entire Advanced Culinary Arts class was thanked — individually — in the acknowledgements, for testing many of the recipes.
But those are not the only local connections. Future Chefs was written by Westport author (and New York-trained chef) Ramin Ganeshram. The compelling photographs come courtesy of her husband — and frequent “06880” contributor Jean Paul Vellotti.
There are probably more Staples/Future Chefs tie-ins. If so, you’ll find them at the Farmers Market this Thursday. And the book — available for signing.
If not, you’ll still enjoy Sarah’s Crispy Brussels Sprouts in Honey-Mint Sauce.
Wes Beeler eating his BBQ on the roof of Bobby Q’s. JP Vellotti took the photo on a very cold day. The roof was still a mess from Hurricane Sandy. The publisher said, “Try to make it look like he’s in Texas.”
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