Tag Archives: Sheffer Gallery

[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.

Westport History Museum Removes Historic Name

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 Sheffer

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.