Over the last few years, the Westport Arts Center lost its focus on supporting and promoting local artists.
Last year — with a name change to MoCA Westport (it stands for Museum of Contemporary Art), and a move from Riverside Avenue to the former Martha Stewart TV studio on Newtown Turnpike — the organization seemed to become even less connected to Westport.
The Artists’ Collective of Westport — developed as part of the WAC, by prominent artists like Miggs Burroughs and Nina Bentley — became the pre-eminent group in town. MoCA’s outreach to local educators and civic groups ground to a halt.
Recently, the handsome gallery space on the Norwalk border — and the educational, music and other programs MoCA sponsored — risked losing its Westport identity altogether.
All that may now change. Westport artists, educators and organizations will hear soon from Ruth Mannes.
She’s MoCA’s new executive director. And one of her first priorities is outreach to the town where the Westport Arts Center began, 50 years ago.
Mannes took over Monday from Amanda Innes. She brings a 20-year career in publishing (including executive managing editor of HarperCollins) and 12 years of involvement with Westport schools (townwide PTA executive board, fundraising for Staples Players), along with a passion for art (ARTnews named her one of the top 30 young contemporary collectors in the country.)
She and her husband began collecting in their West Village apartment, before their children were born. They met artists, gallery owners and dealers. “Art made our lives,” Mannes says.
They knew Derek Goodman through the art world. Soon after moving to Westport, Mannes saw him selling lemonade with his kids. They were neighbors.
Now Goodman has helped bring Mannes to MoCA. The board understood the need for greater engagement with Westporters.
“We’re bringing excellent shows. We have wonderful music programs.” Mannes says.
“We can be a beacon of art and film. But we really need to connect with Westport: the library, PTAs, Westport Public Art Collections — everyone. We want their thoughts on dynamic programming.
“Our art should be accessible. Westport is a community with really curious people. If we bring in great shows, they’ll be engaged.”
As a first step, she’ll reach out to teachers, senior citizens, organizations — and artists. She’ll also look at changes in areas like admission structure and member benefits.
She’s spent this week getting up to speed on all things MoCA: shows, concerts, even a children’s art class that runs during the current school vacation.
She knows that when WAC/MoCA moved from near downtown to the midst of a residential neighborhood, it risked a loss of visibility.
But Mannes points to Beacon, New York as an example. An old train building was converted into a center for minimalist art. It now attracts art lovers from far away. “People sit, have coffee, see art and educational programs,” she says. “Community thrives there.”
Can that happen at out-of-the-way Newtown Turnpike?
“The other day, 3 French people knocked on our door,” Mannes says. “They were in Westport for a business meeting, but wanted to see what we have. They were disappointed we were closed between shows.” (A Helmut Lang exhibition opens March 15.)
“We have benches outside. We’ll make our cafe area more attractive. If this place is dynamic, people will come. We don’t want it to be an ivory tower.”
Mannes says that MoCA’s educational programs are ready to “explode.” She’s eager to bring back adult programming that was dropped or weeded out.
Mannes says the board — including Westporters like Tom Hofstetter and Michael Kalman — is committed to addressing the alienation that some local artists, and other Westporters, have felt.
“It’s a fresh start,” she says.