Tag Archives: Westport Museum for History & Culture

RTM Committee To Discuss Museum, Arts Funding

In light of the current debate over the role of town funding of the Westport Museum of History & Culture, it’s fortuitous that a public discussion of that very topic is planned.

The Representative Town Meeting’s Library, Museum and Arts Committee meets next Wednesday (January 29, 11 a.m., Town Hall Room 309).

Among the agenda items: “the appropriation of town funds to various arts and museum councils and arts programs, as proposed in the
Selectman’s proposed budget.”

The Westport Museum for History & Culture — previously known as the Westport Historical Society — has received town funds for years.

History Museum Billed Town For Employees’ Time; Marpe “Surprised” And “Concerned”

In late 2018, organizers announced the end of Westport’s First Night celebration.

Recognizing a need for family-friendly New Year’s Eve activities, the Westport Historical Society filled the breach. In just a matter of days, executive director Ramin Ganeshram and her staff organized “First Light.”

Performances, horse-drawn carriage rides, face painting, a digital caricaturist, a henna artist, food trucks, a bonfire — it was all there. And (despite the rain), it was greatly appreciated.

A true New England horse-drawn sleigh ride.

This year, the Avery Place institution — now called the Westport Museum for History & Culture — continued the new tradition.

This year’s First Light included horse-drawn carriages, a live band, short films,  tarot reader, henna tattoos, teen game night at Toquet Hall, stargazing with the Westport Astronomy Club, ballroom dance instruction — and that warm bonfire.

As with previous First Nights, and last year’s First Light, attendees wore buttons for admittance to all events. They cost $10 online, $15 on site.

Ganeshram gave credit to the town of Westport, for helping support the event.

That support includes police officers, fire fighters, logistics — and funding.

On December 11, Ganeshram asked for town assistance “from the fund formerly attributed to the First Night Celebrations.” She detailed “projected costs as they exist to-date for the First Light Festival on New Year’s Eve.”

The organization’s spreadsheet showed that the horse and carriage would cost $1,300. The band was $250, the tarot reader $200; Branson Hall rental $200; marketing materials and buttons $100.

There is also a line item that reads “(1630-2130 hours x at holiday rate (#82.50 per),” at a total cost of $1,213.

In addition, the Museum requested that the town reimburse half the cost of the salaries of 5 Museum employees. They were projected to spend anywhere from 30 to 80 hours each on First Light activities, at fees ranging from $11 to $25 per hour.

The employees work in several areas for the Museum, including programs, operations, marketing, administration and administrative support.

Four of the employees would be reimbursed by the town for half of their hours worked: $750, $600, $600 and $500. The administrative support staffer was projected to work 30 hours at $11 per hour, for a total of $330. The Museum requested $330 from the town for her salary, but confusingly also said they would contribute $330 to it.

The total reimbursement request to the town for Museum employees’ salaries was $2,780.

Executive director Ramin Ganeshram was listed as spending 20 hours on First Light, at $50 an hour. Her $1,000 was covered fully by the Museum.

The bonfire at Veterans Green. (Photo/Dan Woog)

The invoice was sent December 26, and received at Town Hall 2 days later. A check for the full amount requested — $5,943 — was issued to Westport Historical Society, Inc. on December 30.

I asked 1st Selectman Jim Marpe about the use of town funds to cover salaries of Museum employees. He responded:

For nearly 30 years, the Town of Westport co-sponsored “First Night,” a family-friendly, substance-free New Year’s Eve celebration that offered an array of musical and variety performers, kid-oriented activities, bonfires, carriage rides and even fireworks.

This event took place through a combination of volunteers under the volunteer leadership of enthusiastic residents such as Barbara Pearson-Rac and her husband Frank, the late Bill Meyer and Allen Bomes, donations from local business and fund-raising organizations, and also town funding in the range of $7,000.  First Night also sold admission badges to help fund their budget, and the town provided some of the venues for various events.

The First Night concept was very popular around Connecticut and New England for many years, but in recent years, Westport became one of the few towns to offer this NewYear’s Eve option. Unfortunately, it became virtually impossible to stage a fireworks show in the downtown area, and rising costs and the dwindling number of volunteers began to limit the variety of entertainment options.

Fireworks were once a First Night tradition.

While the Town budgeted $7,000 to support the 2018 to 2019 New Year’s Eve First Night (last year), it became clear in the early fall that we would not be able to conduct the First Night event as we had in prior years.

The then-named Westport Historical Society stepped forward and offered to produce a mini-version of First Night called First Light.  The town approved the use of a small portion of Veterans Green for a bonfire, and provided financial support to underwrite the carriage ride and other out-of-pocket costs for performers as well as Fire Department oversight of the bonfire activity.  It was (and is) our belief that a substance-free, family alternative to celebrate the new year is a good thing for Westport and its residents of all ages.

In anticipation of this year’s (2019 to 2020) New Year’s Eve, we budgeted another $6,000 in case the now-named Westport Museum of History & Culture decided to conduct another First Light event, which in fact they did with some expansion of their offerings and venues.

Face painting was a popular activity at this year’s First Light celebration. (Photo/Dan Woog)

It was always the intention of that money to cover the costs of outside services such as the carriage rides, musicians and other performers and marketing material which the director of finance and I approved.

I was surprised to learn in the past week that the Town’s support was also used to cover a portion of the salaries of several Museum employees.

It was never our intent to subsidize the costs of non-town employees, and I’m concerned about the potential inappropriate use of town funds for this purpose.

I have asked our director of finance to look into this matter immediately, and to determine the appropriate course of action regarding this payment.

As I noted earlier, I believe that events like First Night and First Light are good for our community and add to our reputation as a family friendly community, particularly when they are supported by volunteers and non-for-profit organizations such as the Museum.

The town has always been willing to consider financial or in-kind support of specific services for events that serve the whole community, but it has never been our intention to subsidize the salaries of individuals who work for those organizations.

Westport History Museum: A Remarkable Story

When the Remarkable Book Shop closed, Westporters mourned the loss of a quirky, comfy store that for decades epitomized Main Street.

When former owners Sidney and Esther Kramer gifted the Westport Historical Society the right to use the name — and their Edward Gorey-inspired logo — for its gift shop, Westporters rejoiced.

The Remarkable name lived again — and on Avery Place, just a few yards from the original store. Not everyone who shopped for books, maps and posters about Westport knew the significance of the Remarkable Gift Shop name, or the delightful logo, but that didn’t matter.

Those who did, smiled.

Remarkable guy at Westport Historical Society (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

But they — and the Kramer family — are not smiling now.

Besides renaming both the Historical Society itself (it’s become the Westport Museum for History & Culture), and the main exhibition room (the Sheffer Gallery now honors Daniel E. Offutt, III Charitable Trust), there’s a new name for the gift shop.

Gone is the Remarkable name. Gone is the Remarkable guy.

“It’s a makeover!” the website trumpets. “New space. new stock, new name!”

Are you ready for the great new name? Nothing says Westport like …

“The Shop at Wheeler House.”

PS: Neither Wendy Posner nor Mark Kramer received any notification from the Westport History Museum that their parents’ naming gift had been expunged.

Westport Museum Posts Statement

Eagle-eyed “06880” reader Amy Bauer has discovered a statement from Westport Museum for History & Culture board chair Sara Krasne. In it, she addresses the controversy following the renaming of the Sheffer Gallery, after receiving a large donation from an estate.

Krasne’s statement — under the heading “Statement From Board Chair” — appears far down on the home page of the museum’s website, underneath information on upcoming events. She says:

I asked Ann Sheffer if this statement accurately represented her conversation with Krasne. Ann said:

Although I appreciate the apology from Sara about not contacting me personally before issuing the press release about removing my parents’ names from the WHS exhibit hall, our conversation in no way clarified what the Historical Society plans to do to rectify the situation.

I have also had a conversation with Dick Orenstein, the trustee of the Daniel Offutt estate. We had a very productive discussion about responsibility to donors both historic and current, and I am awaiting his report after he has had a chance to talk with Historical Society board members.

Unfortunately, there are a number of other issues regarding recent policies that should be addressed as well. I don’t feel that there is yet any acknowledgement of this, or openness to discussion within the affected parties and the community at large.

 

Historical Society: Over 2 Years, Quiet Anger Grew

I did not want to publish another story about the Westport Museum for History & Culture (the former Westport Historical Society).

The long-appreciated Avery Place institution has taken a public pummeling, since Monday’s story about the renaming of the Sheffer Gallery in honor of a large contribution from a charitable trust. I ran subsequent stories when former volunteers spoke out. Readers added hundreds of comments. Current museum officials did not respond.

Westport Historical Society (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

I thought Westporters had had their say, and Museum representatives did not want theirs. I did not want another story. It would seem to be “piling on.”

But then I got this email, from a Westporter who spoke with multiple WHS sources. It’s filled with other questions and concerns. It’s been vetted by people with long and deep knowledge of the WHS and WMFH&C.

Much of this information has been talked about quietly in town, for a couple of years. Now — in the aftermath of this week’s controversy — it too becomes part of the public discourse. The resident writes:

The average Westporter has to be confused and questioning the current explosion of outrage towards the Westport Historical Society.

How did the renaming issue cause over 200 “06880” followers to take time to express outrage? Did this outburst of frustration and anger arise out of nowhere?

No. Distress over the recent direction of the WHS has been going on for a while. There has been little public outcry, but much angst and a sense of hopelessness.

One of the early chapters of the outrage began when the new executive director dismissed — by email — a senior employee, after 20-plus years of service to the gift shop. She was told it was being phased out.

But within weeks the shop was reopened, staffed by a younger employee.

A wide collection of books on sale at the Westport Historical Society, in 2014. (Photo/Larry Untermeyer)

Concurrently, most longtime “period rooms” were eliminated. At the same time, many donated pieces of Westport historical value (not necessarily monetary worth) were sold or trashed — summarily and quietly, without donor notification.

The next chapter was longer and more painful. Individual by individual, longtime board members, volunteers and large donors were quietly pushed out.

Many people who had given so much over so many years were shown the door. They were too proud, too humble and/or too civil to push back in a public forum.  They stayed in touch as one by one they went down — but they did not go public.

The advisory board experienced the same treatment.

As the next chapter evolved, certain groups that supported and enhanced the WHS were pushed aside. This included some artists who had exhibit commitments in writing and were already being promoted in the media. Despite their hurt, they too stayed quiet.

Residents became the next focus. Last year, people who were used to accessing archives and files of the WHS –and amazingly, town officials too — were suddenly told it was now necessary to schedule in advance. In addition, they would have to pay $40 an hour.

Then came the unilateral renaming of a Westport institution. Quickly, and with surprisingly little outcry, the Westport Historical Society was to become the Westport Museum for History & Culture. That opened the door to government funding, negating much of the need for local volunteerism and donations.  Both were pillars of the WHS, which gave the WHS purpose and strength.

The latest, but not the final, chapter came this week with the revelation of the renaming of a section named for a longtime Westport family that donated countless hours, as well as generous funds, for decades.

Now it is to be renamed for a new donation from a well-meaning foundation, which could not have imagined that the quiet revelation of the news would release the outrage built up over the past 2 years.

One can hope that this is the last chapter that returns the WHS to its constituency: its volunteers and its participants. WHS, are you listening?

Erasing History?

I did not think I’d be posting another story on the Westport Museum for History & Culture’s decision to replace the name of the Sheffer Gallery (honoring a family with a long history of philanthropy and volunteerism) with that of Daniel Offutt (whose trust recently gave a large gift).

However, a number of “06880” readers remarked on the irony of a “historical society” turning its back on history.

Now, it appears the exhibition space is not the only place they’re doing that.

For years, the website (interestingly, it’s www.westporthistory.org) included information about many previous exhibits. One reader — who recalls that it went back to 2000 or so — found the descriptions and photos very useful when he was pitching his own exhibit idea, and again in the planning stages once it was accepted.

Now, the “Exhibits” page shows only 3. All were mounted under the current executive director and her staff.

In addition, the “Media” tab shows articles only since December 27, 2017. That one — the oldest — is headlined “Historical Society Names New Executive Director.”

The Westport Historical Society received excellent press coverage over many years. You wouldn’t know it, though, by looking at the website. That history is gone.

Also gone: a list of advisory council members. It was there Tuesday.

In addition, the list of board members on the same page was substantially shorter than the day before.

Yesterday, what appeared to be a link to the advisory council was no longer working. Like the organization’s history prior to 2018, the advisory council too is now invisible.

NOTE: Some readers have wondered why they have not heard the Westport Museum’s side of the story. No one has responded to the Comments section in an official — or even unofficial — capacity. And not a single staff member has contacted me, on or off the record.

[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.

Pic Of The Day #994

The name hasn’t changed. But Wheeler House is now the Westport Museum for History & Culture. (Photo/Dan Woog)

Pics Of The Day #988

Seen at tonight’s 2nd annual First Light Festival, sponsored by the Westport Museum for History & Culture (formerly the Westport Historical Society) …

Face painting …

…. horse-drawn carriage rides …

… and a bonfire, tended by the Westport Fire Department. (Photos/Dan Woog)