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Friday, July 25, 2008

Arts Center Announces Another Management Restructuring

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For the second time in five months, the Westport Arts Center (WAC) has announced a restructuring of its management Image
Eileen Wiseman (l) and Nancy Heller: moving out and moving up. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Contributed photo

Eileen Wiseman, artistic director and formerly executive director, has resigned effective Aug. 1 after nine years with the nonprofit, and Nancy Heller, business and development director, assumes the role of executive director, an announcement said.

Wiseman took the newly created title of artistic director in March when Heller joined in her newly created position. (See WestportNow March 2, 2008)

“The move is designed to better serve the center’s evolving visual and performing arts programming, as well as to address the fiscal challenges of its ambitious growth plan,” the announcement said.

“We are extremely grateful to Eileen for her many outstanding contributions to this organization, its staff, and the community at large,” said Gary Cosgrave, who was re-elected as WAC board president earlier this month. 

“For nearly a decade, Eileen has brought growth to the WAC and a variety of educational, outreach and community partnerships that have heightened the center’s visibility in the community.” 

“Nancy’s impressive resume, including over 19 years of leadership experience in the arts, nonprofit and corporate arenas, makes her uniquely qualified to take the helm of the arts center during this transition period,” he said.

When Wiseman became executive director of the WAC in 1999, it was housed in a one-room office over an eyeglass store in the Compo Shopping Center. It was recovering from a bitter fight over the return of its former home in the Greens Farms School to the Town of Westport, and it was unsure of its future.

Under Wiseman’s helm, it relocated six years ago to a spacious gallery complex on Riverside Avenue. It has since become a cultural destination, one of the most powerful multi-disciplinary arts organizations between New York and New Haven, if not Boston.

Its concerts have featured Barbara Cook, Marc Cohn, Joshua Bell, and the Kronos Quartet. Its lecture series has featured such luminaries as the late Arthur Miller. The New York Times art critic Ben Genoccchio hailed the WAC for its “heroic” presentation of art across the Image
The late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller (r.) listens as friend and fellow playwright Tom Cole addressed the audience in a 2003 Westport Arts Center co-sponsored event. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) photo

“It’s been a wonderful ride,” Wiseman told WestportNow, “but nine years is a long time in any job. And I’ve been fortunate to accomplish a lot of what I had hoped to do when I came to the Arts Center. Along the way, I’ve had the support of some wonderful board members—as well as a terrific staff, an army of dedicated volunteers, and a community that craves culture.”

The ride has not been bump-free.

“In a diverse community like Westport, which has such a strong tradition in the arts, it’s not surprising that people disagree, especially on arts issues,” Wiseman said. “There will always be tensions between serving the community of local artists, and the larger community’s appetite for artistic innovation and experimentation.”

To mediate that sometimes sharp debate, Wiseman oversaw an expansion of the WAC exhibition calendar to include exhibitions curated to explore ideas and trends in the art world at large, as well as year-round opportunities for regional artists in a variety of juried and open exhibitions.

But running an arts organization always seems to invite controversy. An example was the recent installation of painted concrete blocks on both banks of the Saugatuck River. Image
Eileen Wiseman said she got hate mail following installation of cinder block art this spring near the Westport Public Library. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for

Wiseman said she received some anonymous hate mail but preferred the letters comparing the blocks to the “Gates” installed by by Christo and Jean-Claude in Central Park two years ago.

“There is no cliché more true than that ‘art is in the eye of the beholder,’” she said. “If everyone liked everything we did, I’m not sure we’d be doing our job.”

Music has been less controversial at the WAC, but no less challenging. Wiseman is an accomplished singer herself, and a former student of folklore at the University of Edinburgh who worked for the legendary Alan Lomax.

Using that background, Wiseman created a popular singer-songwriter series that introduced audiences to lesser known artists such as Eliza Gilkyson and Mark Erelli and brought legendary figures such as Janis Ian and Richie Havens to Westport.

The WAC’s “Jazz to the Max” series (named for and curated by local jazz historian Max Wilk) has been a long-running success. At the classical end, Frederic Chiu and Pulitzer-Prize winning composer Paul Moravec have helped curate series and talks on contemporary music. Image
The Westport Arts Center in March 2007 presented one of its “Broadway Songbook Series”—“Roaring ‘20s, Brown, DeSylva & Henderson. “ Performers included (l-r) Susan Terry, George Dvorsky, and Marianne Challis, and Chilton Ryan as narrator. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) photo

Not all the music has been so demanding. A recent program included love songs by Cole Porter, Billy Joel, and Smokey Robinson, sung by local divas Cindy Vacarro, Susan Broudy, and Karen Parella.

Lacking an auditorium, Wiseman made a virtue of necessity by making use of, and often collaborating with, other institutions.  An early partnership with Christ and Holy Trinity Church saw the transformation of the Seabury Center from nursery school by day to funky concert hall by night.

School auditoriums, local churches, the Westport Public Library, the Pequot Library, and the Westport Country Playhouse have all been enlivened by Wiseman’s programming for the Westport Arts Center.

Like all arts organizations, the WAC is facing financial strains. And its expansion over the past nine years has added to the pressure—more events and a larger facility cost more money. Beyond that, there has been a proliferation of arts organizations in the area.

“You no longer have to go to New York for the best in art, and that’s great,” Wiseman said. “But there are lots of other organizations in our area that are competing for the same audience, and the same dollar.”

Another issue that concerns Wiseman is the changing composition of the local community.

“In the 1930s and 40s, Westport was a fairly sleepy retreat for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and other leading artists and writers,” she said. “Then came the advertising and marketing people, and now the financial services industry.

“There is a lot more money here than ever before, but many of the people who have it did not grow up with a first-hand exposure to live music, theater or art—or much that is not on a computer screen. I believe there is no substitute for face-to-face experience with the arts, and that is what we have tried to provide at the Westport Arts Center.”

Where does Wiseman, who used to work for the Big Apple Circus, go from here?

“Well, I don’t think I’ll run away with the circus—-I already did that once,” she said.  “I just want to work with people who love the arts.”

Posted 07/25/08 at 04:18 PM


Comment Policy

I will miss working with Eileen as a fellow member of the nonprofit community.  She has been a great colleague.
Pete Powell

Posted by Peter R. Powell on July 25, 2008 at 06:06 PM | #

As a colleague of Eileen’s for the past 5 years, I can attest to the fact she is unequaled in her passion for music, her love for the arts is second only to the love she has for her family, her grace under pressure is a thing to behold, her enthusiasm for her artists and audience is a marriage made in heaven, and her inspired choices of programming are what kept us all faithful followers.  I am grateful for the opportunity to have been her Production Manager for 5 years.

Rozanne Gates

Posted by Rozanne Gates on July 25, 2008 at 08:26 PM | #

This announcement is a huge loss for this town.  Eileen Wiseman single-handedly brought the level of artistry in Westport up about ten notches - in visual art, music, performances and spoken word. Her creativity and professionalism built the Westport Arts Center from the ground up to its current national renown. She personally transformed the Westport Arts Center into a centerpiece of cultural life not only in Westport, but in the region and beyond. It is difficult to imagine that the Westport Arts Center will be able to maintain the momentum and high standards established by Eileen after her departure. I certainly hope so.

Posted by Jessica Bram on July 26, 2008 at 02:22 AM | #

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