By James Lomuscio
As the Westport Library readies for its $20 million transformation with the groundbreaking set for Sept. 14, an artist, her attorney and a former library trustee have serious concerns about the donor tile wall “River of Names.”
The “River of Names” mural was created in 1997-98 by Redding artist Marion Grebow. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com
Created by Redding artist Marion Grebow in 1997-98, the 26-foot long, 6-foot high work outside the McManus Room choreographs the town’s history and comprises 1,162 separate tiles for which donors to the library’s previous renovation paid between $100 to $2,500 each depending upon tile size and degree of artwork.
Library officials plan to take the mural down as part of the building’s renovation and expansion, just as it has already appraised, removed and stored more than 150 works of art that have been on display throughout the library’s public spaces, reading and program rooms and staff offices.
The rub for Grebow is uncertainty as to where her work it will wind up, if at all, in the new library. Dorothy Curran, who had served at a library trustee for seven years and headed up the donor tile campaign, also questions how the mural removal will be viewed by donors.
“I was heavily involved in the sales process, and my concern is broken promises to donors who made restricted gifts,” said Curran, who made a YouTube video expressing her concerns. “We told them the tiles would be there in perpetuity for their grandchildren. The idea that less than 20 years it’s going to disappear is deeply disturbing.”
There are 1,162 tiles for which donors paid $100 to $2,500 each. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Contributed photo
Library Director Bill Harmer, however, insists that the mural will come back, but first it has to be removed in order to protect it from damage during construction.
“We want to make sure that its protected to show future generations what their history looks like, and where they came from,” Harmer said tonight. “And I’m sure donors in our community will appreciate that. We’ve got time to do this, but it’s coming back.”
He added the construction, set to begin next month and take two years to complete, faces time constraints, “and we need to preserve this.”
“It’s no different than any other artwork,” Harmer said about collections that have already been removed prior to construction.
Grebow is not convinced.
“What we have done so far is to meet with the library and Dorothy (Curran) to review where it was going to be installed,” Grebow said.
“Their initial suggestion was on the second floor where the children’s library is and cutting it in half and wrapping it around a corner. I felt that was unacceptable. It was designed to be one continuous installation.
“Then the proposal was made for it to be put in the McManus Room, but it turned out it’s just a proposal,” she added. “They don’t want it in the McManus Room.”
Dorothy Curran authored a book about the “River of Names” mural. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Contributed photo
Her attorney, Stephen Nevas of Westport ,underscored his client’s worries, saying that the library plans to remove it and store it for two years.
Nevas said that “someone authorized to speak for the library,” told him that after the two years “River of Names” will be reinstalled “if Marion Grebow agrees to where they want to put the wall.”
Nevas said he was told that if Grebow did not agree with the library’s plan for reinstallation, “and this is a quote, ‘She can take it home with her.’”
Kathie Motes Bennewitz, the town’s art curator who has been employed as a private consultant by the library for the past six months, said that since 2014, “the tile wall has always been at the forefront of conversations as to how we’re going to preserve it.”
“That question is still at the forefront,” Bennewitz said, “and there is a plan for its safe de-installation, its packing and its storage. If it were up, it would be subject to damage, and we’re doing everything we can to minimize the risk.
“There have been conversations with the installer (Kurt Derner) and three top notch conservators to de-install and safely remove the tile wall from its current location,” she said.
Frank Palmer of Weston views the “River of Names” mural on Saturday. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com
Derner, who installed “River of Names” 20 years ago, is scheduled to meet with library officials on Wednesday to discuss its removal.
According to Curran, individual tiles will not be removed but in 3-foot sections after the rear of the wall and internal wiring are removed first.
“I’m not concerned because of my ego as an artist,” Grebow said. “I’m concerned for the community in Westport that has cared for it and treasured it for these 20 years.”
Harmer insisted “River of Names” will be safeguarded and exhibited again.
“We’re going to figure that out,” he said. “But, it has to go in stages.”