By Emilie Murphy
Photography by ChiChi Ubiña

At fifty years old, MoCA Westport is getting a facelift. Despite a long history in Fairfield County, the museum, formerly Westport Arts Center, now boasts a new name, a new building, and a brand new Executive Director. 

When Ruth Mannes was tapped for the Executive Director position, she was not looking for a new role. A 12-year resident of Westport and longtime collector of contemporary art, Mannes had been keeping busy with her family, local charities and managing her art collection. But when the opportunity came along, she knew she had to explore it. 

The job, she explains, “is a perfect mix of my background: love of art…organizational management, and then years of community service out here. It’s this perfect trifecta for me.” After many years working in book publishing, Mannes moved to Westport with her husband and two young children. She became intimately involved in local causes, serving as President of the P.T.A. at her children’s’ school and spending many years as the Chair of Ways and Means. 

Combining her dynamic background with MoCA’s new space and mission, Mannes is excited about the many possibilities before her. She has big plans for the museum, and has wasted no time getting started. 

A Community Hub:

At its core, MoCA Westport is not just a museum. One of the organization’s biggest new initiatives was the creation of The Academy, an ‘arts education experience that combines exhibit-inspired activities in a semi-private class setting.’ The Academy offers day camps during school and summer breaks, classes taught by MoMA-trained instructors, and introductions to a variety of artistic mediums. 

But it’s not just the visual arts that will bring the community to MoCA Westport. In addition to hosting the annual Heida Hermanns International Music Competition for musicians between the ages of 18-30, the museum’s programming also includes performances by several world-renowned musical groups. This spring, MoCA Westport will welcome the American String Quartet and the Fred Hersch trio, a group of jazz musicians. 

The goal is for the organization to be considered a hub; something that local residents will come back to again and again, and also one that draws interest from afar. “If you know anything about the art world, you know that people will travel,” explains Mannes. “It doesn’t matter where you are, it’s about the art that you bring into the space.” 

Good Art:

And art is something Mannes has a deep knowledge of. Named by ARTnews as one of the top young collectors of contemporary art in America, Mannes and her husband have spent decades building their personal collection. “We got married and, instead of everyone buying us Tupperware or gifts from Crate & Barrel, we registered with a gallery,” she says. 

The collection grew from there. Mannes describes their collecting as “pure of heart,” not based on the commercial market but their personal interest in an artist or a piece. Their focus on contemporary work was driven by a passion for supporting emerging artists. “We had no children for 8 years and that’s what we did on weekends,” explains Mannes. “Art really made our lives.” 

On the heels of an acclaimed Yayoi Kusama exhibition that closed in November, the museum is opening a Helmut Lang show on March 15th. It is a nice transition from Kusama’s work, as both shows have an immersive quality, becoming an interactive experience for visitors. 

Todd von Ammon, who represents Lang through his gallery in Washington, D.C., was asked to be the guest curator. He has brought two different projects by Lang into the museum’s gallery spaces, each with its own aesthetic and feel. In the smaller gallery, von Ammon has included works that are mostly light and creamy in color. They serve as a direct juxtaposition to the larger gallery, which will house 200 sculptural poles rendered in dark and ashen colors.

The common thread is a sense of regeneration. The sculptures, explains von Ammon, “are all made of repurposed materials, which is definitely a theme throughout all the work; taking one thing, obliterating it, and then creating something entirely new out of it.” The poles are constructed exclusively from the charred remains of Lang’s burned fashion archive. “When you look at that work,” says von Ammon, “you’re looking at the entire archive of his fashion career.” 

The exhibition, however, is not just to be looked at. Visitors are encouraged to walk through the sculptures and immerse themselves in the art. With the poles suspended directly from the ceiling to the floor, the installation has an imposing feel. “It’s almost like walking through a forest,” says von Ammon. 

Mannes sees the exhibition as more than just a good headline. She views it as an opportunity to inspire. Lang, she says, has “taken all this ephemera from his studio space — clothing, watches, wrist bands, what would be garbage —and made really cool, beautiful art. People start seeing that first-hand, and it’s exciting.” 

What’s Next:

The Helmut Lang exhibition is not the only exciting thing on the museum’s calendar. In addition to ongoing negotiations for a large installation by an up-and-coming artist, Mannes is working on a group show of subversive politics. The show will be a multimedia exhibition featuring photography, sculpture, painting, and video from a diverse roster of artists. 

“I don’t want MoCA Westport to be a snooty ivory tower,” says Mannes. “We want it to be a dynamic place that people keep coming back to.”