NOTE: Many thanks to James C. Reilly for his help and input for this important blog.
There are some vertical files in the Local History Office, which contain all kinds of newspaper and magazine articles, brochures, and posters on many subjects of interest. One of these is a file labeled "Art". I recently looked through this file, and found several articles on the Art Barn. I remembered seeing articles in the "Arts and Leisure" section of the Greenwich Time on Sundays which referred to the Barn. All I remember is that it was located somewhere near Lower Cross Lane. I was recently talking to Jim Reilly, who used to be the Executive Director of the Barn, and decided to research it.
Today, a barn-like ambulance facility is located on the original Art Barn site, which is adjacent to Parkway School at 143 Lower Cross Road, one mile west of North Street. The original main hay barn was built circa 1747, and the farmland passed down from family to family. Along the way, a dairy barn was added. It was known as the Harmony Farm at one point. In the 1950s, before it's sale to the Town, the Barn was used to raise Black Angus Show Bulls, and was named the Parkway Barn. The Board of Education bought the Parkway Barn property for a new school, and the new school being built was named the Parkway School after the Barn Complex.
The Barn Complex was originally slated to be razed at the start of building the Parkway School, in 1962; but at the request of Miss Blanch Hart, who was in charge of all the art classes for the Board of Education, the demolition was cancelled. Miss Hart proposed that the Barn be used as an Experimental Art Center. The Board of Ed was quick to agree, especially with Miss Hart's extensive educational background, and her long relationship with the Board of Education. With support from artists and art educators, a group was formed to start a facility that would be an inspiration to many.
An open-ended lease was negotiated with the Board in 1962. Miss Hart, with several artists and art educators, along with the Board of Education, got the Town to agree to "lease" the facility for a non-profit art center. This new creative group, known as The Art Barn, Inc. was formed with prominent local businessmen, artists and art-oriented individuals, not just from Greenwich, but from all parts of the New York City metropolitan area. These art-oriented citizens set up the studios to handle many creative mediums.
The studio workshops that evolved over the Art Barn's first few years were very productive, inspiring many. The great art collector Joseph Hirshhorn became a member, showing parts of his collection at the Barn, with several pieces from his collection put on full-time display for many years. These art works are now at the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC.
With the Board of Directors made up of artists, art enthusiasts, architects, craftspeople and art educators, the non-profit group promoted itself as "The Art Barn, Inc
: An Experimental Center for Arts, and Crafts in Greenwich". It defined its purpose as follows: "To provide facilities, guidance and a stimulating atmosphere for creative ideas in arts and crafts, and to encourage and develop self-expression and individual growth , free from commercial or competitive pressures."
Set among some hills in a natural wood setting, the site was very bucolic. The original space provided good lighting, large rooms and potential for expansion. The first step was to start working on art projects, while the remodeling of space was going on to provide studios, classrooms and a gallery space. When the remodeling was completed, courses and workshops were set up. The crafts taught included printing, welding, stained glass/glass art, sculpture, jewelry work, printing, weaving/ fiber arts, bookbinding, pottery, drawing, painting and castings. The courses ran from April to December of each year. Downtime, due to the extremely cold months at the beginning of each year, allowed administrators to plan for the upcoming session.
THE ART BARN ON LOWER CROSS ROAD
COURTESY OF THE LINK
Approximately 100 adult and 50 young students from Fairfield and Westchester Counties took advantage of the facilities and courses. They first had to become members of the Art Barn. Individuals paid $15 for this membership, while families could purchase a membership for $25. A Lifetime membership could be acquired for $300. The fee for courses ranged from $37 to $112. Membership drives and course fees were only two ways to raise money. The Art Barn also held a Craft Fair the first week of November as its main fundraiser. It usually raised about $4500 per year. Artists both paid for display booths to show their art, and made and donated decorations, cards and gifts for an Annual Christmas Fair, A Guide to Greenwich pamphlet and tour maps were designed by the artists and were sold for $1 to raise money. Artwork was sold year round to make money. No money was provided by the Town of Greenwich for the operating budget, which ranged from $50,000 to $60,000 per year. In March 1984, Vietnam Era Veteran James C. Reilly was appointed Executive Director. Jim had studied art at the University of Pennsylvania, and recieved a degree in painting from the prestigious Silvermine Guild. Many will remember the creative Totem Pole he carved at Greenwich Point. He was also involved in creating a metal Town seal.
The Parkway School closed in 1981, just after the passing of Miss Blanch Hart, who had not only proposed this great art center, but was a driving force, keeping the Art Barn on a steady course. The two events were catastrophic, having a devastating effect on the Art Barn. The steady stream of traffic to the school, which meant potential customers, was eliminated. Walk-in traffic dropped. Nancy Hamilton, an artist with expertise in Fiber Art and Bookbinding, became the director. At the height of the Art Barn's popularity, Nancy Hamilton had provided instruction in weaving, bookbinding, and in general fiber arts. Nancy, who played a major role in the Barn for many years, made a valiant effort in 1982 and 1983 to save the operation, as the Art Barn started floundering. She left the Barn at the end of 1983 to marry, and instruct weaving in Vermont.
TYPICAL ARTIST'S EASEL
COURTESY OF WIKIPEDIA COMMONS
Reilly undertook some creative fundraising by collaborating with the Vietnam Veterans Agent Orange Victims Association, and creating several special scenic prints for commemorative sale. He tried many fund raising projects to restore the Art Barn, including trying to organize an old fashioned Barn Raising Party in back country Greenwich. Yet, a Barn is just a Barn, and with a neighbor Ron Howard raising funds for the Bruce Museum expansion, it became very difficult to compete, even with Reilly's parent's help. So the funds available were not enough, leaving the Art Barn in a holding pattern until the Selectman decided to terminate the lease. Jim Reilly and his father, James J Reilly, a WWII veteran, retired executive of Lever Brothers (now Unilever) and environmental innovator, had a long meeting with First Selectman John Margenot on October 18, 1988 to negotiate the closing of this unique facility.
It truly was a tragedy for Greenwich, and the art world in general, to lose such a creative place due to a lack of funds. In a Town like Greenwich, Jim Reilly's struggled for four years to save the Art Barn. Unfortunately, the lack of money is what forced the Art Barn to close at the end of 1988. Jim Reilly continued to work until 1991, with the then DPW Official Jeff Khan to see important structural work completed to preserve the Barn. The Barn was then used for a while to store the property of people who had been evicted from public housing. Ironically, a fire at Cos Cob School in July of 1990 resulted in the reopening of Parkway School to handle the 300 students who were displaced by the fire. In early 1990, GEMS (Greenwich Emergency Medical Services) started negotiating with First Selectman Margenot to take over the Barn as a station in the northern part of Greenwich. For a while, GEMS leased the building until they decided it would make a great permanent site. Finally, the original Barn was torn down in 2008 to build a new GEMS ambulance station. Any hope of using the Barn at 143 Lower Cross Rd. in the pursuit of art by the Art Barn organization that Reilly has tried to keep alive was now unlikely.
It's hard to operate a non-profit operation without proper funding. As we've seen recently, people donate money according to the economic climate and their own interests. Without public support and generous endowments, some, unfortunately, fall by the wayside. Greenwich is fortunate to have the Greenwich Arts Council, and people like Jim Reilly, who care enough about the Arts to promote them locally. Perhaps, as time goes along and the economic climate improves, Greenwich will have another Art Barn.
Greenwich Time; Time Warner Company, Southwestern Connecticut Newspapers, Stamford CT; July 7, 1983: August 10, 1990: June 11, 1999.
Macauley, I, A Barn Where Art Grows; November 11, 1977, Page 27; New York Times, New-York [N.Y. : H.J. Raymond & Co.], 1857