Ridgefield's first group of cultural award winners includes former state rep, Playhouse leader

RIDGEFIELD  —  After much discussion at its latest meeting, the Economic & Community Development Commission selected the winners of its first-ever Cultural District Award — which has created a lot of controversy in town over the past few months.

The 2021 winners are former state Rep. John Frey and Ellen Burns, owner of Ridgefield's Books on the Common. The 2022 honoree is Richard Klein, who recently stepped down as exhibitions director at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. The 2023 honoree is Allison Stockel, who spent nearly 20 years as executive director of The Ridgefield Playhouse.

The award acknowledges an outstanding individual who has contributed to Ridgefield's cultural impact and economic diversity. 

"We will give three annual awards this year because the cultural district was established in 2021," ECDC board member Geoffrey Morris said at the meeting Monday night. Every year going forward, the commission will give just one award.

Controversy, award designation

The controversy began over the summer when Kay Gelfman, an appointed member of the commission, said on several occasions at a meeting that "you shouldn't name the award after an old white guy."

Gelfman was responding to a suggestion by fellow board members to name the award after 20th-century architect Cass Gilbert, who designed the fountain in Ridgefield and the U.S. Supreme Court building, among other notable work. 

A recording of the meeting was distributed throughout social media.

A number of town residents said they were insulted by the comment, with some calling for Gelfman  — who has since apologized — to resign. At the commission's Nov. 7 meeting, more than a dozen residents, including members of the town's volunteer boards, spoke during public comment — both in support of Gelfman and against her statement. 

Ridgefield is the first municipality in the state to earn the designation of cultural district from the Connecticut Office of the Arts. A cultural district is defined as a walkable area of a city or town that features numerous cultural facilities, activities and/or assets.

The designation was awarded by Gov. Ned Lamont in a ceremony at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in May 2021.

The Cultural District Awards will be presented at the Ridgefield Arts Council’s Behind the Scenes ceremony on May 11, 2023, at a location to be determined. 

The commission received nominations for nine people from among 19 nominations for the award. 

"It was really exciting to see so many people are active in this process and interested in it. And we're excited to take nominations in the future for another year," Glori Norwitt, ECDC commission chairman, said at Monday's meeting.

"The whole idea is to bring attention to the cultural district and all that it does ... we appreciate the arts and culture for what they are, but we also appreciate them for the business they bring into this town," commission member Geoffrey Morris said.

The nature of the award, such as whether it's a plaque or statue, has not yet been determined, Norwitt said. 

Bob Knight, ECDC commissioner who called into the meeting, said acknowledged the "hours and hours and hours of work that our chair Glori Norwitt put in to make this award a success. You were at the heart of all this and so this wouldn't have happened without your efforts"

Award recipients

The commission applauded the work of the honorees.

In addition to launching the bill that led to the creation of the cultural district designation, Frey "secured millions of dollars in funding during his 20 years in Hartford, money to support key assets within our cultural district, including Keeler Tavern Museum and History Center, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, the Ridgefield Playhouse, the Ridgefield Library, the Scott House, the Ridgefield Theater Barn, and more," a statement said.

Klein was involved with the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum for more than three decades. The museum, which was founded in 1964, gets about 22,000 visitors each year, a statement from the ECDC said.

Burns said the idea for the cultural district designation came from a visit to the Berkshires where she learned "Great Barrington had been designated a cultural district by the State of Massachusetts. I immediately contacted our state representative John Frey to ask if such a designation existed in our state, and if not, would he help create one — and he did."

During Stockel’s time at the Playhouse, a 500-seat nonprofit performing arts center, the venue went from producing 40 shows a year to more than 250, and the operating budget of $250,000 increased to $6 million.  Also, The Playhouse just completed a $4 million expansion, and it has been renamed in her honor. Stockel also serves on the advisory board of The Center for Empowerment and Education and the board of directors of the Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra. 

The cultural district award will be an annual selection and all nominees will be carried forward for consideration the following year.

Additional nominees include: Selectman Barbara Manners, founder of CHIRP (Concert Happenings in Ridgefield's Parks) and The Acoustic Celebration musical series; Amy Pal, an Aldrich board member; Amy Piantaggini, executive director of the Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance, SPHERE volunteer and adviser to Thrown Stone; Elizabeth Biglow Ballard, the late philanthropist who bequeathed land for Ballard Park; and Maurice Sendak, the late internationally acclaimed children’s book author.