'It is a tremendous honor': Ridgefield's arts leaders laud 'cultural district' designation

RIDGEFIELD — There was perhaps no better venue to recognize Ridgefield’s achievement as the first town in the state with a designated “cultural district” than outside The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum.

Last Friday, as he addressed the small crowd of dignitaries there, First Selectman Rudy Marconi made mention of the museum’s founder, Larry Aldrich, who opened the institution in 1964, making it one of the oldest contemporary art museums in the country.

Marconi explained that it was the foresight of Aldrich and other “thinkers” over the years that created and sustained Ridgefield’s thriving arts community so that residents and visitors alike could enjoy its eventual cultural district.

“This has been a multitude of years in the making, and we're reaching the goal line,” Marconi said. “We are here, fortunately, in our time to carry that ball across the goal line, and it is a tremendous honor.”

Gov. Ned Lamont visited Ridgefield on May 21 to recognize its approval for a cultural district, which the Connecticut Office of the Arts defines as a walkable area of a city or town that features numerous cultural facilities, activities and/or assets.

The program originated in Ridgefield with former state Rep. John Frey, who proposed the initial law to allow designation of cultural districts in October 2019. Shortly after, an advisory council comprised of a diverse mix of businesses and organizations organized to oversee Ridgefield’s application.

A handful of council members spoke at Friday’s news conference lauding the designation while citing Ridgefield’s rich history. They also noted the positive impacts the designation would have on the town.

Allison Stockel, executive director of The Ridgefield Playhouse, said the achievement rests with past and present residents. She pointed to the founders of The Ridgefield Theater Barn, which dates back to 1965, and to the group of prominent townspeople that came together in 1994 to create the Playhouse — the same building that famed conductor Arturo Toscanini performed in back in the ‘40s.

“It is the townspeople of Ridgefield and their love for the arts who organically created this incredible village of arts and culture,” she said. “The arts … add to the character of our community, not to mention the importance and vitality of the economics of our town.”

Hilde Grob, executive director of the Keeler Tavern Museum & History Center, acknowledged the significance of having not one but three museums contained in Ridgefield’s newly-designated cultural district. She spoke of the advances the center was able to make despite the pandemic and how the designation would further enrich its mission.

“We have re-dedicated ourselves to speaking truth to history by giving voice to the people whose stories have, thus far, not been told. This includes our site’s Black history and indigenous people who lived at this land long before the European settlers arrived here,” she said. “We will continue to be an important cultural and economic driver for Connecticut's prosperity, (and) I hope we will soon see many other cultural districts across the state that speak to (its) rich heritage.”

Christine Carnicelli is the co-owner of The West Lane Inn, an 1849 historic home situated on the southwest side of the cultural district. It has operated as an inn for more than 30 years.

The Inn was vacant for the first three months of the pandemic, Carnicelli said, but bookings surged as surrounding cultural venues, such as the Aldrich and the Playhouse, welcomed visitors back.

“Guests love to understand the history that's in this town,” she added. “They visit our libraries and our museums and enjoy many, many activities this town has to offer. We feel that the cultural (district) designation will greatly increase traffic to our town ... and everyone here will hopefully see the benefits to that.”

Ridgefield’s cultural district comprises downtown Main Street and surrounding areas. It stretches from Keeler in the south through Ballard Park and the Ridgefield Library in the north, and a half mile east to the Ridgefield Theater Barn and Guild of Artists.

For a virtual tour of the district, visit https://vimeo.com/509357299.

alyssa.seidman@hearstmediact.com