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Nicole Carroll Art Consulting

The Wassaic Projectby Jennifer Kiaba

Something big is coalescing in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hamlet of Wassaic this summer. Just as the Bard Summerscape festival is winding down on the other side of Dutchess County, an entirely new type of arts festival will begin its seasonal celebration. For the second year running this oft-forgotten rural community (nestled in the breathtaking Harlem Valley) will play host to the weekend long arts festival this month; the Wassaic Project looks forward into the vibrant future of the arts, while reclaiming post-industrial space in an upstate New York town.

Five years ago residents of Wassaic didn't know what they would do with the then-crumbling Maxon Mills site. The site, which incorporates part of an old Greek Revival hotel where workers once lived, is reputed to have been one of the oldest grain elevators in the nation. Though earlier in the decade it was under consideration for state and national historical registries, pressure was building in the town for the structure to be destroyed due to its perilous condition.

Much to the joy of those in the community who had been working hard to bring revitalization projects to the hamlet, New York City architect Anthony Zunino acquired the building and began the process of restoration. Although the mill is still under reconstruction today, the old building is now poised to be the basis of several of the projects geared toward jump-starting the local economy.

Zunino offered the opportunity to use the space to his daughter Bowie Zunino, an artist who had participated in group shows in Chicago and New York, and who had started a friendship and collaboration with fellow artists Eve Biddle and Elan Bogarin. The trio saw the great potential of the space, and thus was born the first Wassaic Project in the summer of 2008. Between 300 and 500 festival goers—some even from around the U.S. and Europe—converged on the town for the event, many coming up just for the day and others pitching tents to experience the entire weekend of celebration.

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The successful inaugural weekend of arts included a bluegrass festival on the porch of the newly renovated Maxon Mills building, an art show that featured everything from installation pieces, paintings and photography, to a community garden day. In the nearby Luther Auction Barn, (once inhabited by livestock destined for sale and now also owned by Mr. Zunino) the festival allowed for staged poetry readings, performance art and screened videos, with bonfires and singing ending the evenings.

This years festival will include four visual art shows displaying the work of over 70 emerging and mid-career artists from across the country. Poetry will be presented by The Segue Foundation, publisher of Roof Books, and musical performers include She Keeps Bees and Sebastian Blanck. Films will be presented in the Luther Barn Auction Ring and will be curated in part by The Kent Film Festival, Gene McHugh, and Liliana Greenfield-Sanders.

The trio has bigger plans than just a yearly festival. “One of our goals for the future of the project is to bring the community here (to Wassaic), both locals and people from New York City, to be aware of the surrounding beauty and, hopefully, to help grow the economy here as well,” Bogarin says of the trio’s long term vision. “It’s also difficult to have clearly defined plans; once we got the ball rolling this project developed a life of its own. That is the beauty of it.”

With the overarching aim of the Wassaic Project being to break down barriers, (whether mental, emotional or cultural) between art and its viewer, there are many directions in which the project can evolve. One important evolutionary part of the project has been the development of summer artist residencies in the Luther Auction Barns. Artists who otherwise might not have access to studios have been given free space to stretch their creative wings on the condition that their creations are shared as a part of the summer festival.

“That sharing and conversation between artists and viewers is the most important part of the project,” said Bogarin. There are also plans in the works to offer opportunities for guest curators as well as educational programs for students planning on exploring the arts as a career.

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An ancillary benefit of the project has been the opportunity for dialogue to begin between local artists and artists from the metropolitan areas. Local artists have had the opportunity to showcase their work to a larger and more diverse audience, and curators are becoming more and more aware of the thriving artists’ community within the Harlem Valley.

Tilly Strauss and Cindy Snow, leading voices for local artist groups ArtEast and the Eastern Provinces Photographic Society, both acknowledge the inherent opportunity for the local community to benefit from the Wassaic Project. “We’re very excited about what they are doing with the project,” said Cindy. “They are creating awareness and I love the ideas that are emerging as a result. The Wassaic Project fits right into the culture of what we are doing (with our local arts groups). Their ability to bring in buyers and curators from New York City and Connecticut is wonderful.”

“They have also been very good about courting local artists and doing studio visits,” said Tilly. “What they are doing is a wonderful opportunity to reframe local work and make it available to a wider audience. Dutchess County has historically been a very artistic place. The Wassaic Project feeds right into that; the artists have to come first and then the economy in this area will develop.”

“This is waking people up to art; everything we do in common raises the proverbial water and our boats rise up.”

The Wassaic Project Summer Festival of 2009 is a free family-friendly event in the Dutchess County town of Wassaic 8/13 through 8/16. For more information, directions, or exhibition and volunteer opportunities visit www.wassaicproject.com



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