We are artists, so art happens to be the tool we’re using for community redevelopment. We’re not trying to be famous, or to be internationally known. We’re trying to be helpful. That’s our highest goal. How do we participate, engage, facilitate, and enact positive change. — Jeff Barnett-Winsby, Co-Founder, The Wassaic Project
Over the past decade, Wassaic, New York, population 1,279 has remade itself from a small, dwindling hamlet into a re-emerging cultural hub in an unlikely setting. This transformation was begun, in no small part, by close collaboration between the Wassaic community and the The Wassaic Project a year round artist-residency, exhibition space, and performance venue with a vision for social change. The project emerged from a handful of young initiators who saw promise in the town’s key architectural assets: the vacant seven-story grain elevator is now a stunning exhibition space; the massive auction barn, a studio and workshop.
It was here last weekend that a diverse crowd walked, drove, and took the train to the last stop on the Hudson Line for an afternoon workshop co-presented by New America NYC. The convening brought together local and national leaders in art, policy, and philanthropy to discuss the role of arts education, higher education, and regional catalysts for economic growth in the Dutchess county region.
The day-long symposium was structured around a series of breakout sessions, with an interactive survey bookended by two large panel discussions. Eve Biddle, a co-founder of the Wassaic Project welcomed the first panel by emphasizing the unique format of the afternoon as an exchange between many facets of the community — both on and off the stage.
New America fellow Katherine Zoepf began the session, “The Lessons of Art Curriculums in Rural Education” by asking panelists what “positive impact” meant for each of them personally. All spoke to the short and long-term benefits of the arts, both for the well-being of the community, as well as the students themselves. Many spoke to the identity-affirming effects that exposure to mentors, new perspectives, and collaboration has on youth. Linda Marston-Reid, the director of Arts Mid-Hudson, and Jenny Hansel, of the North East Community Center, emphasized the long-term effects arts enrichment has in providing “21st century skills” like critical thinking, empathy, and confidence. Craig Wickwire, an art teacher at Webutuck High School, acknowledged the more immediate impact of arts education:
Not every student has a great day everyday. Coming into the art environment helps with their mental security. If they’re having a poor day, it’s a way to lift themselves up and re-group. Being able to get things out when it’s not possible in other core classes throughout their day has beneficial impacts daily, weekly, even hourly.
During questions from the audience, several lamented the relegation of the arts to a “luxury product” rather than source of learning and inspiration to students affected by “poverty as a depressant.” The comments eventually turned to a call-to-arms for further community engagement by leveraging the region’s unique assets — assets that even New York City cannot boast. An audience member argued:
The costs of creative risks in New York City are way too high. Artists are coming up the Hudson, and more and more are going to be your neighbors. There is a luxury in being able to make a mess here. Kids in rural areas are able to make a mess in basements, backyards, barns, where they can go and tinker and make things. So many artists in New York City come from rural areas, because they grew up with their hands engaged in how they explored the world.
Following a break where attendees were encouraged to explore exhibitions scattered throughout several floors, New America’s Rachel Fishman and Ernest Ezeguo facilitated a mini-town forum, posing a series of questions to the room lifted directly from their recent survey on higher education, Varying Degrees, that were then compared to the nationwide findings. With few exceptions, the opinions in Wassaic were similar to those in the report. Fishman appreciated the opportunity to ask why responders felt certain ways, acknowledging the need for this added facet in year-two of the report.
New America NYC director, Elana Broitman, led the final discussion, zeroing in on the challenges and opportunities to regional catalysts for economic development. Nearly all the speakers agreed that collaboration between government, philanthropy, and local actors is key to accelerating burgeoning innovation. March Gallagher, President and CEO of Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley, emphasized how funding for existing infrastructure, community colleges, and quality digital access are key to expanding the region’s “creative economy” and enticing residents to stay in Dutchess County after graduation. Holly McCabe of Dutchess Community College pointed to the importance of art apprenticeships in opening a career window for local students, a finding echoed by New America’s Report on Rural Apprenticeships.
As the afternoon came to a close, New York State Assemblymember Didi Barrett spoke passionately of the challenges present when convincing politicians and local entrepreneurs to invest even when instant impact is unlikely. She echoed what had become a consistent thread to the day: community collaborations — much like the forum she was currently speaking at — are essential to forging partnerships, creating momentum, and seeing through lasting change.
This Saturday’s discussion was just the opening to a much needed exploration of the many innovative ways that placemaking is being built in the Dutchess county region. As the audience of participants acknowledged, the national data and the observations of the community stand to be bolstered through deeper reviews of the role of art in rural education and community development, as well as the additional scaffolding needed to cement the gains needed to make a difference in the community. Wassaic is a bellwether for similar communities, and further exploration can make a real difference to policy makers, both locally and nationally.
Keep an eye out for future events at the Wassaic Project and activities at their Art Nest here.