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Maxon Mills, a 1950s feed-processing plant in Wassaic, New York, was saved from demolition when developers Tony Zunino and Richard Berry bought it in 2006.
“They thought it would make an amazing restaurant, brewery or distillery,” said Zunino’s daughter, Bowie, 30.
She had other ideas for the distinctive seven-story wooden building: a free arts festival.
In the summer of 2008, Bowie Zunino, her Williams College friend Eve Biddle and New York artist Elan Bogarin spent $5,000 setting up Maxon Mills and nearby Luther Barn. They enlisted 40 artists and 15 musicians and called it Wassaic Project.
“We basically threw a big party,” said Zunino, who lives in Wassaic, a hamlet about 85 miles north of Manhattan. “It was an art-project experiment and it grew into the commitment to the artists and the community.”
The three have turned their initial “party” into a thriving arts center and summer festival with an annual operating budget of $160,000. They had a little experience working for nonprofits and they tapped some of the many prominent artists and collectors in the area; Agnes Gund, president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art, served on their benefit committee.
“In five years we have just exploded in terms of growth,” said Biddle, 30.
Alanna Heiss, the founder of P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS1) in Long Island City, was a guest speaker at Wassaic Project’s annual benefit party last month. Anne Bass, ex-wife of Sid Bass, lives in the area, as do collectors Raymond Learsy and Melva Bucksbaum and Oscar and Annette de la Renta. Nearby artists include Jasper Johns, Carroll Dunham and Laurie Simmons.
Annual events showcase art, music and dance; the grounds have expanded to a third outside stage. Art exhibitions began in 2008 and artist residencies were added in 2009.
Festival attendance reached 3,000 last year. Biddle expects as many as 4,000 at the Aug. 3-5 event, which includes 25 bands, seven dance companies, 120 artists and 10 filmmakers.
Wassaic Project hosts about 10 artist residents each month. They pay on a sliding scale, based on need, to as much as $900 for accommodations and studios; financial aid is available. The emphasis is on emerging artists, many of whom don’t have gallery representation and haven’t been exhibited before.
“It’s an incredibly important, interesting new model for young artists in particular,” said Carl D’Alvia, a local artist and a member of Wassaic Project’s board. “They can stay in the country and experience a community in a different way. They are fixing up a town and working with local people. They don’t need cars. They can take a train and walk down to their studios and do some work.”
Brooklyn-based artist Louie Hinnen built a life-size replica of his flooded bathroom during his residency in June. The installation stars a toilet overflowing with dirty water and a complicated water circulation system.
The piece is now part of Wassaic Project’s summer show “Return to Rattlesnake Mountain,” featuring painting, video, photography and sculpture by 100 emerging artists.
Since the show’s opening on June 17, more than $20,000 of art has been sold, with prices ranging from $60 to $10,000. Pieces went to, among others, Learsy and Bucksbaum, who have a private museum in the area, and local residents who had never bought art before.
“We’ve sold more art from this exhibition than during the entire last year,” Biddle said.
The next step is to increase the budget. While Wassaic Project has 12 full-time staffers, its three directors, who now include Jeff Barnett-Winsby, work free.
“Our dream budget is $500,000,” said Zunino. “We are dreaming big.”
Muse highlights include Mike Di Paola on the environment and Mark Beech on books
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