It’s the holidays and time for nightly benefit parties. This month, we’ll be circling back to non-profits and art groups we’ve talked to through out 2011 as they gear up for their annual shindigs.
Today we’re talking to Eve Biddle, the Co-Director of the Wassaic Project, which is having a silent auction benefit tonight at Invisible Dog Gallery in Brooklyn. As we wrote back in August, the Wassaic Project is part of the “Williamsburg on the Hudson” art scene emerging north of the city, in the tiny village of Wassaic. Their summer festival, which we’ve attended the past two years, we’ve found to be part Burning Man, part music festival, part camping getaway — and a great deal of fun. Art and music are exhibited in a barn, an animal auction ring, and a tall grain elevator.
Starting this year, however, the Wassaic Project will be running year round art residences. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation with Biddle about the project, how it started, and where it’s going.
How do you explain the Wassaic Project to someone who doesn’t know anything about it?
We’re an arts organization in upstate New York, about 90 miles north of the city. Our program is a year round artist residency program that is totally interdisciplinary. We take artists working in all mediums, and writers and musicians. Complimenting that is a summer exhibition program that features that year’s artist residents, and the exhibition culminates in the summer festival, which is a weekend long celebration of art, film, dance, creative writing, readings – a sort of arts extravaganza.
Have you always been year round?
It’s new. When we started in 2008, it was literally just a festival. We installed the weekend before and de-installed the weekend after. We had 35 artists and 15 bands, and that was it. It could have been a one hit wonder. But we loved it so much and everyone had such a good time doing it, we expanded the next summer and held the summer exhibition over June, July and August in 2009. Artists didn’t live there or have studios, but we took animal pens in the auction ring. They became our summer residency studios. We started touring the space with artists and asking them, “What would you do the be able to work here?”
Yeah. They hadn’t been cleaned out in a couple of years, and there wasn’t any light. There weren’t any white walls. And we asked artists what we should do with them and if they could picture working there, and a few said, “I’d like to, but I really want access to them now, in this state of disrepair.” And we were like, “OK, sure.” I think we brought in 16 artists who did installations in the barn, and we handed theses spaces over to them and said go to town. Some cleaned them out, some worked with the spider webs and decay that were there.
And then over the winter of 2009 and 2010, Bowie [Barnett-Zunino] and Jeff [Barnett-Winsby] really spearheaded renovating the barn. Everyone who’d ever worked on the Wassaic Project before all came up over a series of weekends over this winter to muck out the stalls and demo the dividers, and painted the barn and put up some walls. These were people from Providence, New York, Boston, and some local friends we met, and we did it on a crazy shoestring budget. And then in May of 2010 we launched the artists’ residency program, which has studio space and lodging. And then, it was six months, and then in 2011 we decided to go year-round. By the end of the year we’ll have about 60 artists in residence.
When I was at the summer festival in 2010, I thought the artwork was from an open call. But this past summer, I thought the art was all from your residencies. Is that how it works?
It’s a combination of both. The core of the exhibitions are our artist residencies. Part of the deal of getting a residency is that we’ll feature your work in the summer. But we also do open calls in the summer. This is important because it keeps giving opporntuities to emerging artists, keeps our eyes fresh, and gives our guest curators a look at this wide range of contemporary artists who are interested in working in an alternative space.
How did you end up in that space in Wassaic, of all places?
It was serendipity. The property is owned by Bowie’s father and business partner. They bought the building –
The Maxon Mills building, and they bought the barn shortly after. They started a renovation and didn’t know what exactly to do with the site. They started to talk to other arts organizations, and none were, frankly, crazy enough to be interested. The space was incredibly raw. It was daunting. It could only be used seasonally without extensive winterizing renovations. We visited the space and came up with the idea of a summer festival, and everything grew out of that experience.
One highlight of the festival for me was when you personally make pancakes for everybody the last day. Is that something you’re going to try to keep doing, even as it grows so much larger?
I think so. That was done first by Bowie and Jeff in 2009. The first year, they did it as an art installation, with these wild stacks of pancakes in the luncheonette.
Was that space already a luncheonette?
It was. It was a counter. We opened the drawers and found chocoloate chip cookie recipes. The grill is the original grill, and Jeff cleaned it. We love the tradition and it’s outlasted being an art project. It’s a way for us to say thank you to all of the artists and musicians, and viewers and listeners.
One of our core values [at the Wassaic Project] is geneorisity. I think I can speak for all of my colleagues in saying that we’re so grateful to people who are willing to give their time and expertise to making this project happen. During the summer festival, we’re running around all weekend. So on Sunday morning, it’s nice to take a moment and pause and say, “Thanks for coming.” We do what we do because people come to experience it. We wouldn’t do it if it was just us in the woods somewhere and no one saw it. We’re grateful people come up and are willing to give in to this experience.
Although they are different in many ways, I often compare the Wassaic Project to Burning Man. What do you make of this comparison, at least as a point of reference?
The scale is vastly different between the two. There’s a lot of room for growth in our attendance, but there’s also a limit. It will never be the same, and the experience of the Wassaic Project will always be different. I don’t know anything firsthand about Burning Man, and none of [the three co-directors] have ever been, so it’s hard for me to compare them. There are some superficial differences. There’s a 100% focus on concentrating on interactive artwork at Black Rock City, and we admire that and we bring interactive artwork to the Wassaic Project. But that’s not the focus of the mission of the Wassaic Project. What we do is exciting, and what they do is exciting, and we hope we’ll be able to fund more of our projects like the Black Rock City foundation does someday.
I joked in my piece in the summer that you could just turn to someone at the Wassaic Project and say, “So, what neighborhood in Brooklyn are you from?” But I’m sure there are people from other places. Where are your residents coming from?
We do have a lot of people coming form Brooklyn, but a huge population comes from Dutchess County. One reason we have a good relationship with our community is because our programming is accessible, in terms of concept and also financing. We’re not a $300 festival where the person across the street can’t come because they can’t afford it. It’s contemporary culture that’s accessible, and the price is affordable. And it helps to bring in the local community. So we have artists from the Hudson Valley, from Dutchess County, from just across the border in Connecticut.
Our residents are from all over. We’ve had people from Korea, Tanzania, Canada, the UK, and Japan. The highest concentration is from the New York metropolitan region, because we are not yet funded for travel, and so there’s an economic barrier. We haven’t gotten there yet, but we will.
What’s happening at your benefit?
We’ll have 20 silent auction pieces, most from our 2011 artist residency. They’re really amazing. These are artists who, for lack of a more eloquent way of putting it, are the next generation. These are artists who’ve gotten solo shows from studio visits at our residency, and this is one of the last chances to get their work at an affordable price.