Little gallery promises big return for Olana

Olana Associate Curator and co-curator of this inaugural exhibit Valerie Balint conducts a tour of the new gallery on Saturday, May 16. Photo by David Lee.   GREENPORT—The room isn’t large; in fact it was once a guest bedroom, and it requires navigating two narrow stairways in a section of the mansion few visitors have seen. But the roughly 18-foot square room, with its ornate fireplace and majestic view southward down the Hudson Valley looms large in the future of the state historic site at Olana.

   The room is now the Evelyn and Maurice Sharp Gallery, named in honor of the parents of Olana Partnership Trustee Richard T. Sharp. It opens to the public this Saturday, May 23, with a show called Glories of the Hudson: Frederic Church’s Views from Olana, a show that includes works by artists other than Church, the renowned 19th century painter and designer, who built the Moorish style home that has become a regional icon for the Hudson River School of art. A preview of the show was offered to trustees and supporters last weekend, and the ribbon on the room was cut Tuesday.

   Why all the fuss for an admittedly modest-sized gallery? Olana Partnership President Sara John Griffen and other dignitaries attending Tuesday’s event each had a slightly different take on that point, but Ms. Griffen summed it up in a word: “freshness.”

   One of the dilemmas for historic sites like Olana, she said, is how to entice visitors to return once they have taken the tour of the house and grounds. An art gallery like the Sharp can stage new shows, giving people a reason to return and to support the ongoing preservation effort.

   But to mount a first rate art show, even a small one, can cost as much as $200,000, primarily because of the cost of shipping, handling and insuring the artwork. One of the small paintings in the new show came from Chicago and will cost the exhibit $12,000 to handle by the time it is returned to its owners, presumably no worse for the wear, after the show closes in October.

   The Olana Partnership, a non-profit organization that works with the state on all aspects of Olana, will pay for the gallery shows, but that will require additional fundraising on top of the money needed to create the gallery. The gallery cost over $150,000, and the state contributed some of the expertise in the restoration of the room.

   Wint Aldrich, deputy commissioner for historic preservation at the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, said Tuesday that the gallery would not have been possible without the addition recently of fire and environmental protection systems designed to ensure the safety and proper environment for the artwork and furnishings of Olana. Those systems mean “we are now better placed to accept loans” of art from galleries and other sources, he said.

   Another aspect of the new gallery also pleased Mr. Aldrich, who has been involved in efforts to save and restore Olana for over 30 years: “We were looking for a reason to bring people upstairs. Now we have that reason.”

   The house still has a long to-do list. The main staircase, for instance, can’t handle the expected traffic, and rerouting gallery visitors will offer them a glimpse of backstairs life in the Gilded Age. Members of the Church family lived at Olana until the middle of the last century, but by that time the distinctive brick structure as well as the public’s taste for Church’s dramatic landscape paintings had fallen on hard times. Studies and original paintings by the artist were “stashed away in the Churches’ attic and, more recently, stored by the state,” Mr. Aldrich said. Now that work can come out of storage and be displayed in public, some of it for the first time.

   For those who can’t or won’t trek to the gallery, Olana will offer a touch-screen kiosk—“We’ve tested it with kids,” Ms. Griffen said. It displays paintings by the artist and allows the user to frame them in the shapes of the windows of the home, recreating the vision of the landscape as Church saw it.

   The benefits of the gallery go beyond the cultural and educational value of new shows, Ms. Griffen said. Her organization recently commissioned a study that reported Olana pumps about $7.9 million into the local economy each year. Reflecting on the ability of new, high quality shows to attract a broader audience, she said, “This can only enhance that ability.”

   That point was emphasized by Assemblyman Steve Englebright of Long Island, chairman of the Assembly Tourism Committee, who described tourism as “the little-spoken-of giant of the state economy.” He said it produces $53 billion dollars in economic activity statewide each year.

   County Board of Supervisors Vice-Chairwoman Linda Scheer (R-Gallatin) spoke of Olana as part of the cultural “infrastructure” of the county, calling it as important as roads and bridges.

   To handle the added tourism expected because of the gallery, the Olana Partnership will fund two new, part-time tour guide positions at the site. And the Partnership isn’t stopping with the gallery. Ms. Griffen said the organization has asked the state for $11 million to help fund a new museum and visitor center at the site, one of four projects statewide under consideration for funding.

   Mr. Aldrich said that Olana is the first historic site in the state to install interactive technology and the facilities in the house are setting the standard for sites throughout New York, a point emphasized by Assemblyman Englebright, who called Olana “an inspiration for the whole state.”

   Glories of the Hudson: Frederic Church’s Views from Olana will be open to the public from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday to Sunday, and holiday Mondays through October 12.  The catalog for the show is a bound, hardcover volume written by Olana curator Evelyn Trebilcock and associate curator Valerie Balint.

   An exhibit at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill called “River Views of the Hudson River School” complements the show at Olana. The Thomas Cole House show will run through October 31. 

   More information about Olana is at www.olana.org or www.nysparks.com.

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