Arts groups find ways to survive

GHENT—Real estate. Talk to a local arts group, and the subject often turns to buildings and properties, purchase and rental.

This won’t come as a surprise to county residents. Think of Hudson Hall, The Crandell Theatre, PS 21 and Art Omi, to name just a few of the established venues. But there are also smaller organizations that see a bright future here.

In Valatie, for instance, a volunteer board is beginning a capital campaign for the next phase of renovations to the 1926 Valatie Community Theatre.

In Ghent, the Art School of Columbia County is concluding a capital campaign that will make an 1880 schoolhouse its permanent home.

At the Ancram Opera House, its co-directors are fulfilling a dream, after they sold their home in Hudson, pulled up stakes and moved to live above the theater.

Community radio station WGXC rents its studio space in Hudson, with all the benefits and challenges that tenancy brings.

There are others, too. But here is more about this four of a newer wave of arts groups and how they are meeting the challenge of finding a place to call home.

Valatie Community Theatre

So far, the working board of the VCT has renovated the formerly shuttered theater, now owned by the village, and brought in concerts and theater productions. This was accomplished with donated materials—$5,000 worth from Mario’s Home Center alone—and volunteer labor, by board members, the Valatie Fire Department and Girl Scout Troop 1038, among many others.

This month the board takes the next step, announcing a capital campaign for improvements that go beyond the ken of volunteers and material donations: insulating walls, pouring a new floor, renovating the ceiling under the balcony and refurbishing the vintage 1926 theater seats. A flyer explaining it all will go out with the January 1 village water bills, which number about 780.

Tom Barber, a board member and retired contractor, estimates the cost for the proposed work at about $2 million. This for an organization with a 2018 income of about $22,500 and expenses just over that.

But Mr. Barber and the board have a dream: more music, more theater, year-round programming that would include forums and whatever else the community wants.

The renovations will be done as the money is raised. Mr. Barber got his fund-raising experience as executive director of Vermont Special Olympics. “You have to prove to corporations and other major donors that you have something viable to sell,” he said earlier this week.

Art School of Columbia County

On the cusp of 2018 fundraising success, the ASCC can look to having a permanent home. For the first seven years of its life, until now, the ASCC had free use of its historic 1880 schoolhouse. The organization paid for insurance and maintenance on the building.

When the schoolhouse was offered to the group as a donation, the strings attached were that ASCC raise $20,000 for a capital fund to ensure that the structure could be maintained, and raise its $25,000 annual fund. This for an organization that has an $89,500 budget for fiscal 2018-2019.

“Raising $45,000 in a year was a huge stretch for us,” Kathryn Kosto, part-time executive director, said Tuesday. “But we pull together,” she said, referring the ASCC board, 12 part-time paid faculty and 35 volunteers.

At this writing, the Capital Fund stands at $21,170, and the Annual Fund needs $4,741. The Capital Fund $1,170 “overage” cannot just be plunked into the Annual Fund. Some donations are restricted, some small repair projects need to be completed right away to help save on utilities and some of the funds will help with legal fees associated with the property transfer.

The ASCC raised this money through a mix of mailings, events on site and off (Verdigris Tea in Hudson helped), art sales and memberships. Taking part in #NYGivesDay (Giving Tuesday) at the schoolhouse with an open house that included a home-cooked meal, ASCC raised $3,132 that day and was pledged $1,000 more that Wednesday.

Ms. Kosto, who has been executive director for 4 ½ years, expressed gratitude to all. “I truly feel this will be a major change in how ASCC is perceived by funders and donors, will help us grow our identity and help us serve our community even better,” she said.

Ancram Opera House

The Ancram Opera House was built in 1927 as Ancram Grange #955. In 1972 the building was repurposed and renamed the Ancram Opera House as an arts venue focusing on light operatic fair.

The Ancram Opera House. Photo contributed

In 2007 Jeffrey Mousseau and Paul Ricciardi, who lived in Hudson, discovered the AOH at a production of “Turn of the Screw,” a contemporary play based on the Henry James story. The couple found themselves “charmed” by the whole experience, Mr. Mousseau said Tuesday.

Mr. Mousseau is a theater director, and Mr. Ricciardi is an actor, director and acting teacher and coach.

In 2015 the Ancram Opera House was for sale. The couple sold their home in Hudson and bought the opera house. “At a certain point you have to act on what you believe in,” said Mr. Mousseau. “That yields its own rewards. There wasn’t a lot of discussion,” he recalled. “It didn’t take us long to decide, and then there was no second guessing. We packed our bags and moved to Ancram.”

They closed on the opera house Labor Day Weekend and went to work right away, he said. “We formed a board, wrote bylaws—we’ve both worked for a number of arts organizations—and held a kick-off open house Thanksgiving weekend.”

Their programming model, he said, is “interesting, inventive theater performances scaled for our space [which seats up to 96], alternative cabaret artists, Real People Real Stories and residencies where a professional performer can engage with the community.”

That community is generally the Roe Jan area, south to Pine Plains and east to Lakeville and Salisbury in Connecticut, which are just as close as Hudson, as well as southwestern Massachusetts.

The operating budget for all of this was $60,000 in 2018. The revenue comes from ticket sales and community-based donations, “a lot of small checks,” said Mr. Mousseau.

“We also rely on tremendous in-kind support from the community to make our programs happen,” he said. Materials are often donated or offered at discounted rates. The opera house does not carry a mortgage or have occupancy costs. A grant pays for a part-time staff member, but the two directors do not take salaries.

Fifty percent of the budget goes to artist fees and artist-related expenses. “While our budget is modest,” said Mr. Mousseau, “our productions and the artists are fully profession, of exceptional quality, and reflect how we chose from the start to allocate our resources.”

And yes, “having a building makes it concrete. People know where to go. The project becomes real.”

This week two grants validated the Ancram Opera House’s programming and building. The Regional Economic Development Council awarded AOH $30,000 to pay an artistic director, which will allow Mr. Mousseau dedicate more of his time to furthering the work of AOH, he said Tuesday.

The NYS Council on the Arts awarded the Opera House $50,000 from its Facilities Improvement Grant Program. This will support the purchase of new seating, an audience riser system, and lighting instruments and rigging equipment—”all very much needed,” said Mr. Mousseau. These improvements will better serve artists and audience alike, he said, and “we hope to have it all in place by next summer.”


WGXC, a program division of the nonprofit organization Wave Farm, has been live on the air at 90.7 FM since February 26, 2011. The station broadcasts from two full-time studios, in Hudson and in Acra, in a building home to Wave Farm. In Catskill, the station broadcasts most often from the HiLo Cafe, and from other places.

As a program division of Wave Farm, WGXC will have a budget of $100,000 for 2019. The station supports itself with listener donations, grants, underwriting on programs, and events with admissions.

Neva Wartell (l), programmer and program schedule assistant, and programmer Maria Manhattan in the WGXC Hudson studio. Photo by Craig Chin

“The challenges for a community radio station like WGXC are sustaining the operation, funding and what it takes to run an organization, station manager Lynn Sloneker said, speaking with seven years’ experience in the post. “In addition to rent and personnel, there are also costs for the technology” that a theater or art gallery doesn’t have.

“We live frugally,” she said, “in order to support that part of our infrastructure. That’s not a negative, but a great motivator.”

Wave Farm built the radio station with a 2009 commitment of $71,485 from the U.S. Department of Commerce. This award was 50% of the funding for the initial equipment (transmitter, antenna, etc.). A year later, Wave Farm had raised the matching funds.

Today WGXC has three full-time staff members, including Ms. Sloneker and Galen Joseph-Hunter, executive director of Wave Farm, and two part-time staff. All of the many programmers are volunteers.

On April 1 the station moved within Hudson, from one rented space to another, in the First Presbyterian Church, on Warren Street at Fourth Street. The new studio is more accessible and more centrally located than the previous studio.

December is also a transition time for the station. Based on listener feedback, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. is now all music, including the sound art that Wave Farm is committed to, with the idea that people listen while they work. Talk shows are before and after that, during drive times, and evenings are set for live broadcasts from a variety of venues, near and far.

Traditionally, the station has held three on-air fund drives per year, in spring, fall and during the February anniversary. “But we’re transitioning away from that to more sustaining members,” said Ms. Sloneker, people who have a set sum automatically withdrawn from a bank account or credit card. “If we could develop that base of donor, we could eliminate the pledge drive as we know it,” she said.

The up side of her job, she said, is creating “a media outlet that is a crossroads for the community. You see a mix of people here that you don’t see anywhere else. That’s very gratifying. And working here is creative in the true sense—a lot of problem-solving. And it’s fun, never boring.”

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