Celebrating an Art School in the Upper Hudson Valley

The Art School of Columbia County (ASCC) is located in Ghent, NY, at 1198 Route 21C, a short walk from its well-known neighbor Hawthorne Valley Farm and School. It’s a quirky spot right off the bat, with the building bordering a country road where sometimes in the summer, you have to wait for a farmer to move cows from one pasture to another across it. You can’t miss the School. It’s painted a distinctive shade of blue-green that one feels certain Columbia County’s art figure of historic repute, Frederick Church, would have appreciated, given his love of Persian tiles. (Church was a central figure in the Hudson River School of painting and lived at Olana, his lavish home and property near Hudson, NY, overlooking the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains.)The Art School is the current iteration of what was originally a one-room schoolhouse, circa 1842. At one time it even housed a family with five children. 

In 2005, it came up for sale. It had long caught the eye of Columbia County resident Nicole Furnee, who purchased the building and made it into a cozy and eclectic bookstore. But there was something about the place that inclined Nicole towards making it a place for art. The bright and welcoming yet cozy building and its lovely property with a terraced landscape that boasts sweeping views and also private areas that are ripe for reflection and drawing could be a great location, she thought, for artists to meet, take classes, exhibit their work, and even  take their talents out into the community. Nicole and her then-husband, Tom Chulak, imagined it as a home base for “art for everyone” – not just locals and weekenders who wanted to take art classes, but for kids, teens, and even adults who might not be able to get to classes, or whose classes in school weren’t quite enough. In August 2011, Nicole decided to dedicate the building to the visual arts. 

The Art School of Columbia County was born. Its sweeping vision: Art For All. Its noble mission: To nurture learning, creativity, and community through the visual arts.

Small, But Committed

“There are so many artists in Columbia County,” Nicole Furnee says, “and the Art School is in the heart of the County, with a special role of connecting diverse populations in a love of art.” Nicole and Tom brought community members together around their vision, hired working artists to teach classes, tirelessly spread the word and enrolled students, formed the necessary nonprofit status, and hired an executive director to pursue grants to bring art to organizations and individuals in the County who couldn’t get to the School. “The Art School was small, but committed to serve,” Tom reflects. 

But could it survive on its own? In 2018 The School faced two challenging fundraising goals that would determine its future. One was its Annual Campaign for funding for the variety of its offerings, and the other was a Capital Campaign to raise money to secure the schoolhouse itself as the permanent home of the ASCC.  Success on both fronts. The School went into 2019 with renewed hope and enthusiasm, and pride. And then, in 2020, COVID. Like every other arts organization in the County, the state, the country, and the world, the Art School improvised in whatever ways it could. Commitment to the School didn’t flag. When it was safe and allowed, classes were held outdoors with masks, social distancing, and sanitation protocols in place. The relationships that were formed in the fragile yet critical seasons of COVID insecurity have stayed strong. 

On With Art!

Today, the Art School is celebrating 10 years in the community. It’s in full bloom under the leadership of Executive Director Nancy Maurice Rogers. Tom Chulak is the Board President, overseeing an engaged Board of seven. Classes are offered year-round, and range from drawing and painting in various media to collage, printmaking, fabric art, and more. “The School is committed to its vision and its mission,” Nancy says, “and we strive to make art accessible to all and for all, not only with the classes, but with community collaborations and a gallery space. Artists are welcome to exhibit at the School, but the prerequisite is to give a talk or a demonstration on their work so people can engage with them and see practicing artists.” 

One way the School is reaching a greater audience, too, is with its program, The Art of Summer, for children ages 6 to 13. Held in July, it’s a unique summer art program where the children will be working with experienced art teachers who are also practicing, professional artists. The goal is to offer the youngsters opportunities to develop artistic potential in fun yet noncompetitive environment. 

A year ago, Board member Michael Saltz had never taken an art class. He heard about the School and wanted to give it a try. He hasn’t missed a series of classes since. “What I learned about art – and myself,” he shares, “is that once you start you have to pay attention to things in ways you haven’t before. Light and dark, colors, shapes, bodies – it’s an expansive process that changes the way you see the world.” 

What’s the best way to celebrate a big anniversary? With a big party!!

To celebrate in style, on Saturday, May 13, 2023, the School held a gala and fundraiser at the clubhouse at Catamount Mountain, a grand space made festive by a slew of Art School volunteers and staff. There was a display of artworks by students and faculty. There were gorgeous hand-made luminaries created by students and other community members. The tables were covered with paper and there were boxes of crayons at each. A generously supported raffle boasted everything from local craft beverages to art supplies, gift cards to local restaurants and stores, and handmade wares of all kinds.

The mood was as festive as the room, and everywhere you turned there were hugs of recognition and admiration among faculty and students and community members and Board members and patrons and everyone whose lives have been touched by the Art School and who came with bells on to be part of this very special day. 

“This celebration isn’t only about getting and being here in the history of the Art School,” Nancy says, “it’s also about the future growth of the organization. We are all about engaging everyone in art.” 

Tom Chulak adds, “The 10th Anniversary Celebration was an important milestone in the life of the Art School.  Most not-for-profits do not make it to 10 years.  The event was a chance to bring our supporters and the larger community together, and also a time to honor Nicole Furnee, who was the founder of the School.” 

Columbia County’s Art Scene

There is so much to see and do around the arts in Columbia County, whether you’re looking for a series of classes to take for a seasonal retreat, or you want to spend a day or weekend exploring. For the visual arts, in addition to ASCC, don’t miss:

Olana State Historic Site – The former home of Frederick Edwin Church, a central figure in the Hudson River Painters and one of the most famous painters in the US in his day. Olana is one of the few intact artist home, studio and estate complexes in the United States, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965. You can access the article on Olana at Side of Culture here.

Art Omi – Based on a 120-acre property in Ghent, NY, Art Omi presents the works of contemporary artists and architects both through works on its grounds and in a 1,500 square foot gallery in its Visitor Center. Side of Culture presents this sculpture & architecture park in this current issue.  

Jack Shainman Gallery The School – The School is a 30,000-square-foot former high school in Kinderhook, NY. It was founded in 2013 with the mission of presenting ambitious, large-scale exhibitions that shed new light on artists working both within and outside of Jack Shainman Gallery’s program. Its curatorial vision is guided by a desire for creative exploration and cultural exchange. Exhibitions rotate. Hours are Saturday, 11 am to 6 pm, and by appointment. jackshainman.com

The Spencertown Academy is an arts organization housed in an historic revised Greek Revival building in Spencertown. It dates back to 1847, when it was a teacher training college – one of the first in the nation to accept men and women. Like the Art School of Columbia County, the community keeps the space alive, and its creative offerings are diverse, from concerts to lectures to gallery shows and an annual Festival of Books in the fall. Spencertownacademy.org

Hudson Hall, at 327 Warren Street in Hudson, houses NY State’s oldest surviving theater. Fully restored since 2017, Hudson Hall hosts a year-round schedule of music, theatre, dance, visual arts, literature, workshops, family programs and large-scale community events. Hudsonhall.org

The Art School of Columbia County is a 501c(3) nonprofit organization.  Learn more at artschoolofcolumbiacounty.org

 By Dominique DeVito is a writer and an author based in Columbia County, New York.

Photos of the gala are by Lee Rogers. Copyright Lee Rogers

Photos of the school and students creating art works are courtesy of ASCC. 

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