by Bill Batson
When it comes to drawing an audience for the arts, Rockland County is David to the Goliath of New York City. But when it comes to attracting artists to live, the region has assembled a pantheon of American cultural deities worthy of Mount Olympus. Figures like actor Helen Hayes, composer Aaron Copland, painter Edward Hopper and writer Ben Hecht, to name a few, made their home in our neck of the woods. Fortunately for us, a few of these important creative artists combined their efforts to leave us a living institutional legacy: The Rockland Center for the Arts.
Helen Hayes christened the enduring voyage of this creative arts organization in 1949. Hayes staged a benefit performance of the Glass Menagerie at Nyack High School. The play’s author, Tennessee Williams, drove from Manhattan to attend the performance. On his way, he picked up his friend, author and South Nyack resident Carson McCullers. Joining Hayes on stage was the young actress, Julie Harris.
The performance funded the work of the Rockland Foundation (the organization would change its name to Rockland Center for the Arts or RoCA in 1970). Hayes was joined in this effort of cultural institution building by some of the most celebrated names in the arts including Copeland, Paulette Goddard, Kurt Weill, Maxwell Anderson and Lotte Lenya, Mary Mowbray-Clarke, who with husband John Fredrick and abstract artist Arthur B. Davies organized the 1913 Armory Show in New York City that introduced French Impressionism and launched the modern art movement in America (and included the work of Edward Hopper), described their mission in a 1946 essay:
- “To share with their neighbors whatever insights and power of expression they possess,
- to help in the quickening of talent among children,
- to take advantage of the presence in Rockland County of so many creative people”
The energy released by this big bang of talent continues to propel RoCA. After operating several years from the basement of a building at 35 North Broadway, the group found a permanent home when Ms. Anne Emerson bequeathed her home in West Nyack in 1949. The property included a stone and clapboard house dating from the late 1800’s, a small barn, and a chicken coop situated on 10 acres. Hayes headlined a fundraiser in 1970 at the dedication of a new building for RoCA, designed by local architect Charles Winter to accommodate galleries, studios and offices. The sprawling grounds have been transformed into the Catherine Konner Sculpture Park, which currently features 14 pieces of outdoor and site specific sculpture.
Under the direction of an active board and the guidance of Executive Director Julianne Ramos, RoCA has stayed true to the vision Mowbrary-Clarke articulated in 1946. RoCA employs 45 instructors who offer 200 arts classes annually for everyone from the advanced practitioner to the hobbyist. For 53 summers, RoCA has offered a day camp program for children ages 5 – 12.
Artistic Director Lynn Stein coordinates the presenting programs at RoCA. As a visual artist (she paints) and performing artist (she’s a jazz vocalist), Stein personifies the multidisciplinary sensibilities that RoCA’s founders embraced. Stein’s most recent curatorial effort, that features three exhibitions opened on September 9, and will run through October 3.
“The World According to Peter Cheney” shares the folkloric and witty insights of the local artist. One work, “Cogito Ergo Spud” is an homage to a memorable line of graffiti from the bathroom at the erstwhile downtown Nyack diner the Skylark (now Johnnycakes).
The Faculty exhibit coincides with the beginning of fall classes and includes the work of 23 instructors. The commitment “to quicken the talent of children” and adults has remained a major function of RoCA over the years.
The third exhibit takes advantage of the presence in Rockland County of Australian film maker Callum Cooper. Using low-tech homemade camera riggings, Cooper produces visual effects that contemporary filmmakers use expensive equipment or computers to generate. One short, “Lumbering Places” was shot during his residency at the Arts Student League’s Vytacil Center in Sparkill.
The face that frames the building in my sketch is part of an installation titled “Red Faces” by Monica Banks. This work was part of a series of dozens of faces exhibited in Times Square from 1996 – 2009. Like many of the sculptures that are on display in the Catherine Konner Sculpture Park , the Banks installation was made possible with the cooperation of New York City’s Public Art Fund.
Stein found one of Monica’s sculptures in the yard of local blacksmith James Garvey, who fabricated the works for Banks. RoCA was able to re-purpose Red Faces thanks to the generous contribution of talent and material from welder Peter Artin, who built the stands that support the sculptures. Clouds, a gallery installation by Banks, will open what Stein described as an “unbelievable killer” fall season in mid October.
With a 260-slot summer art camp, a year round Sculpture Park, an art school and a seasonal schedule of world-class exhibits, RoCA continues to honor the legacy of Hayes, Copeland and their contemporaries. Every time we cross the Hudson to satisfy our cultural needs before taking in everything our region has to offer, we are ignoring the efforts of those who created RoCA. We need to continue the tradition of investing our creativity and philanthropy in this and other local cultural organizations that were inspired by the world renowned artists that called this place their home. If we do, we can harness the brilliance of these luminaries, attracting cultural tourists and audiences from around the world to Rockland County, enriching our lives and rejuvenating our local economy.
RoCA has been selected as one of 196 local charities for the national Chase Community Giving program. The selection makes RoCA eligible to win a share of a 5 million dollar fund. Winners are determined by the number of votes groups get at www.facebook.com/ChaseCommunityGiving. Click the vote now button. The process is quick and easy. The deadline for voting is tomorrow, Sept. 19.
Rockland Center for the Arts is located at 27 South Greenbush Road, West Nyack (just south of the intersection of route 59 and 303) 845-358-0877
Special thanks to Brian Jennings, the Librarian Supervisor at the Nyack Library