hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




A schoolhouse for the creative

Plans advance for a visual arts school in Columbia County



Contributing writer



A historic former schoolhouse in the rural hamlet of Harlemville may soon return to its roots by serving as the home of a proposed Art School of Columbia County.

Planning for the new art school has been under way for about six months. Supporters hope to establish a community-based, nonprofit school in the 1,000-square-foot building and begin holding classes there this fall.

The old schoolhouse sits on a 1-acre lot at the corner of county Route 21 and Harlemville Road, just around the corner from the Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School and Hawthorne Valley Farm.

Thomas Chulak, a retired Unitarian minister who is spearheading the effort, said the art school can be set up without a major capital investment because of the availability of the building, which was renovated in recent years and can be used for classes at any time.

“Our plan is to start small and create a strong beginning model,” Chulak said. “The school can grow from that foundation as the needs and opportunities arise.”

In setting up the new organization, supporters are following the example of IS183 Art School of the Berkshires, which is just across the state line in Stockbridge, Mass.

The Art School of Columbia County plans to offer classes and workshops in painting, drawing, photography, mixed media and other visual arts to the public. Artists from around the region will be brought in to teach these classes.

There will be classes for adults and children of all ages and skill levels, from beginners who are trying their hand at visual expression to experienced artists who want to hone their skills. Organizers also plan to offer an after-school program for children.

The school’s organizing committee has scheduled a meeting – at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 14, at the schoolhouse – to update the public on the details of the project. At that meeting organizers also will formally launch a campaign to raise $100,000 in private contributions to hire an executive director and cover other start-up costs.

Filling a need

The project is the brainchild of Chulak and his wife, Nicole Furnee, who together own the Chatham Bookstore in downtown Chatham. Furnee also owns the Harlemville schoolhouse building, which was constructed in 1842.

After its years as a 19th century schoolhouse, the building became a private home and eventually fell into disrepair. Furnee bought the structure and, through extensive renovations, converted it into Red Maple Books, a bookstore she operated from 2005 to 2010. When that store closed, Furnee put the property on the market.

“But later on, Nicole decided to take it off the market and do something pro-active with it,” Chulak said. “She is from a family of artists, and she thought it would be a great site for an art school. We decided that I would talk to people about the idea to see what the level of support might be. The response was very encouraging. A lot of people said we need an art school in the county.”

Chulak’s discussions led to the formation of an organizing committee that held a public meeting in February to introduce the plans for the school.

“If only a handful of people had showed up, we would have reconsidered about whether or not to continue with the idea,” Chulak said.

But 46 people turned out, and the crowd was enthusiastic about the idea.

“That's when we decided it’s really a 'go,'” Chulak said. “The next step was to develop a detailed final plan, which we’ll outline at the April meeting.”

The project has benefited from the support and encouragement of the Columbia County Council on the Arts, an independent nonprofit with 800 member artists and arts organizations. Chulak said he made contact with the arts council early in the discussion process.

Cynthia Mulvaney, the council’s executive director, said Chulak’s idea dovetailed with her organization’s longtime goal of encouraging the development of an art school in Columbia County. The arts council organizes exhibits at its gallery in Hudson but does not offer classes.

“Believe it or not, there is no actual art school in Columbia County, although there are some individuals or groups who offer specific lessons,” Mulvaney said. “Our mission is to support artists and the arts in the county. So when Tom came to us with this idea, we thought it was a natural for us to help them with it.”

While emphasizing that the school will be independent of the council, Mulvaney and Chulak said the two organizations will look for ways to work together and support each other on an ongoing basis.

The arts council, for example, is serving as the school’s fiscal agent while the school’s proponents await approval of their application to create their own nonprofit educational corporation.

A model in the Berkshires

Rather than being an academic or professional-training institution, the Art School of Columbia County will aim to provide practical, hands-on instruction in visual arts to members of the public. The school also will provide area artists with an additional source of part-time income and more opportunities to interact with the community.

Chulak said the school will primarily serve people from Columbia County, although it will be open to those from other regions as well as to the area’s many weekenders and seasonal residents.

“Our focus is on Columbia County, but we also hope that interest and participation in it will go beyond the county’s borders,” he said.

The comparatively small size of the schoolhouse building could limit the level of activity the art school will be able to host, but Chulak said there is ample space for an initial offering of classes and workshops.

“You begin where you are,” he said. “We can do a lot in this space, and it is located in the center of the county, so it is accessible.”

Many possibilities for future expansions are available, he added.

“There is the potential for building some additional space on the property,” he said. “We could also follow a multi-site model and offer additional classes at other locations around the county. And at some point, the school could look into acquiring a larger facility like an old mill.”

The school will have similarities to IS183, a community art school based at a former public meetinghouse in Interlaken, a village in the town of Stockbridge. Founded in 1991, IS183 offers a wide range of classes and workshops for the public throughout the year.

“When we were determining how the Art School of Columbia County would be organized and operate, we looked at several possible models,” Chulak said. “IS183 was the most appealing example we found. We got in touch with them to talk about our plans, and they offered to help us in any way they can.”

He added that there’s potential for collaboration and mutual support between the two schools.

At the same time, he said, the Art School of Columbia County’s initial program will be much more modest than the current scale of IS183 – and more like the scale of IS183 when it got started two decades ago.

In recent years, for example, IS183 has developed an extensive series of art education programs in public schools in the Berkshires. Chulak said it’s possible the Columbia County art school could do something similar in the future, but that’s beyond the scope of the group’s initial plans.

The Art School of Columbia County also will not include ceramics, sculpture or other media that require kilns or other equipment that’s expensive or otherwise not suited to the schoolhouse space.

“Those activities could be added at some point, but we're not in a position to make that kind of investment right now,” he said.

Chulak said he and the other organizers believe the new art school will have both tangible and intangible benefits for the county and its quality of life and will provide a focal point for the arts on several levels.

“Art is an enriching personal experience,” he said. “Having an art school that makes that available to people in a group setting can also help to build a sense of community and connect people to something larger than themselves.”