In Frederic Church, We Trust …

by Melanie Hasbrook

Kimberly Flook, Historic Site Manager, Olana State Historic Site

2016 is the 50th anniversary of the saving of Olana State Historic Site. While I have only been lucky enough to have worked at Olana for the last three years, by looking at what has been accomplished over the last 49 years, I have learned that you cannot go wrong when you follow in the footsteps of Frederic Church:

• Just as Church showed his paintings in multiple cities and countries, the curators know that no matter how much we may miss them, our pieces sometimes need to be loaned away from Olana in order to reach the widest audience. In the last few years, decorative objects and paintings from Olana have been shown in NYC, London, Cleveland, Munich, Portland, Edinburgh and many more cities.

• The Museum Store is filled with both locally made objects and treasures from around the world, following Church’s purchasing habits from his travels, as well as his focus on locally sourced materials and workers for the design of his property. This approach has created a beautiful space filled with objects certain to appeal to the shopper’s eye.

• Our landscape curator is working to restore the landscape, returning Church’s design to its original intent, while protecting the views that inspired many a Church sketch. Over the last 10+ years, dozens of acres have been reclaimed from over a century of neglect, while thousands of acres in the vicinity of Olana have been protected from development.
Deciding to trust in Frederic Church’s lead once again has inspired us to co-host River Crossings: Contemporary Art Comes Home, an exhibition of 28 contemporary artists’ work distributed between Thomas Cole National Historic Site and Olana.

After all, Frederic Church and the artists of the Hudson River School were the “contemporary” artists of their time: they moved beyond prevailing art styles, shifting from historic and allegorical landscapes to detailed and scientific ones; they reacted against academy style exhibitions in favor of one artist, one piece shows; and they focused on the political issues of their time, such as Manifest Destiny and the Civil War.

The show has not even opened (Save the Date: May 3rd), but by following Church’s lead, I believe we are already on our way to success, regardless of how the exhibition itself goes. River Crossings has turned out to be an impetus to do things we have wanted to do for years, but could never quite get off the ground:

• We have long thought of supplying a shuttle from Hudson to Olana for visitors arriving via Amtrak. Because of River Crossings, for the first time, visitors will be able to take a shuttle not just to Olana, but to Thomas Cole NHS and Main Street Catskill.

• It has always been a struggle to accommodate all of our visitors with only guided tours. Due to the nature of viewing contemporary art, we felt that this was the year to test open house touring, an approach that will not only allow for more visitors, but also more contemplation time.

• Finally, just as Frederic Church did not work in a vacuum, Olana cannot stand alone. Church surrounded himself with artists from many disciplines (Lockwood de Forrest), writers (Mark Twain), adventurers (Egyptologist Amelia Edwards), patrons and businessmen. It is only sensible that Olana do the same. River Crossings is opening doors to new and old partners, including living artists, art students from Bard College, colleagues from Thomas Cole NHS, and specialists in marketing and PR.

In the 19th century, Church designed Olana not only as a comfortable refuge for his family, but also as a living artwork to be experienced by family, guests, and to a certain extent, the public. And luckily that experience (and more) is still possible today, whether by walking miles of carriage drives through a living landscape, enjoying the breathtaking views from the property, or by visiting the exotic home sitting in the middle of it all. Trusting in Frederic Church has never failed us, so I encourage everyone to give it a try.

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