Garrison Art Center Celebrates 50 Years

The Putnam County art center gets ready for the next 50 years in high style

Carinda Swann acknowledges that 50 years is a long time for an art center to be around — a really long time. Swann, currently the executive director of the Garrison Art Center, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014 with much hoopla, thinks that the longevity of the GAC is due to a combination of its innovative programming and the fact that it unofficially doubles as the town center. “Garrison is a strange town,” she says. “In fact, there isn’t much of a town in Garrison, per se.” Just steps from the Metro North train station — and with stunning views of the Hudson River — the art center is found in a turn-of-the-century, Victorian-style building that previously housed the town’s first post office, as well as a general store. “People get off the train and ask ‘Where’s Garrison?’ And we’ll say, ‘You’re looking at it.’ We serve as an info center and a bathroom, as well as the art community.”

In 1964, a group of 20 determined parents wanted to supplement their children’s art education, so they partnered with the Garrison School and held a fundraiser. Half of the proceeds went to the school and the other established the arts center. The first several years focused entirely on classes, both for children and adults. “We have one life drawing class that started with 12 students that year; it’s still running today,” Swann says. By 1968, the organization had grown enough to launch an annual fine crafts fair; in the ’70s it opened galleries and hosted exhibitions, and by the ’80s it started holding auctions. 

garrison art center

There are currently five state-of-the-art studios, including one used for ceramics, one for printmaking, one for drawing and painting one for sculpture; there is also a film darkroom. The studios can be rented out for meetings, events and even children’s birthday parties. Nowadays, half of the center’s exhibits feature local artists, and the other half are by (or curated by) heavy hitters in the art world like Judy Pfaff and Sean Scully, who were attracted to the site last year. “We remain a local service organization and at the same time we offer access to New York City-caliber art,” says Swann. “Yeah, New York City is close, but we’re even closer.”

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Some newer initiatives involve collaborating with other local nonprofits. Boscobel, for example, lends the center its grounds for a summer sculpture festival, and currently in the works is the Cabin Fever Artists Talk series to be held at the Desmond Fish Library. The latest big hit was the Steamroller Printmaking Festival: About 400 guests watched a steamroller press images made from woodcuts onto giant pieces of paper; guests also had the opportunity to create small woodcuts of their own. 

Swann credits the Garrison and Cold Spring communities for the center’s success. “I think people were kind of surprised when we announced our 50th anniversary. People said, ‘Wow, you’ve been here that long?’ It is surprising given what a small community we are,” she says. “But 96 percent of our budget comes strictly from the community — from gifts, purchasing art, attending classes, fundraisers, auctions. They’re really saying, ‘We want you.’”

judy pfaff
Judy Pfaff takes a break while setting up an installation at Garrison Art Center

The Garrison Art Center: Decade by Decade 

  • 1964: President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, The Beatles came to the U.S., and the Art Center was born.
  • 1960s: The “Figure Drawing” class that started it all had about a dozen students; that very class is still running today. In the ’60s a lot of macrame was also sold at the Annual Holiday Sale.
  • 1970s: Garrison resident Aileen Osborne Webb, the founder of the American Craft Museum (which was located right across the street from the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan; it is now called Museum of Arts and Design and is located on Columbus Circle), took pottery classes at the Art Center and funded its first large-scale kiln. A Garrison Art Center gingerbread house took first prize at the national Good Housekeeping competition. Pete and Penny Seeger could been seen helping clean up the grounds after the Annual Fine Crafts Fair.
  • 1980s: Artist-on-Location was established. The first auction of its kind in the area, it soon launched hundreds just like it. The auction continues today, led by noted auctioneer and president of Swann Galleries in New York City, Nicholas Lowry, also a regular on Antiques Roadshow.
  • 1990s: The galleries, now known as The Riverside Galleries, became more prominent by offering high quality art year-round by both regional and national artists. Education continued to flourish and expanded to include all ages from 2–92.
  • 2000s: The floor on the lower level was raised 16 inches so that students no longer had to wade through the Hudson to make pottery downstairs.
  • 2010s: Mother Nature giggled at that little 16 inches and brought two back-to-back hurricanes in 2011 and 2012. “But alas, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” says Swann. “So we replaced old tables and materials and upgraded the Pottery Studio. In The Riverside Galleries, such internationally renowned artists as Ivan Chermayeff, Sean Scully, Grace Knowlton, and Judy Pfaff had shows that drew thousands.”  

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