Town pulls out of Opus 40 park deal

Photo by Dion Ogust

The Town of Saugerties has decided to drop its effort to acquire sculpture Harvey Fite’s Opus 40 at the request of the not-for-profit organization that had planned to operate it, which was concerned about the criticism the town’s involvement had generated.

The plan had been to obtain grant funding to cover the cost of the property, with the town to own it and a not-for profit to run it. The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation previously awarded the town $400,000 toward the acquisition and upgrade of the property. That money will no longer be forthcoming.

So instead, the not-for-profit is going it alone.

“I’m disappointed that the town could not become the owner of Opus 40,” said Supervisor Greg Helsmoortel. “The committee (developing the not-for-profit) felt that they did not want to be embroiled in a controversy.” (Some opposed the town’s involvement out of concern taxpayers would have to foot the bill for maintenance.) Helsmoortel said the opponents did not sway the Town Board; rather, the board dropped its efforts to acquire the sculpture at the request of the not-for-profit, which was concerned that a political controversy could harm the organization of the sculpture park.

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So far, the town has invested some $3,500 to study the details of acquiring the property and developing a not-for-profit corporation to run it. That money will not be returned. In addition, the town paid Vernon Benjamin roughly $12,500 to study the details of town acquisition of the property and develop proposals. Benjamin said the not-for-profit corporation plans to earmark an equivalent sum to donate to the town, meaning the town’s actual investment ultimately will be limited to the initial $3,500 out of $5,000 it was authorized to pay for preliminary legal help in the purchase and plans for operation.

Benjamin estimated that it would take two or three months for the non-profit group to organize and begin major fund raising for the sculpture park. In the meantime, the corporation is getting up and running, setting up a schedule for fund raising events and generally putting all the pieces together.

“We will be making a donation equal to the amount I was paid last year,” Benjamin said. That amount, approximately $12,500, will eliminate any questions of possible conflict of interest and will make the not-for-profit corporation seeking money to buy and maintain the property fully independent.

Benjamin said he has told the town that “we will be raising the money we need. I determined that it would not appropriate money from the town.”

The price of the property will be determined by an independent appraisal – or most likely several independent appraisals, Benjamin said.

The not for profit membership, which includes Fite’s stepson Tad Richards, has discussed opening at least parts of the park to the public at no charge. There is currently a $10 charge, with discounts for seniors, students and school children. Benjamin would like to do away with any fee for entering the property, and to have fees apply only to the sculpture itself, the various museums of Fite’s other work, works by local artists and a museum showing the tools and techniques Fite used in creating Opus 40. The beautiful and peaceful grounds should be open to the public, Benjamin said, though he acknowledged that not all the committee members agree with him.

Opus 40 – the sculpture itself – is on the national register of historic places, Benjamin said. However, once the museum board is up and running, he hopes to seek a similar designation for the remaining property, including Fite’s museum and workshop.

The sculpture’s name derives from the time Fite allotted to its creation – 40 years. Fite died in an accident on the property three years before the time ran out. While Opus 40 was an ongoing life’s work, Fite served as head of the fine arts department at Bard College from 1933 to 1969. He had originally acquired the property as a source for bluestone to use in other sculptures, but found that the property itself could stand as a work by itself, and only a few of his realistic sculptures remain in the main park. Some are on display in an outbuilding.

Richards said he is disappointed that the town has pulled out of the acquisition of Opus40, though he understands that the controversy could have harmed the attempt to acquire and run the facility. “They (the not-for-profit) want to take it out of politics,” he said. “It’s too bad the town decided not to take it over; it would have been a good fit.”

Richards said he will be working with the not-for-profit to get things up and running. However, his initial interest in selling the property was to retire after he and his wife have run it since shortly after Harvey Fite’s death in 1976. Richards gave much of the credit for keeping Opus 40 running to his wife, Pat; “it has fallen on her shoulders,” he said.

Benjamin hopes the not-for-profit corporation will be successful in raising the funding to buy and operate Opus 40. He’s anticipating a more public drive in the next few months to begin keeping Opus 40 open to the public as a work of art, a museum and a spectacular performance venue.

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