Will Opus 40 remain open to the public?

Photo by Dion Ogust

A few weeks ago, the town announced it would no longer be involved in the effort to preserve the Opus 40 sculpture as a public park. Instead, a non-profit corporation, the Committee for Opus 40 Museum Inc., will seek to raise enough money through state and federal grants and donations by art patrons to purchase and operate Opus 40. The

sculpture, house and Quarryman’s Museum is for sale by the family of creator Harvey Fite, which has managed it for decades through the non-profit group Opus 40 Inc.

According to town officials, members of the non-profit asked the town, which had planned on purchasing the property and maintaining it while the non-profit took care of operations, to withdraw its involvement due to controversy: for some months now, critics of the effort have complained that the town shouldn’t be involved, and asserted that if someone were injured or the plans to expand operations didn’t work out that taxpayers would somehow be on the hook. With the town’s departure, the effort will lose a $400,000 state grant, but gain independence from political whims.

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With the town election on the horizon and Supervisor Greg Helsmoortel getting a challenger this year, the Opus 40 involvement certainly would have been a big campaign issue for Republicans, who had previously criticized not only the wisdom of the plan but the way it was funded.

Although the town will no longer be involved, Opus 40 will remain a public issue, thanks to the town’s Historic Preservation Commission’s decision to seek local historic designation for additional parcels on the property. (The sculpture itself has already been designated: the commission is seeking designation for the property that contains the house and Quarryman’s Museum.) A public hearing is planned for Aug. 15 at 7:30 p.m. at the Senior Center.

The non-profit also plans on seeking historic designation. Once it purchases the property and sculpture, it would like to have the surrounding property join the sculpture on the national register of historic places.

Members of the Historic Preservation Commission say national designation is good to have, but local designation is crucial too. According to Barry Benepe, it’s the local designation that protects historic places from developers.

But the two groups are not working together. In fact, there seems to be some enmity between them, with non-profit members expressing concern that the historic preservation commission’s involvement could hinder its efforts.

Should the Historic Preservation Commission declare the surrounding properties historic, the Town Board would have 45 days to accept or reject the designation. If the town fails to act, the historic designation applies when the 45 day deadline passes.

Vernon Benjamin, the corporation’s president, said he is concerned that the commission has, in the past, taken a very strict view of what can be done with properties designated as historic, and this could affect the ability of Opus 40 to meet its financial needs.

Historic Preservation Commission Chairman Josh Randall said his board doesn’t plan on making any unrealistic demands. “We understand the constraints on perfect historical rendition of properties,” he said. “We understand that recreating some historical details can be costly, and we are willing to approve reasonable requests.”

Randall said the commission began discussions at about the same time the town first started talking about purchasing the property, a year and a half ago.

Opus 40 committee members speak

The town formed an ad hoc committee called the Committee for Opus 40 Museum last year. It’s separate from the non-profit. Its members, past and present, generally echo Benjamin’s views.

Marjorie Block said the preservation commission has taken too rigid a position on historical accuracy in the past. “There has to be some kind of mesh between historical accuracy and use of the property,” she said. “The village is on the historic register, but we don’t want dirt roads there.”

Committee for Opus 40 Museum board member Hans Gunderud said in his former employment as a building inspector in the towns of Yorktown, LaGrange and Yorktown Heights, he found that “some of these boards go forward with more than they really have authority for.” The non-profit has been talking about doing some new things with the property, like building an open air concert venue. Something like that might conflict with the commission’s interpretation of history, he suggested. Gunderud said he foresaw the possibility of political controversy and was in favor of going it alone from the beginning.

While it is difficult to walk away from a $400,000 grant, in the long run the independence would be worth it, Gunderud said.

Bob Karcy, another board member, said he attended a public meeting of the Historic Preservation Commission July 18 at which the historic designation was discussed. He found the presentation somewhat confusing, as it appeared the commission was talking about actually running an Opus 40 museum. It only became clear toward the end that their intention was a designation.

“If the designation is honorific, that’s great, but they seem to be taking on more authority than they should have,” Karcy said.

On specifics about fund raising, grant applications and so on, Karcy said the corporation is new, and many decisions are still to be made. He praised Benjamin’s grasp of the process of obtaining grants and other public funds, but “my expertise is in finding private sources of funding,” he said. He is concerned that wealthy donors might be put off by excessive restrictions the historical commission might impose.

 

Two townspeople weigh in

Among the people who repeatedly warned the Town Board against taking ownership of Opus 40 was Nelson Burhans. “I’m glad they finally saw the light,” he said. “I opposed it for the good of the community. I was very concerned from the liability standpoint.” Burhans explained that the sculpture is all stone and contains possible places where a visitor – particularly a child – could be seriously injured in a fall.

Burhans said he wonders how the not-for-profit would manage to afford insurance, though he acknowledged that having operated since the 1970s, they must have worked it out.

On the other hand, Gilbert Hales, who had spoken at board meetings to encourage the town to take possession of the sculpture, said he is disappointed that the town pulled out of the deal. He hopes the not-for-profit is successful in acquiring and preserving the site, “and I would like to work with them,” he said.

“Opus 40 is unique,” Hales said. “There’s nothing like it anywhere in the country.”


Has been a non-profit for over 30 years 

Opus 40 has been managed by a not-for-profit, Opus 40 Inc., since 1978. Harvey Fite’s stepson, Tad Richards, heads that corporation, but he is hoping to sell the property and retire. He has supported the town’s attempts to keep the property open to the public as a museum and a venue for concerts, dance recitals and other activities. The corporation’s income derives partly from the admission fee for the property, $10 for adults, $7 for students and $3 for school age children. The sculpture also offers group rates for school tours. A calendar of special events and open days can be found at opus40.org/concerts.htm. Opus 40 also offers its facilities for weddings, with costs ranging from $750 for a small morning wedding to $6,000 for an evening affair with up to 300 guests.

Richards recently said he would have like the town to take over the museum, as “it would have been a good fit.”

There is one comment

  1. John

    I think that Opus 40 should stop presenting themselves as a not for profit when they are involved in a disgusting lawsuit against a resident of Saugerties. Opus takes donations and grants and is treating their open to the public policy to get these grants like a private sector. If this isn’t illegal, and we don’t yet know, it surely is unethical and unneighborly.

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