This weekend, the Omi International Arts Center in Columbia County will open the doors of its studio barn to hundreds of people who have come to see original work from artists of all different nationalities. Art Omi Weekend is notable for being Omi’s most popular annual event. This year, however, is special: It celebrates Omi’s 25th anniversary.
Omi was founded in 1992 by Francis Greenburger, a real estate investor, entrepreneur, literary agent and art enthusiast. Initially, it was a residency program for visual artists, but Omi in Ghent has since grown to include residencies for writers, translators, musicians, composers, dancers and choreographers, as well as a full roster of public events.
This year, according to communications director Kate Geurin, that calendar includes approximately 40 events, many of them “test runs” being tried for the first time. “There’s something going on just about every weekend into the fall,” she says. “We wanted to celebrate the anniversary and showcase how the programs have grown.” In June, Omi debuted “Ultra-Pro: Sculptures that Cook,” an afternoon barbecue featuring working grills, smokers and ovens created by artists. It was free and open to the public. “Omi is wonderful in that it is so relaxed, and you get to explore at your leisure; but we really wanted to engage with our local art community,” says Geurin. Organized by Omi alum Michael Tong, the event included some local artists and others who had connections to Omi. “They really ran the gamut,” says Geurin. But the artists had one thing in common: They all wanted to do it again.
For the 25th anniversary, Omi wanted to put a special emphasis on drawing alumni back, says director Ruth Adams. Artists are only allowed one residency, she says, because Omi hopes to offer opportunities to as many different artists as possible. “Quite a number of alumni have moved to the area or nearby,” including international artists, says Adams. “We always hope to interact with them in some way, so we thought, ‘Why not invite them to curate an evening or afternoon?’”
In residency programs, says Geurin, “So much of it is about the process and the works-in-progress.” Bringing alumni back gives them the chance not only to reconnect with Omi, but also to show their completed works. For audiences, however, a glimpse into the artistic process is part of what makes Omi so unique. “We really are sharing a behind-the-scenes look with the public,” says Adams, who mentions the dance residency performances as an example. When dancers arrive, they perform independently in front of their peers and the public. Then, at the end of the program, they perform again – only this time in pieces that they’ve worked on collaboratively. Rather than paying for a ticket to see a finished piece, says Adams, audiences “come open-minded with no expectations” and, in exchange for their openness, are treated to art that is totally original.
The annual Art Omi Weekend is another such example of accessible art. It starts on Saturday, July 9 at 8:30 p.m. with a celebration featuring music by the 16-piece band Sambaland. On Sunday, July 10 at 11 a.m. is the brunch recognizing artists and, this year especially, founders. While the dance on Saturday night and the brunch on Sunday are both ticketed events, the open studio barns on Sunday will be showcasing the work of 30 artists from 27 different countries for no cost. “And you can talk to the artists,” adds Adams.
For those artists, Adams says that Omi provides the time and space to develop their work and meet with people in their fields. According to Adams, artists are chosen “based on the quality of their work” more than anything. Omi looks for people whose works are “geographically and stylistically diverse. We want people…who are going to enrich each other and form a community across geographic and political boundaries.” She mentions that Omi will sometimes have residents who form bonds with one another despite being from countries that are “not getting along.” The time is for artists to use as they see fit, but Omi hopes to foster a creative and professional community that lasts long beyond their brief residencies.
That atmosphere of creative community extends to the local community as well. In addition to the many events that members of the public can attend as spectators, Omi offers programs that allow them to be involved in making art. Its popular kids’ camp is sold out this year, and it’s offering workshops for both children and teens. Adults can learn, too, with a drop-in drawing class led by Adams.
Omi also keeps its expansive grounds open to the public. Its 300 acres include a Visitors’ Center with a by-donation gallery, and the Fields Sculpture Park with more than 80 pieces of contemporary sculpture always on display. The diehard dog-walkers arrive reliably “at 6 in the morning” says Adams, but Omi attracts an ever-broadening crowd. Adams says that she has noticed that more and more people are coming to visit Omi from afar. “We’ll get people who come just for Omi,” she says. “It’s becoming a destination.”
With 25 years behind it, Omi still has a lot planned for the future. Its staff and board are constantly entertaining ideas for events and programs. Their most significant undertaking this year is envisioning yet another residency program. “We’re thinking about piloting an architecture residency,” says Adams. “As far as we know, there’s only one in the country.”
One notable upcoming event is “Miracle and Monstah” at the PS21 performance spaces in Chatham on July 29. The evening will feature solo performances by Omi alumni Stephanie Miracle and Monstah Black. While this performance will be one of finished works, it’s the ongoing process of art and engagement that defines Omi. “We’re grateful to have found a home here in Columbia County,” says Adams. “It’s such a great community, and people are so willing to support and participate. Thank you for 25 years.”
Art Omi Weekend: Dancing under the Stars, July 9, 8:30 p.m.-12 midnight, $25, Country Brunch, July 10, 11 a.m.-1 p.m., $50, Open Studios, July 10, 1-5 p.m., free, Omi International Arts Center, 1405 County Route 22, Ghent; (518) 392-4747, www.artomi.org.