Sara Pasti remembers how, in the early days of her appointment as director of the Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY-New Paltz, locals she’d meet would ask if the museum was open to the public. Back on campus, students would ask if students were allowed to visit the place.
Both questions have a basis in common assumptions about museums: Townies would assume that an on-campus art museum was there only for students, and students would assume that so august an institution as a stodgy old museum could only be there for their parents’ enjoyment. Those assumptions – call them symptoms of museumitis – are still operative in both groups of people, Pasti says, and they are illusions she’s intent on banishing.
Pasti came to the mid-Hudson Valley in 2000. She holds an MFA in Painting and, before her appointment to the Dorsky in 2009, she not only lived the artist’s peripatetic life but also, along the way, discovered the pleasures of working as an arts administrator. Finally, and most happily, she discovered the added pleasures of working within a collegiate context, where she could work with and teach students. She finds herself in the midst of all places and things creative, geographically between Manhattan and Albany, proximate to art havens and their occupants throughout the region and, not least of all, among the works and workings for which the Dorsky is becoming increasingly famous.
One of those key workings is Pasti’s effort to throw open the doors of the Dorsky to and for audiences not ordinarily associated with that stodgy old museum stereotype: children and their families. Three upcoming weekends will feature what’s being called Sunday Family Day. These hands-on programs will be conducted by Zachary Bowman, the museum’s new manager of education and visitor experience: a bulky title that belies what promises to be a lighthearted and enjoyable shared experience.
Bowman knows from museumitis. He grew up in Mesquite, Texas, a city east of Dallas that’s as bereft of mesquite as it is museums. “I remember, as I grew up and started visiting museums, how I felt I didn’t belong. I felt unwelcome.”
Nevertheless, when he moved to Manhattan, he got an entry-level job at the Guggenheim Museum, taking tickets there as part of the visitors’ service department. He rose through the department’s administrative ranks, and later worked at the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1. The combination of opportunities afforded by his appointment at the Dorsky, which satisfies his desire to teach as well as welcome, has culminated in what he calls the perfect job that matches his skills and interests. And while it’s not unusual for museums to offer special programming for children and adults, Bowman says that offering it to families is unusual and is something he’s excited about.
As an example, the upcoming inaugural program will include a tour of one of the Dorsky’s four ongoing exhibits, “Carl Walters and Woodstock Ceramic Arts.” Participating families will then settle in and be provided with their own Sculpey clay with which they can fashion their own creative works. He’s hoping that the activity will open up points of view about a shared creative experience that can’t easily be found elsewhere. The program is scheduled for Sundays, which eliminates a chronic problem for residents interested in visiting the campus for any reason: parking.
Pasti concurs with Bowman’s belief: “Art stimulates creativity,” she said, “and I’m thrilled that we’ll be able to provide this experience for families.” That feeling goes double for another aspect of Bowman’s program: involving high school students from Newburgh, Poughkeepsie and Kingston in a similar hands-on program, she said.
Bowman has additional plans in mind. He wants to create a parents’ round table and other sorts of focus groups to open up lines of communication with as diverse a group of people as possible. “Too often, museums operate in a void; they believe that what they do is the way it should be done. But we pay attention to our visitor feedback forms, and these focus groups will be just as important in shaping our future.”
At 9,000 square feet that encompass six galleries, the Dorsky is second only to SUNY-Purchase in museum size. If it’s still something of a well-kept secret among residents and students, its reputation is growing in other venues. It was recently cited in a listing of “The Best College Art and History Museums in the Northeast” that included such better-known and more richly endowed colleges and universities as Harvard, Yale and the Rhode Island School of Design in a story appearing in the Huffington Post. The Dorsky was praised for hewing close to its mission to serve both the college campus and the artistic culture of the mid-Hudson region, “the Cradle of American Art,” calling it “unlike any other regional museum.”
Indeed, a glance at the Dorsky’s most recent call for artist entrants is for a planned exhibit called “Undercurrents: The River as Metaphor.” There’s no need to wonder what river they’re talking about: It’s the one that the museum describes as reflecting “on modern tumultuous times and the way the Hudson River and its surroundings, its history and its grandeur” affect us all. The deadline for submissions is midnight, March 24.
And in another example of how the campus art gallery is making a creative noise in a traditionally quiet environment, the Dorsky will play host in early April to a student group called the Dorsky Ambassadors, who will offer “Art Collides,” a series of singing, dancing and musical impressions of what the museum means to students, as seen by the students themselves. And every first Sunday of the month will see local landscape artist Kevin Cook provide a tour and a lecture of one of the museum’s exhibits. It’s all part of Pasti’s and Bowman’s evolving attempt to break the stereotypes caused by museumitis – to offer opportunities, in the way that only the arts can, to see and feel and do things in a new way.
The first Sunday Family Day will be held on February 26 at 2 p.m. Subsequent programs will be held on April 30 and May 14. Visit firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve space for the family. A $5-per-person materials fee is requested. There are no age limits or requirements. The Dorsky Ambassadors will perform on April 8 at 2 p.m.