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December 11, 2016
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Spinning straw into gold

By Julie Courtney and Jennie Shanker

In any region that has been experiencing hard economic times, it is all too easy to look at abandoned lots and deteriorating buildings and see nothing but symptoms of decay, problems to be shunned or screened from public view. A developer’s solution would involve removing all evidence, starting fresh from the ground up. Yet to those who see the integrity and character of the original structure, such a solution is unthinkable. Often, artists are the ones willing to commit to the revival of the inherent potential of a place, allowing it to express itself anew, transforming something seen as a scar, a burden, or an embarrassment into something distinctive and inspiring.

CENTERpieces is a new cultural initiative that we are curating in this region that embodies this spirit. The intent is to recognize the value of the history and culture embedded in the area’s dilapidated structures, and to offer artists opportunities to convert derelict buildings and empty lots into artworks and gathering places. These transformed sites will fascinate, educate, integrate and create community, vitality and tourism in this underserved region of the Catskills.

With the intent to commission several multi-year projects over time, CENTERpieces will be a kind of sculpture park. Instead of presenting works on a single plot of land, projects will dot sites throughout the region. The potential benefits are not only artistic or social, but economic. This new string of sites could be a tour route to stream visitor traffic—a connective tissue between numerous destinations in the region.

Our debut project, Richard Torchia’s “Harris Observatory,” will open this weekend (see page 18 for hours). Our host, The Center for Discovery, invited us to make use of a geodesic dome originally constructed from a kit in 1984. Now scheduled for demolition, the dome building still embodies the visionary commitment to green architecture that remains one of The Center’s hallmarks, and furthers its commitment to help improve life in the community.

In keeping with this vision, Torchia has constructed an immersive light installation powered solely by the sun. Viewers walking into the dome will find themselves beneath a canopy of thousands of holes drilled into the ceiling, in a pattern that attempts to chart the stars present behind the daytime sky. Lenses placed in the dome’s lower windows throw camera obscura projections onto hand-held screens. The large open space, which appears entirely empty at first, becomes dense with live, inverted images of clouds, trees and wildlife. The natural environment—possibly the region’s most precious asset—is thus brought into the building where its beauty can be seen with magnificent clarity.

This inaugural show of CENTERpieces embodies the possibilities that surround us when we revalue what we see. Our hometown, Philadelphia, was the place that David Lynch once boasted was “the biggest influence in my whole life” (and the inspiration for “Eraserhead”). Today it prospers from culture, which the mayor has recognized by dedicating an office in city hall to Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. Likewise, here, local businesses, government, foundations and organizations can follow the model of the Center for Discovery by working with cultural partners to create transformative sites and form opportunities for art that can be of benefit to everyone in the community.

[Julie Courtney has been an independent curator since 1991 and has presented projects at sites in Philadelphia such as Eastern State Penitentiary and Bartram’s Garden. Jennie Shanker is an artist and teaches at Tyler School of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, and Moore College of Art in Philadelphia.]