The Wassaic Project: A Festival, a ‘Beautiful’ Flood and Now Art

Spreading out among the grain elevator and mill, a century-old former hotel and bar, a schoolhouse and a cavernous livestock auction house/barn, the Wassaic Project’s elements to date include a summer camp, a haunted house, arts programming in the local school and an annual parade, along with its festival, residencies and exhibitions.

Last year’s festival drew 5,000 attendees. There’s a print shop, a bar and a pizza restaurant (with pies created by a Roberta’s of Bushwick alumnus) and perhaps, next year, a brewery.

They already have the equipment to start one, stored in the barn near the lunch counter where they’ve worked “performing” pancake breakfasts. The other day, the chilly space was brightened by a row of vintage aprons on wall pegs.

The Wassaic Project is a toothsome example of how artists schooled in social practice — that is, art that combines education, community engagement and social activism — can re-energize not just structures but entire towns like this tiny hamlet of just over 1,500 people that is the last stop on the Metro-North Harlem line.

One snow-flecked morning last week, Ms. Zunino and her husband, Jeff Barnett-Winsby, 35, drove a reporter through the eerie campus of the former Wassaic Developmental Center, a 1930s-era institution that was decommissioned a few years ago, half of which may some day — if the labyrinthine ways of Albany can be untangled — hold Wassaic Project offshoots, including housing.

“We’d like to make this place fertile,” said Mr. Barnett-Winsby, an energetic man with a stupendous beard. “Continue the energy of what we’ve been able to do in Wassaic.”

Ms. Zunino was in her first year of graduate school when her father, Tony Zunino, and Richard Berry, longtime preservationists and builders whose company, the Zuberry Development Corporation, has developed historic properties in the South Street Seaport, among other areas, finished stabilizing the…

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