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Shaker Museum To Expand To New Building In Downtown Chatham

A brick building sits off of a paved road
Courtesy Shaker Museum.
The building that will house the new Shaker Museum in Chatham, New York.

The Shaker Museum announced Monday that it has acquired a four-floor, 30,000-square foot building in downtown Chatham, New York. The museum owns and manages the Shaker Village at Mount Lebanon. Now, it will have its first space to display 18,000 archival pieces that explore life inside the utopian Protestant community that existed at the village from 1787 to 1947. WAMC spoke to Museum Director Lacy Schultz about the $15 million project at 5 Austerlitz Street, which is expected to break ground in 2021.

Well, the Shaker Museum has not been able to show its permanent collection for ten years or more now, the old Chatham facility has been closed down. So this is a great opportunity to finally get that incredible collection back into the public eye.

And what made the expansion possible?

Oh, a lot of hard work. We've actually been looking at this building for over two years, we started sort of researching whether it was feasible to put a museum in that building and whether we could raise the money to do it more than two years ago. And we finally closed on the building in January of this year. And it really has taken an enormous outpouring of support and enthusiasm from a lot of different people to get this project on track.

So beyond offering the Shaker Museum the opportunity to finally exhibit its collection of over 18,000 pieces. What is it going to offer the community in Chatham?

We're really excited to be able to offer a lot of adjacent programming besides just showing the collection. We're in the early stages of planning for how to use the space. But one of the things that we've heard from a lot of the members of the community, and especially the business community, is that people want more, more public space to gather in. So one of the things that we're thinking about is how to mix flexible spaces in the new building that would serve a lot of different purposes. So whether it's a workshop that we're offering, or a book talk or a lecture or something like that. Or we're opening up the space for other community uses, a workshop sponsored by other people or if we want to partner with, with other arts and nonprofit organizations, we want to make it a very active space where a lot of different kinds of things are going on and the community, all the community feels welcome.

"Community," you describe in the press release, "is a bedrock of Shaker belief." Can you sort of talk about how this is going to bridge the connection back from that utopic society and its focus on togetherness to the modern age, and certainly speaking during COVID I imagine there's some wrinkles in that process.

It's a, it's a- We reflect internally quite often that it's a very strange moment to be feeling both optimism for the future and planning a facility where we imagine that people will be together again. But we, we subscribe very much to the notion of radical optimism and that we will all get through this and that will be stronger on the other side. And the Shakers, I think the Shakers are a good example of that. They, they were a utopian community that thrived for more than 150 years. And they went through a lot of hardships, they had financial hardships, they had fires, they had bad harvests, and the way that they got through it is that the different communities within the larger Shaker world would come together and they would support each other and they would help each other through those hard times. And I think that, um, you know, that is something that we really aspire to do as an anchor institution in Chatham and in Columbia County.

It's a $15 million project. If you tell me some of the physical features of the new building itself, what's it gonna look like? And what's it gonna be like for people when they actually get a chance to interact with it?

Well, we're still in the very early phases. So I don't want to I don't want to promise too much when we don't, we don't know that much yet. But, one of the features that we're planning right now is a sort of public park area around the building. We're working with the architects, the landscape architects, Nelson Byrd Woltz, and they're really impressive firm and done a lot of incredible work. They've worked at Olana, they've worked at the Rothko Chapel down in Houston. And they've been doing a lot of deep research about how the Shakers used, used the land, and also about the ecology of Columbia County. So we're excited to have in addition to a very publicly welcoming building, also having this space around the building the people in the community can come and use.

Is there anything else about this new building in this new step for, for the museum that you want to get out there?

Well, I just I think it's a, I think it's a really important moment to be, to be looking to the Shakers. They were, they had, they had radical notions about how to be in the world, starting in the late 1700s. They, they advocated for gender equality, they welcomed people of color into their communities. And, and they, they helped each other out and they, they stood by each other. And I think that in this particular time, in our history between, you know, not just the pandemic, but also the sort of social upheaval that's going on in our country, I think that this is a really great moment to be looking to a positive version of the past where, where people upheld these kind of values that we really think of as core American values, quality and, and entrepreneurship and integrity.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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