The arts, embracing all

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ and JONATHAN CHARLES FOX
Posted 12/1/21

HURLEYVILLE, NY — “It’s surprisingly interesting,” said Janet Carrus, founder and board president of the Hurleyville Performing Arts Centre (HPAC), “to accept that …

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The arts, embracing all

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HURLEYVILLE, NY — “It’s surprisingly interesting,” said Janet Carrus, founder and board president of the Hurleyville Performing Arts Centre (HPAC), “to accept that things can happen if you put your mind to it.”

Even the construction of a first-run movie theatre in Hurleyville. Even the development of a thriving arts program.

The story starts with Carrus, but it’s not really about her. It’s about community and the importance, the overriding need, to make all feel welcome.

Carrus was the impetus behind the creation of HPAC, said Erin Dudley, the organization’s executive director. “She had the vision and she funded it. She’s focused on inclusivity… inclusive of everyone.”

Carrus is the oldest of eight children, and grew up in a typical white, 1950s middle-class family. Her father worked for the phone company. She married young, had children, struggled—she has talked about having a baby to feed and 25 cents to do that with—married again.

In the difficult years, she found PBS, and it showed her the world: the arts, nature, other countries, other people.

But she wanted more. “To be on the other side, not watching it but actually being there,” Carrus said.

Which led to travel, which led to experiencing other cultures and meeting the people who live there, and to realize that “oh my God, there’s so much to do... nobody can begin to imagine what it’s like.”

As a philanthropist, she’s worked all over the world; she now lives in Hurleyville.

The arts for all

“The Center For Discovery (CFD) supported the idea of an arts center as the anchor institution of a revitalization project in Hurleyville,” said Dudley. “They supported its growth and then its separation in 2019.”

The building from which HPAC grew is its own entity, with its own board and 501(c)3.

The two organizations “still work together as good neighbors and [the CFD is] still very supportive,” Dudley said. “Unfortunately, folks think we are not open to the public or that CFD and HPAC are one organization. Which is not true.”

“The idea that it’s a private arts center for the Center for Discovery is what we’re battling,” Carrus said.

In truth, HPAC was never private. “Initially, it was a collaborative project between the Janet and Gerald Carrus Foundation, Janet and the Center for Discovery,” Dudley said. “We wanted to support the disabilities community… but you can’t be inclusive of one population and not others, and claim to be an inclusive organization. We are dedicated to embracing all marginalized communities.”

The arts and community

“Anyone who has felt ignored or marginalized at some point,” Carrus said, “doesn’t need to feel that way here.”

Hence the PRIDE marches, which began in 2019. Hence the Indigenous Women’s Voices Summit, now in its second year, which featured art, films, performances and chances to talk to Indigenous artists both virtually and in person.

“When we started [Carrus] used to reference the Mos Eisley Cantina in “Star Wars”—she wants to see a place where all walks of life from all over the universe come together,” Dudley said.

“We’re a blockbuster movie [theatre] and an arts center,” Carrus said. But HPAC is also the anchor in a larger project.

“Following a fairly slow but steady decline that began with the demise of the O&W Railway in 1957,” said Sullivan County Historian John Conway, “there wasn’t much left in Hurleyville when the Center for Discovery began to develop a revitalization strategy about 15 years ago.”

There were, he said, perhaps three or four viable businesses on Main Street then.

“Fortunately, both [Center for Discovery] CEO Patrick Dollard and benefactor Janet Carrus recognized the role that the arts and a culture distribution infrastructure have played in municipal redevelopment historically,” Conway continued, “and the arts centre became a linchpin in that revitalization strategy. HPAC has been a huge asset to Main Street ever since it opened.”

“She knows art heals and creates vibrant communities,” Dudley agreed. “Everything Janet is doing is about community—new, long-time local, unseen, famous and infamous. Inclusion means everyone.”

HPAC showed its first movie—”It’s a Wonderful Life”—in 2016. “In March of 2017, we sold our first movie ticket,” Dudley said. “We even did first-run movies. In 2019, we separated from the Center for Discovery and in early 2020, we became our own business.”

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, of course. No sooner had HPAC struck out on its own, the pandemic hit and theaters closed. They kept going with outdoor movies, online performances, virtual discussions. It’s been a struggle, Dudley said, and it still is. But it is worth doing; the arts are needed, maybe more than ever in pandemic times.

The arts and the future

This is the present work, but the impact of something like HPAC is global, Carrus said.

“We are part of the planet… there is a world out there, there is poverty, human rights, justice, social justice. We can’t think that we’re just here in a comfy little situation and not put that out there.”

You start small. Start local. Keep going. Hold onto the vision.

“It’s a community center that is truly for the community, for every shape, size, denomination, whatever it is,” Carrus said. “You come here, you enjoy what we’re offering. Hopefully you take something very positive away with you and you share it with the rest of the community.”

HPAC is still coping with the financial impact of the pandemic. To donate, go to their website, https://hurleyvilleartscentre.org/.

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