But since 2008, the philanthropic trend has been for such funding appeals to generate less support than in years past, as individual donors feel the pinch of lean times. With grant funding drying up as foundations see their stock portfolios languish, the pressure is on for community-based organizations to come up with creative new ways to raise the money that they need to continue providing the services that we all tend to take for granted. Poughkeepsie’s Cunneen-Hackett Arts Center (CHAC), for instance, is currently seeking sponsors for its “Adopt-a-Chair Program” to raise money to reupholster the 122-year-old cast-iron seats in its Victorian-era theater.
I suspect that CHAC’s perpetual struggle to brand itself as a major player in the mid-Hudson’s cultural scene is exacerbated by two facts that tend to confuse people: 1) There are two Cunneen-Hackett Buildings in Poughkeepsie; and 2) there were two Matthew Vassars. Let’s start with the Vassar family. Matthew Vassar, Sr., founder of Vassar College, made his fortune in what was by the 1830s one of America’s most successful breweries, with distribution to every then-extant state in the US. Oddly, Matthew Vassar, Jr., was not his son but his nephew; Matthew Junior and his sibling John Guy Vassar were the original Vassar Brothers, after whom the hospital was named. Both nephews were profitably involved in the family brewing business.
Now, Americans – especially working-class Americans – have always particularly loved their beer: It was one of the things that set us apart from those effete, elitist oenophiles back in Europe. But by the mid-19th century, when the Vassars were amassing their wealth, the Temperance Movement was beginning to pick up steam. There was as yet no government safety net to catch those families who fell on hard times due to the primary wage-earner’s drinking problem, so private philanthropy was the only recourse for addressing such social ills. You couldn’t be a beer magnate in those days without being made to feel at least a teensy bit guilty.
To pay his debt to society, in 1861 Matthew Senior plunked down half his fortune and 200 acres of land to establish one of America’s first women’s colleges. His nephews likewise did their part as philanthropists; five years before founding their eponymous hospital in 1887, they pursued their “vision of a better society” by constructing two handsome Italianate brick structures on what is now called Vassar Street, just off Main Street a few blocks above the Poughkeepsie waterfront. The larger building at 9 Vassar Street was originally a home for indigent aged men; the smaller, at 12 Vassar Street, was designed as an auditorium, much used in its early days for scientific lectures in addition to theatrical productions. It remained the headquarters of the Vassar Brothers Institute until 1977.
Today, both addresses are collectively referred to as the Cunneen-Hackett Building, after the not-for-profit that has managed them since the ‘70s. The big, square four-storey building that fronts on Main Street, just a block below where the Route 44/55 arterial turns south toward the Mid-Hudson Bridge approach, today also houses the McCann Foundation, the Dutchess County Arts Council, the Association for Senior Citizens and the Interfaith Council. For many years Scenic Hudson occupied most of 9 Vassar Street, until it finally outgrew the building and relocated to One Civic Center in 2002. Besides office space and hallway art galleries, the building boasts several ornate, well-preserved Victorian parlors that are used for gatherings that range from business meetings to fundraising tea parties to murder mystery theatrical presentations. Across the street at #12, the Cunneen-Hackett Theater Building today houses a recently renovated 200-seat theater, a 1,200-square-foot dance studio, a reception gallery, two artists’ lofts and a music teaching studio.
The mission of the Cunneen-Hackett Arts Center is 1) to meet the cultural needs of the community by providing venues for both professional and amateur artists to showcase their talent in music, dance, fine and visual arts and 2) to preserve the two historically significant structures. The organization’s galleries host local and regional artists and photographers year-round, with most exhibits changing every six weeks. Between them the buildings host workshops in dance, music, Tai Chi, dollmaking and interior design, as well as acting classes and a summer theater camp for kids. Next up in the Theater, on January 22, is an interactive evening with psychic/medium Chip Coffey, star of the Arts and Entertainment Network’s Psychic Kids and Paranormal State programs.
Since CHAC is located within a few blocks’ walk of some of downtown Poughkeepsie’s favorite watering holes and restaurants (including this correspondent’s nominee for the best pizzeria in the mid-Hudson, Emiliano’s), one could easily make an afternoon or evening of discovering these underappreciated bits of the Queen City’s historic legacy. And if you’ve still got a decent job in these difficult times, you might even consider having a cozy Victorian theater seat named after you; visit www.cunneen-hackett.org for more details.