Putnam County Art Tour, Fun for the Whole Family

Crave culture, but think your kids will balk at a trip to an art museum?

Think Putnam County. An hour’s drive from New York City and easily accessible by train, a day trip to Putnam can include fine art and design, stunning landscapes and adorable donkeys.

Here’s an added bonus for families: An art tour of three of Putnam’s biggest sites – Magazzino Italian Art; Manitoga, The Russel Wright Design Center; and Boscobel House and Gardens -- is guaranteed to bring out your children’s inner DIY.

First, let’s talk about those donkeys.

Magazzino Italian Art in Cold Spring is a museum dedicated to Post War Italian Art. Known as “Arte Povera,” or “poor art,” the artists used unconventional, inexpensive and found objects. Shoes, blankets, coffee grounds and other household items are found in the art throughout the permanent exhibit. It’s all in fitting with the movement’s slogan, “Art is Life.”

Magazzino, which opened in 2017 on Route 9, is supercool. It’s got a research center, gardens, movie screenings and concerts. An expansion expected to be completed in 2023 will make it even more of a community cultural center, said Vittorio Calabrese, the museum director. While taking in the art, don’t be alarmed if you hear a little braying.

“We have 16 Sardinian donkeys,” Calabrese said. “They were almost extinct and now they are endangered. They are actually very sweet. They make Magazzino a destination for families. The promise of going to see the donkeys helps the kids to bear with their parents looking at the art.”

A picnic table and a pair of swings hanging from a lovely shade tree provide a great place for snacking and donkey watching.

In fact, even the feeder in the donkey corral is a piece of art. Namsal Siedlecki’s “Trevis Maponos” is made from coins collected from Trevi Fountain in Rome, where tourists make wishes upon the coins they throw into the fountain, Calabrese said. “Siedlecki melted them all into the shape of a divinity,” Calabrese said. “So, the sculpture holds all the dreams of Trevi Fountain. It’s a wish for a better future and we are lucky to have it in our corral of the donkeys.”

A temporary show running at Magazzino through Jan. 10, 2022 will get your children dreaming of sandcastles.

The show features sand casts made by artist Costantino Nivola. A native of Sardinia who came to the United States to escape fascism, Nivola fell in with the New York art crowd in East Hampton, including Jackson Pollack, Lee Krasner and Willem de Kooning.

But Nivola got his biggest inspiration when playing with his children at the beach. Nivola came up with the idea of sand casting, a sculptural technique that involved carving in wet sand and then filling the mold with plaster. His sand cast reliefs adorn buildings at Harvard and Yale universities, federal and state offices, newspapers and corporate headquarters throughout the country.

A large collection of the whimsical sculptures and studies – some in positive relief, others in negative relief – are on display and certain to inspire.

The museum is free, but reservations are required. In addition to the Cold Spring Trolley that runs from the Metro-North Railroad station in Cold Spring, Magazzino offers its own shuttle from the station. See magazzino.art

 At Manitoga, The Russel Wright Design Center, it’s hard not to be inspired by Wright’s do-it-yourself ethos. An industrial designer who struck it rich when he created “American Modern,” the best-selling ceramic dinnerware of all time, Wright is credited with bringing modern design into homes across America.

He was the Martha Stewart of mid-century design, creating and marketing everything from dishes to furniture to sheets. His wife, Mary, was his business partner and together they made the “Wright” brand a household name.

After Mary died, Wright turned to building his estate in Garrison. Nature is more than just part of the experience at Manitoga, which means “place of great spirit” in the native Algonquin language. Nature is the point.

At Manitoga, on Route 9D, Wright sought to bring nature inside. He incorporated materials found on the property into the design of the modern home he built into a rock ledge over a rock quarry turned into a pool.

His experimental house and studio called “Dragon Rock” use stones and boulders for flooring. The trunk of a tree is the home’s main support. Pine needles are pressed into resin as wall covering. Birch bark covers a door. Burlap hung with fishing line softens the florescent lighting. The glass, steel and wood house, which seems to bring nature indoors, features one of the first environmentally friendly green roofs.

“It’s a flat roof and at first he just let things grow,” tour guide Chris Mendez explained on a recent visit. “Virginia Creeper spread beautifully all over it, but then the roots grew through the roof and into his ceiling.”

It was all part of Wright’s experimentation, as if he anticipated today’s DIY movement.

The roof is still green, but it is now topped with a shallow-rooted ground cover, several protective layers of roofing and a well-hidden drainage system that moves water away from the roof without changing the modern lines of the house.

A guided tour of Manitoga’s Dragon Rock, which is a National Historic Landmark, is the only way to see the house, quarry pool and Russel and Mary Wright Design Gallery that showcases the Wrights’ work. 

The public is also welcome to come and hike on the four miles of paths that wind through a landscape Wright designed with wildflowers, ferns and moss, woodlands and streams.

 Reservations and advance ticket purchases are required for a tour. For those who choose to just hike, the trails are open year-round during daylight hours. See visitmanitoga.org for more information.

 Boscobel House and Gardens, also on Route 9D in Garrison, is known for its stunning views of the Hudson River, Constitution Marsh and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. This year, Boscobel is opening up its grounds to artists to come and paint twice a month on Thursdays. Artists can bring their own supplies, choose their favorite spot among the 68 acres and create their own masterpiece.

“We used to offer this once a month, but it got really popular during the pandemic when everyone wanted to find a safe place to be outside and socially distant, and that carried over to this spring,” said Ed Glisson, director of visitor engagement. “It’s our way of giving back to the community. All you have to do is register on our website.

Of course, anyone can make art outdoors on Friday to Monday, too, when the grounds are open to the public for two-hour tours. There is a kitchen garden and newly restored woodland trail that hosts surprising views of the area’s geology and native plant life. The grounds offer plenty of space to picnic and reflect on history and the Hudson River Valley’s place in the American Revolution.

There are plenty of activities to keep the children entertained, and Boscobel has created a booklet full of fun activities on the environment and history of the grounds. Because of COVID-19, the historic house museum, which is filled with decorative arts and furniture from the Federalist period, will not open this summer. It is expected to reopen in September.

All in all, Boscobel makes for a lovely day, whether you are painting or not.

Advance reservations and ticket purchase are required to visit. Registration is required for painting. For more information, see boscobel.org

Magazzino, Manitoga and Boscobel are just a few of the many spots to visit in Putnam County, where you can explore history, art and culture – all with a beautiful view. For more, see visitputnam.org

 If you’re not driving, each of the sites can be reached via the Cold Spring Trolley, which runs from the Metro-North Railroad station in the village every weekend day from Memorial Day to Veterans Day.

Visit visitputnam.org for more information about Putnam County.

Visit iloveny.com for more information about a New York State getaway.

By car or by train, take a day trip to Putnam County, where there’s always another reason to say “I Love New York.”