Eclectic and welcoming: How Virginia Walsh and Ann Street Gallery brought first-rate art to a tough neighborhood

Patricia Dahlman's Hillary Duck Hunting with Dad, thread on canvas, 15" x 15"

Patricia Dahlman’s Hillary Duck Hunting with Dad, thread on canvas, 15″ x 15″

One of this season’s most exciting art exhibitions is “Power and Politics,” an assemblage of paintings, assemblages, sculpture and prints at the Ann Street Gallery in Newburgh. The works represent a diversity of subjects that collectively examine the role of politics and power –  not just on the national stage in this election year, but also in other aspects of society. There are pieces referring to pedophilia in the Catholic church (But Not without Content, a painting by Jack Rosenberg depicting the Pope laughing above a row of naked children covering their eyes); the loss of manufacturing (Morgan Craig’s large paintings of industrial ruins); police brutality toward African Americans (Hubert Neal, Jr.’s series of small signlike paintings of a brown figure brutally beat up by blue uniformed police); and America’s secret and not-so-secret imperialist wars (Steve Derrickson’s sumptuous landscape paintings of exploding bombs, each stencil with the name of the country being attacked).

Each artwork is beautifully displayed against the white walls of the spacious, 1,700-square-foot gallery, and in many works, the medium itself further comments on the theme. For example, the rough, half-finished, handmade aspect of the embroidered samplers on canvas by Patricia Dahlman, in which stitched words and images describe the health emergency of a person suffering from fibroids without insurance, a portrait of Obama surrounded by the policies of the left and the duck-hunting expedition of a grotesquely rendered Hillary Clinton embody a humble and homemade craft that defies the tech-driven, media-saturated milieu controlled by vested interests that drives our politics, while Celine Browning’s red ceramic grenade rendered as a human heart conflates with perfect succinctness the emotions of rage, desperation and fear.

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The strength of “Power and Politics” is a testament to the curatorial talents and vision of Virginia Walsh, who has served as the gallery’s director and curator since its inception in 2006. Walsh, who moved to Newburgh from New York City upon taking the position and now lives in Kingston, has passionately taken on the challenge of enriching the cultural life of an underserved community by showing first-rate art: a quest that has expanded the gallery’s reputation far beyond the region.

 

Ann Street Gallery is part of an affordable housing complex called Safe Harbors of the Hudson. What is Safe Harbors, and how did it come to include a gallery?

It’s a nonprofit modeled on a nonprofit in New York City called Common Ground, whose facilities provide housing as well as a lot of amenities, including a library and gym. This building was an old hotel that was just a crack house before it was developed as housing. The original template was 128 units allocated to people who were homeless, along with workforce housing, people with disabilities and 12 units for artists. Visual artists also get a studio to work in. The complex includes the gallery, the former Ritz Theater and a café.

 

Had you been to Newburgh before taking the job?

I had been living in the City and on the Stone Ridge/High Falls border, and I used to come to Newburgh to visit the Yellow Bird Gallery [on the waterfront, now defunct], which was astounding in its architectural design. I had a background in partnerships and owning galleries and a printmaking shop in the City, and I liked the challenging aspect of the position when I heard they were looking for a director. The first two weeks when I looked out my window and saw prostitutes across the street, I wondered what I was getting myself into. I decided, “It’s us or them.”

 

What was your vision for the gallery?

We wanted to be a resource for the community. We’re in a very tough neighborhood, and back then, no one was coming to Newburgh except drug dealers. We realized we were going to need a very strong hook to bring people here, so we decided on an eclectic rotating schedule. That way we could show all forms of contemporary art. We have a new show every six to eight weeks, which gives people time to come to the gallery and be supportive. By being eclectic, rather than limiting ourselves to just abstract or representational work, we’re able to support a larger pool of artists. It also keeps the interest going: Nobody knows what’s going to happen next.

We show artists locally, regionally and statewide, but we’re not so provincial we weren’t going to go outside. We’ve invited artists from across and outside the country, which is good for our organization and gallery as a whole, because you get the word out. I owe a lot to the artists, who get to network. Sometimes we’ve had as many as 50 to 60 artists in a show. “Power and Politics” has 29 artists, including one from the UK as well as artists from Texas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Florida, and other states.

 

Who is your audience?

We’re not highbrow or elitist. We make the experience welcoming. I welcome having people tell me what they think. I don’t want them to feel intimidated. If you spend five or six minutes before an artwork and find it disturbing, it’s a portal to having a conversation. We get people off the street, from schools and colleges, and we have a following. People come from the boroughs of New York City, Pennsylvania and other distant places. Safe Harbors also holds a tour that attracts politicians and citizens interested in the organization.

 

How do you select the artists?

Many of the works are by established or mid-career artists who are creating and making and showing in other spaces. I’m proactive in curating. I pay attention to what’s happening in the art world by visiting local exhibits and traveling to Massachusetts and Connecticut. This weekend I’m traveling to Philadelphia. I look at works being shown in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and do a lot of research online. I follow the art criticism blogs and read the art publications.

I’m kind of a hoarder of information; I’ll pick up cards in the deli or coffeeshop where an artist is showing. I also talk to a lot of artists and keep in contact with those who have shown here. They keep me updated on what they’re doing in the future, and they have friends. I also encourage solicitations. I review everything I receive, and if I could possibly use an artist’s work in the future, I’ll archive it. Sometime this takes two years.

I’ve had people submit work from Spain, Japan, Argentina. I seek a high standard in terms of the formal qualities. I’m not saying, “Give me your résumé,” but looking at the quality of the work. I’ve shown work by students who’ve not yet gotten their BFA or MFA, as well as people with museum track records.

 

For “Power and Politics,” you solicited artists you found online. How would you describe the curatorial process?

It’s kind of like a chess game or jigsaw puzzle. I’m not interested in just putting up an artwork for sale or having artwork on the wall. I want to make sure that everyone, regardless of the size or dimension of their piece, is getting equal time in the schematics of the show. I want to make sure the piece represents the artist as best it can. It’s kind of like their sound-bite.

How do you develop the themes for the shows?

I’ve been working on the concept for “Power and Politics” for two or three years. I was very interested in political cartooning, particularly after the Charlie Hebdo shooting in France. It’s intuitive, and sometimes related to something current. I did have a show on comic art as a result of that original concept last February. It was focused on people in the industry – those making graphic novels and comic books – as well as artists who appropriate imagery from comic books. This show turned out to be more political, especially because it’s within an election year.

 

The show, however, is not in any way promoting an agenda. It approaches the subject from many different angles.

What it’s about is how people who have the power to see things through or put the kibosh on something have an effect. It’s about the politics of the church and society. What the artist is saying also has to do with what you are bringing to it. What is your perspective in looking at this type of imagery? What feeling does it bring up, and what personal view and opinions?

Doing this in a gallery is kind of safe. We can talk about issues here, hopefully respectfully, because it’s just art. Art can be powerful. It’s one of the last places where you get away with saying these things and visually communicating them without being totally shut down and censored.

 

Any other plans for the gallery?

We’d like to do other forms of programming. We did a performance arts series over seven weeks this summer that I curated with Thomas Albrecht, assistant dean at SUNY-New Paltz. It was called “Thread” and was part of a collaboration with the Queens Museum and Rosekill Farm. The more successful performers were those who were involved with the audience. I would like to curate and craft another program in which the performing arts are audience-centric.

I’d also like to have more programming aimed at young people. We have young kids from Head Start all the way up to college kids coming here, and I’d like to coordinate programming with the exhibits that speak to those different age groups.

 

You’re a nonprofit. Is that a benefit, given that many galleries in the area are shoestring operations run by volunteers?

All the money we make from selling art goes back into the programming. We get sponsorships and apply for grants to help pay the salaries, electric bill et cetera. It goes both ways. I don’t have a staff, but I do get interns. After they’re here a year, they’re my assistants. Many are students who come home from college for the summer. I also get adult volunteers.

 

Are more artists moving to Newburgh? 

Artists are moving to Newburgh, but many living here already came from the City, so it’s nothing new. Everything’s the new Williamsburg. Beacon is starting to reap the disadvantage of being well-publicized, and people are being priced out. A lot of them are coming to Newburgh, and there’s a big push by the realty people. The urban architecture is absolutely gorgeous, and the city’s Downing Park was designed by Vaux and Olmsted, who designed Central Park. But Newburgh has a lot of internal problems. There are gangs and drugs, and the taxes are really high.

This organization has been a cornerstone of the community, along with Habitat for Humanity, whose offices are located across the parking lot. There are some businesses on Ann and Liberty Streets and on Broadway. Around this small nexus of streets, people are buying homes. It’s not anywhere near what the city needs, as far as creating homeownership that contributes to the tax base.

 

What’s your next show?

We’re closed after November 26 for renovations and will reopen at the end of January. I don’t want to talk about the next show, because I’m still contacting the artists.

There is a show conceptually I’d like to do, which is about people with disabilities. That includes all sorts of disabilities: mental, physical. It’s an underserved community that has its own challenges for the curator, and also for the artists themselves. People who are creating might not have the capacity to follow up. A disability might be some kind of eating disability, something that’s debilitating as well. It’s also about stretching those boundaries and then having the viewer come in and look at this. By upending these expectations, hopefully you can open the self up and question.

You don’t have to like the work. It’s about opening yourself to a new experience and bringing up a dialogue between people. It’s good to have an alternative opinion. Art is for everyone; everyone is creative.

 

Ann Street Gallery, Wednesday/Thursday, 9 a.m-1:30 p.m., 2:30-5 p.m., Friday/Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., 104 Ann Street, Newburgh; (845) 784-1146.

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