Six easy pieces

photo by Dion Ogust

photo by Dion Ogust

Every autumn holiday brings to the Hudson Valley a swarm of upwardly mobile creative visitors of every level of success. Every infestation of the members of this visiting “creative class,” made famous by Richard Florida’s now-classic 2005 theory that the cities to which knowledge workers congregate will prosper and other cities will not, represents a potential opportunity for the region. They look for nature, culture and community. If they find the Hudson Valley attractive enough for them to want to escape the increasingly expensive and rapidly gentrifying metropolitan centers from which most of them come, our region is likely to be reinvigorated. If they don’t we won’t.

What do we have to offer? Last Thursday and Friday I went to check out a half-dozen events broadly connected to my interest in the cultural history of the region. Here’s what I found:

On Thursday morning the state parks department rolled out a study that purportedly showed that visitors to twelve enumerated Great Estates under both state and other management attracted almost 1.7 million persons in 2012 who spent $60 million in the region. The sites employed 222 persons and almost broke even on combined budgets of almost $15 million. Exulted one of the speakers, state senator Terry Gipson, “The argument as to whether it’s worth it is put to rest by [the] study.”

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It’s good to hear, if true, that the Great Estates are taking in almost as much money as they’re spending. But the state still seems to have a lot to learn about professional resource management. How can sites create additional value for the visitor experience?

The triumphal press conference took place on a porch at Mills Mansion in Staatsburg. On one side of a porch, a podium with the state seal was set patriotically between the state and national flags, next to a 40-or-50-foot fluted faux-Grecian wooden pillar. After a space of at least 25 feet in front of the podium came two rows of six chairs with the word “reserved” on each. Behind these were 16 seats for the public in three additional rows. The officials and speakers easily outnumbered the members of the public. All the guys except one wore suit jackets. Several state policemen and parks officers were on hand.

Talk about social distance.

Short speeches dealt with the “enormous economic benefits” the Great Estates brought the region, included a call for “a re-examination of how we can move forward to a sustainable future,” and declaimed about how to help grow the audiences for their incomparable attractions. The politicians who spoke stood on the audience side of the podium. The speaker from Locust Grove peered at his listeners and said, “You are awfully far away.”

The 1.7 million visitors included 550,000 from the Walkway Over the Hudson, co-opted as a Great Estate to enlarge the numbers, and the Cole House on the west side of the Hudson. But other west-side sites managed by other state agencies such as the Senate House Museum in Kingston and private sites such as Historic Huguenot Street were excluded.

 

Zephyr Teachout, a professor of constitutional law at Fordham who tallied a third of the statewide vote against incumbent governor Andrew Cuomo in the recent Democratic primary, drew fewer than a dozen people to her book-signing late Thursday afternoon at Half Moon Books in Kingston (she was at the Golden Notebook in Woodstock Friday). This was her first appearance on her tour supporting her book, Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United.

Though not all members of the creative class moving from New York City to the Hudson Valley are progressive in political inclination, a good many are. Teachout got 70 per cent of the vote against Cuomo in Ulster County.

Both corruption and anti-corruption have deep roots in American history. “The meaning of the concept of corruption,” she writes, “is now at the center of the most vital legal dispute in our democracy, one that threatens to unravel what the framers built.” Teachout believes that public funding of New York State elections is necessary to minimize the outsize influence the wealthy presently enjoy in the political process.

At least in the present stage of her young political career, Teachout could be characterized the way Franklin Roosevelt famously described Al Smith in 1924, as “a happy warrior.” At the Kingston book-signing, she quoted the late Czech playwright and politician Vaclav Havel, “Hope is not a feeling of certainty that everything ends well.”

 

There something to be said for the cultivation of instinct. Some artists throw up their hands when expected to verbalize their decisions in the making of a work of art. If they say anything at all, they mumble something like, “It’s not a verbal thing.” Others seem comfortable talking a blue streak about what they do and why they do it.

Woodstock artist Grace Wapner falls somewhere in the middle. She described her work process in a lecture Thursday evening at SUNY Ulster in Stone Ridge to about 100 people. Wapner experiments with different versions when she creates a piece of art, rejecting some choices as “not working” or “not right.” She said she knows intuitively when a piece is finished. There’s nothing left wrong about it, apparently.

Seven pieces were displayed on the walls of the Muroff-Kotler Gallery. Wapner currently works with pieces of heavily textured, soft-edge burlap which are glued together and attached after further detailing but without framing to gallery walls, giving the finished works a rough-cut quality, as though what’s expressed within the work is too restless for defined boundaries.

The present work is deeply satisfying. I still don’t know how Wapner knows when a piece is finished, but these pieces felt complete to me. The work will be on exhibit through November 7.

 

The Thomas Cole House in Catskill, also known as Cedar Grove, hosted talks late Friday afternoon by three recent college graduates who have had internships as Visiting Cole Fellows for the past five months or so. Rita Carr from Vassar College talked about Cole’s crucial first visit to the region in autumn 1825, after which he painted the five works that catapulted him into recognition as the most accomplished American landscape painter of his age. Kathryn O’Dwyer from American University talked about her close study of the journals and other Cole writings from 1835-36. And Jennifer Morales from Amherst explored Cole’s relationship with the patrons who commissioned and bought his paintings.

Cole was a prickly character whose many writings — some of which are still being newly explored — show how self-conscious he was about his financial vulnerability. General knowledge of his life from secondary sources, particularly Louis Noble and William Dunlap, has not been notably accurate. Though he certainly scorned the seeking of fame, Cole was adept, Morales said, at assessing the rather thin American art market of the time.

The young Cole scholars have in the past few years contributed to the supply of knowledge about the life and milieu of the most significant American artist of the first half of the nineteenth century. The work deepens and enriches our cultural history at a time when so many seem intent on trivializing it.

“He’s very aware of his poverty,” said Kathryn O’Dwyer to the audience of about 30 at the Cole House. When people made remarks attributing the artist’s habits of walking everywhere to his being unable to afford other means of transportation, Thomas Cole replied loftily that vulgarity was “in the mind and not in the means of locomotion.” But he did wryly concede a few lines later, “If I desired to ride I could not afford it.”

 

Russell Shorto, ever-articulate author of The Island at the Center of the World, Descartes’ Bones, Amsterdam and other books, is writing about the American Revolution. Introduced by New Paltz village mayor Jason West, who has only recently discovered his own Huguenot roots, Shorto lectured about the Dutch influence to an audience of more than 100 people in an outdoor tent at Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz Friday night.

His major theme concerned the role of the Dutch provinces in the end of the fixed medieval era that had lasted for hundreds of years.

In true Shorto fashion, he offered an extended anecdote about Dutch innovations in herring fishing. The Netherlands first discovered that leaving the liver in preserved the fish longer. Next they developed floating herring factories on boats. Then their herring fleets became dominant. Once they developed a consistent reputation for quality, in fact, they branded their fish by affixing the word “Holland” on the boxes containing the fish. Just good business.

A change of awareness in all areas of life marked this newly literate and very inquisitive age. Freedoms enjoyed by newly aware ordinary people changed human consciousness, according to Shorto. Painters such as Rembrandt moved away from religious art and painted ordinary (albeit wealthy) folks: “They painted who you were inside.” And those were the people who bought the paintings for their own homes.

The combination of a free-trading sensibility and being a melting pot for all Europe created a degree of tolerance in the Dutch. Knowing a good thing when they saw one, the pragmatic English allowed an official Dutch culture to persist when they took over the Dutch colony in 1664. “They didn’t understand it,” said Shorto. “But it worked.”

The footprints remained. New York later remained a hotbed for many forms of innovation. When the European masses flooded into New York harbor, they celebrated being in America. Concluded Shorto, “It wasn’t America, it was New York, and it was New York because it was New Amsterdam.”

 

That leaves the O+ Festival, which as of late Friday was taking in the huddled masses from all over for the long Kingston weekend. The festival will be discussed aplenty elsewhere. Suffice it to say here that it was perhaps the most significant in the cluster of attractions offered this past weekend.

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