What would the proposed Midtown arts district do exactly, and how would it benefit Kingston? A public discussion last Saturday at City Hall attended by 40 persons elicited many ideas. A Kingston arts district should engage the entire community, commission public murals and sponsor festivals and other events. It might partner with the schools to create educational opportunities. It might employ a city staff member to raise money. It might establish a small-business incubator. It would be marketed in conjunction with the city’s historic resources, and be bounded by clearly defined gateways. And it should have a catchy name: how about MAD (Midtown Arts District) Mile or KAT (Kingston Arts Triangle)?
A meeting had been organized at UPAC last October by Kingston’s Arts District Committee member Richard Frumess, owner of R&F Handmade Paints. “The word has spread and things are happening,” Frumess said. The city has just set up an arts district advisory commission. The “wholehearted support for the arts and arts activities” of Mayor Shayne Gallo, who made a brief appearance at the meeting, and of city Director of Economic Development & Strategic Partnerships Gregg Swanzey have been key, Frumess said. Midtown, “the forgotten sibling of Rondout and Uptown,” has suffered from the decline of manufacturing and retail, and creating an arts district would benefit the neighborhood and the city as a whole.
Specifically, it would “create a focusing theme for revitalizing and unifying the commercial area of Midtown” and “create a cultural magnet for drawing artists, non-artists and tourists to the city,” as noted in the mission statement. It would create a tool for improving the quality of life through the growth of mixed-income housing, streetscaping, employment opportunities, occupancy of underutilized buildings, and partnerships with educational organizations.
The committee to formulate an arts district has been researching other arts districts. The findings were presented by committee members Ray Curran and Kitty McCullough, after which everyone divided up into small groups to discuss the district’s mission, boundaries, goals, strategic partnerships, community outreach, and funding opportunities.
The district would create a brand identifying the resources that already exist in the area — such as the arts-related manufacturers on Ten Broeck Avenue and in the Shirt Factory and UPAC. “Many of the pieces are here already,” said Curran, who worked as a planner for many years at Scenic Hudson. “Our task is less creating an arts district than identifying it, highlighting it and publicizing it.”
The proposed boundaries, which are not etched in stone, are roughly Clinton Avenue on the west, St. James and O’Neill streets on the north, Foxhall Avenue to the east, and Greenkill Avenue to the south.
Other people’s arts districts
In her PowerPoint presentation, McCullough noted that all 14 arts districts researched by the committee were located in communities facing disinvestment. Some had empty warehouses, underutilized retail buildings, and/or charismatic public spaces. “Many districts started with one strategy, which evolved to create others,” said McCullough.
Bloomington, Ind. had a courthouse, library, and art museum. In Cleveland, three theaters led the charge to create an arts district. New Orleans created an arts district to tie together its entertainment sector, river walk, casino and convention center. Paducah, Ky. “gave away derelict buildings to artists and became a national success story,” McCullough said. Cumberland, Md. “packaged artist relocation incentives to rehab buildings” and “made the most of everything they had,” including a canal heritage visitor center in a restored train station, a scenic railroad, and an art-deco theater. Downtown Little Rock, Ark. held house tours to recruit new buyers “who were then plugged into programs to help them fix up their homes.”
Cumberland in particular seemed a good model for Kingston, considering that its population is roughly the same, as is its median household income of $25,000 and its 100-mile distance from a major city. To revitalize its “acres of 19th-century retail, industry and housing, it identified its arts and historic resources as a key to the future,” said McCullough. It focused on five strategies: tourism, arts, technology, restoration, and outreach. A state Preservation League representative recently advised Kingston to pursue a similar strategy in formulating its new comprehensive plan.
Knowing when you’re there
In seeking common denominators that relate to Kingston, Curran noted his team had identified several: pedestrian scale, limiting the amount of residential within a district so that the programming isn’t stretched too far and thin, a clearly designated route through the district to facilitate walks and visits in general, and recognizable gateways and entrances “so you know when you’re there.”