The walls have a fresh coat of white paint, the aged carpet is gone from the staircase, and the former Arts Upstairs, Phoenicia’s community gallery that closed in February, is about to reincarnate under new proprietors and a new name. The Phoenicia Arts and Event Space will open with a concert of Afro-Cuban jazz on Saturday, March 31, at 7 p.m., followed by an April 7 reception for artist Christina Varga, whose work will be the first to fill the walls of the new venue.
The organizers, writer Amy King and artist Rebecca Roman, have plans for an assortment of music, literary events, film screenings, and art workshops, hoping to revitalize the space for both locals and visitors. “We’re looking to bring more diversity to the culture of the area,” said King. “We want to feature artists other than straight white males.”
King is an award-winning, widely published poet and essayist who serves on the board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, an activist organization that calls attention to the lack of gender parity in publishing and teaching. If a professor’s syllabus includes mostly male authors, said King, or if the New Yorker is heavily skewed toward male writers in a given year, VIDA points it out. “We ask, ‘What are you going to do about it? Is there bias in your editorial decisions?’”
Roman is inspired by her experience of living in East Berlin in the early 1990s, when the fall of Communism took down the wall. The resulting influx of people to West Berlin left scores of buildings empty, and artists were among the groups who moved in. Roman lived with other artists at Kastanienallee 77, or K77, in a community today known as WaWaVox (pronounced “vavafox”). She participated in Tacheles, an arts center created in a vast building that had been constructed as a department store and for a time served as a Nazi prison. During the heady experimental period of the 90s, it became an exhibition space with studios, workshops, a nightclub, and a cinema. “We made art installations, trash art, graffiti art,” recalled Roman. “I’d like to make something happen in Phoenicia.” She has invited Kingston graffiti artist iam2nd to show his work and has already mounted one of his pieces in the front room.
“I’m retro-80s,” said Roman, a Puerto Rican. “Everything I listen to is from that period. All the hipsters now like the 80s stuff, which was all about optimism and making things happen, being excited about the future. Maybe now there’s a window for that kind of stuff.”
“Rebecca has her finger on the pulse,” said King. “The previous place was more insular.”
“It needed a breath of fresh air,” agreed Roman, who had been active with the gallery but felt she was encountering a resistance to change.
Unlike the Arts Upstairs shows of the past 14 years, when any artist could hang work for a small fee, the upcoming exhibits will feature only one or two artists at a time. Varga, who had a gallery in Woodstock for many years, considered taking over the Phoenicia space but decided against it, since she now has two small children. “She was looking for a spot her work could breathe in,” said Roman, “and I was looking for someone big enough to fit the space. Christina has a big presence and a lot of ideas.” Varga’s enthusiasm and her experience in the local art scene are expected to be assets in developing the new space.
Last May, Roman and her friend Mary Hill organized a performance by a group of Afro-Cuban jazz musicians at the Phoenicia café Sweet Sue’s. They packed the place. (At one of the band’s recent concerts, Roman was told, Sting’s bassist sat in.) She anticipates a lively opening night with the five-person ensemble, which includes musicians from Woodstock, Kingston, and New York City
King is planning literary events featuring both locals and writers from New York, Albany, and elsewhere. Varga is proposing workshops for artists and a live event in which she creates an artwork while people observe. Film nights will feature documentaries, fantasy, and cult classics, complete with a popcorn machine.
“A lot will be trial and error,” said King. “We’ll see what’s popular and what works.”
Phoenicia Arts and Event Space will open on Saturday, March 31, at 7 p.m., with a concert of Afro-Cuban jazz, hosted by Mary Hill. Admission will be $20 for food and music, $10 for music only. The venue is at 60 Main Street, Phoenicia, up a flight of stairs on the second floor. The Varga Retrospective will open on Saturday, April 7, at 4 p.m. See the new Phoenicia Arts and Event Space Facebook page.