Ray Curran is a pivotal part of Midtown Arts District’s efforts

Ray Curran

It’s not easy starting and growing an organization, particularly when the work is all volunteer and the mission embraces an entire city.

In the case of the Midtown Arts District (MAD), now in its fourth year, it’s largely due to the efforts of three people — Richard Frumess, Anne Bailey and Ray Curran — that the organization is succeeding in its mission of raising the profile of the arts in Midtown, thereby strengthening and celebrating the community, boosting the economy and offering new educational opportunities for kids and local residents.

Some years ago, Frumess and Bailey, who had both founded and operated successful arts-related businesses in Midtown, were serving on the Kingston Arts Commission during Shayne Gallo’s administration when they had the idea for a Midtown arts district. They started MAD, which eventually became a nonprofit and launched an annual arts celebration; MAD has also supported various arts initiatives in the city. As the organization has grown, the participation of Ray Curran, who serves as vice president of the board — Bailey is president and Frumess serves as treasurer — has been no less essential. Curran’s experience as an urban planner for Scenic Hudson, which first familiarized him with the city, brings a unique set of qualifications to MAD.

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Curran, who grew up in a small town in Maine, spent half of his career as an urban designer in Europe, first working for an architectural and planning firm in London and then in Paris. He taught urban design at various colleges as an adjunct professor in New York City and England and was a guest lecturer at universities in Mexico and Colombia. His work as a planner in New York City focused primarily on the re-development of waterfront sites, an expertise he applied to his subsequent position at Poughkeepsie-based Scenic Hudson.

At Scenic Hudson, “I was looking at proposed developments up and down the Hudson River,” he said. “We were always making sure the development would fit into the community and not be out of scale, in terms of proportion and density. We were also concerned about public access to the river.” Curran was very involved in Scenic Hudson’s review of the AVR project, proposed for a former cement works in Kingston on the Hudson River. “We battled long and hard to try to get AVR to do something that fit in with Kingston and wouldn’t be exclusive to just folks who lived there but have waterfront public access for everyone,” Curran said. “To a large extent, we succeeded in getting the city to demand those things.” In 2009, Curran left Scenic Hudson after nine years at the nonprofit to open up his own urban design consultancy and focus on his second career as a watercolor painter, working from an office/studio he rented at the Shirt Factory.

Curran’s past experience at Scenic Hudson advocating for the public “is what led me to get involved with MAD,” he said. “I always liked Kingston, which I knew from my advocacy work. It seemed to have the right scale and mix, and as a waterfront city it was the right fit for me.” (Curran is also an avid kayaker.) After eight years, he gave up his space at the Shirt Factory and now works and paints at his home in Olivebridge. “My coming into Kingston at least a couple of times a week provides a connection with the city,” he said.

Curran’s past experience has helped immensely with the organizational aspect of MAD — the unglamorous but essential work of meetings, engaging people, setting an agenda, following up, etc. “It quickly became obvious to everyone that I knew how to run these meetings, so I was designated to that,” he said. He also ran the steering committee, before the MAD board was created.

After three years of hard work, “we’re beginning to get some traction, but it’s too much for the three of us, so last year we brought on four more board members,” said Curran (one has since left). They are Nina Dawson, a Midtown resident who was former Ward 4 alderperson; Sarah Carlson, artist, filmmaker and manager of the Cornell Creative Arts Center, which will offer studio and community space for ARC residents as well as area creatives; and Riley Johndonnell, an artist who organized a series of intensive community art projects called Paint the Town Yellow.

Three months ago, “we decided we needed to bring in additional people who are deeply involved in the community and represent different aspects,” noted Curran. “Our entire premise is that we’re not a club or a membership organization. We don’t want to further subdivide the city, but rather provide something that allows us to collaborate with anyone in the city who is interested in the arts.”

The new board members are Margaret S. Inge, direction of development at TRANSART & Cultural Services, Inc., a nonprofit that hosts a jazz festival, arts exhibitions, and arts programs in the public schools, all aimed at advancing and preserving the history and culture of the African diaspora through the arts; Frank Waters, a resident of the Lace Mill who runs an arts program for children, called My Kingston Kids, and organizer of the events for this year’s Black History month, a rich celebration of African American culture; Noe Del Cid, who owns the Midtown restaurant, Peace Nation Cafe; Liz Baker, who runs Broadway Arts, a Midtown gallery that works with kids in the neighborhood;  and Neville Bean, an art director, designer and artist who recently relocated from Manhattan to Kingston’s Rondout. 

One of Curran’s pet projects at MAD was organizing the art exhibition, representing 17 artists, that MAD sponsored at the Made in Kingston event last fall. “Half of them sold some work, and all of them were thrilled at the tremendous amount of exposure, so we’re doing it again this year,” he said.

MAD also collaborated with the Cornell Creative Arts Center, which was the site for MAD’s Celebration of the Arts event last month. Curran said MAD plans to work with the Harambee Coalition, which is planning an annual African-American celebration, as well as connect with the Hispanic community (new board member Noe Del Cidis is from Guatemala).

MAD “is a work in progress,” Curran concluded. The MAD founders researched arts districts all over the country and interviewed people involved in a few, located in cities similar in size and makeup to Kingston, but “there isn’t one that we could say, ‘That’s what we’re going to do.’ There are no cookie cutters when it comes to arts districts; all are unique and specific to each city. What it means for Kingston is that we are having to create the district and explore what’s relevant. It involves trial and error.” 

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