Kingston arts revival drives manufacturing

Vincent DiDonato and Andrew Pharmer of Workshop Art Fabrication. (Photo by Phyllis McCabe)

Kingston isn’t just a community of artists, it’s also a community of arts-related businesses — and the two are intrinsically connected.

In attempting to quantify the size of that arts-related business community, members of the Midtown Arts District (MAD) board of directors have compiled a list. The number is impressive: the city has 88 arts-related businesses and counting. These include not just galleries, artisans and real estate organizations that rent out space to artists, but film, video and sound studios; furniture makers and wood workers and retailers. And, perhaps most significantly, from a jobs and historical perspective given Kingston’s industrial past, manufacturers.

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“Fabrication is part of the continuum of what the arts are,” said Richard Frumess, treasurer of the MAD board of directors and the founder and owner of Midtown’s R&F Handmade Paints, which makes encaustic paints and oil sticks. “These local businesses are helping feed the economy of the city. They generate jobs and employees.” Most importantly, they hire artists, of which the area has an abundance. “Whether it’s paint, ceramic supplies or sheet metal, artists can make great employees in the fabricating businesses,” Frumess said.

MAD itself began as a conversation among the owners of the handful of arts-related businesses clustered on Ten Broeck Avenue (besides R&F Handmade Paints, they are Bailey Pottery, American Made Monster Studios, Color Page and Cornell Street Studios). Back in spring of 2013, the business owners invited then-mayor Shayne Gallo down to their premises, and with the help of lobbying from other arts representatives in the city, as well as the city’s economic development office, the city created an arts advisory board, which morphed into the independent Kingston Arts Commission and the launch of MAD. “Those businesses were the core of the district,” said Frumess, adding that while “we knew there are other arts-related businesses, we didn’t know how many.” When he and Ray Curran, vice president of the MAD board of directors, reached out to Midtown businesses to seek support for the arts district, they were surprised, in their hour-long discussions with the individual owners, to learn that so many businesses utilize the arts.

Some are relatively new to the area, while others span a generations. For example, Timely Signs was started by company president Paul Beichert’s dad in 1972. The company creates commercial signage not just for clients throughout the Hudson Valley but also in Westchester County, central New York and as far away as Aspen and Los Angeles, thanks to the reach of the Internet.

Timely Signs has 20 employees, five of whom are graphic designers. “The arts is not just about fine art,” said Beichert. “There’s an art of being able to manufacture small custom items. People come to us with ideas and we help develop them, then manufacture and install them, whether it’s on a car, office wall, or exterior of a building. It is an art form. We still rely heavily on people who can think and assemble things with their hands.”

Besides designing the signs, the company’s graphic designers also “know how to use certain tools, set up production files and do CNC routing.” (CNC stands for computer numerical control, a means to route lettering or shapes, he explained.) The majority are graduates of SUNY New Paltz. “We’ve had tremendous results from the graduates of SUNY New Paltz’s design program,” Beichert said.

He added that the ability to network with other businesses through MAD “helps us a lot” as does the influx of new businesses priced out of New York City. “There’s an interesting spirit of revitalizing old buildings and returning to a craft economy,” said Beichert. “We’re not just a resell or retail economy. There are several metal-working groups we use, such as Universal Metal. If we need something powder-coated, we can have it done here. I try always to look locally for materials, woodworking, cabinet making or other function and often use somebody within a few blocks.”

Reasonable rent, deep talent pool

Workshop Art Fabrication, which opened on Tremper Avenuein January 2015 after Vincent DiDonato and Andrew Pharmer left their former employer, Orange County-based Polich Tallix Foundry, to start their own company, has 21 employees, 18 of whom live in Kingston. DiDonato said Kingston offered industrial space at a reasonable rent. Another draw was “the labor pool within the arts community. There’s a lot of talent around as young people [move to Kingston because they] are finding [New York City] too pricey.”

Workshop Art Fabrication does metal fabrication and casting, mold and pattern making, patina and paint applications, project planning, and conservation and restoration projects for artists. It has approximately 30 clients, including such prestigious artists as Kara Walker, Do Ho Suh, Christopher Wool, and Huma Bhabha (whose cast-bronze piece was installed on the rooftop garden of the Metropolitan Museum of Art). ”For the most part we are looking for people with an arts background, and we take on interns from SUNY New Paltz and Bard College,” DiDonato said. He added that his company has a ripple effect on the local economy. “Everybody is spending money at the restaurants and local businesses, and we are banking with Ulster Savings,” he said. The company utilizes resources from other local businesses, such as Herzog’s, Bailey Pottery, Universal Metal and Prandoni Fabrication and Design.

DiDonato said it’s difficult for small businesses which lack a full-time bookkeeper to take advantages of economic incentives offered through the Start Up New York program. “Guys like us who try to do our work and get our jobs out on time can’t focus on that. If MAD had a grant writer who would help small businesses like ours, that would be a nice thing.”

Another recent addition to the Kingston business community is Rhinebeck Art Store. Owners Doug Shippee and his wife, Lynn Francis, who own stores in Rhinebeck and New Paltz, opened their location in Midtown Kingston two years ago. Besides selling art supplies, the store contains the Atwater Gallery, which was recently expanded. “We know a lot of artists in the area and want to show local art,” said Francis, noting that they recently sold a painting for $4,000; the gallery also helps attract foot traffic to the store. Despite competition from online suppliers, she said brick-and-mortar art stores still appeal to customers “who like to see the new products.” The store also does custom framing.

Rhinebeck Art Store has eight employees, all of whom “are active artists,” said Francis. Art training is important for two reasons, she noted: “The first is that a lot of times people are coming into the store and have a specific problem they’re trying to solve. If you have a lot of experience in making things, you can help them. The second is having the ability to see when you do custom framing. It’s an important quality that people trained in the arts have. Collectively we have the ability to look and see and find the right choices aesthetically.”

Local work for homegrown artists

Kingston’s evolution as a hub of arts-oriented industry is giving youth the opportunity to stay in the area and get a job, noted retired Kingston High School art teacher Lara Giordano, who started and runs PUGG and D.R.A.W., which hosts classes, offers networking opportunities and has exhibition space for artists in the community of all ages at its space at the YMCA. Two of her former students, who also have college arts training, work at R&F Handmade Paints. Others are employed at American Made Monster Studios (the company makes sets, costumes, props, and makeup FX and does custom fabrication and rentals for Haunted Hayrides, among other clients), Black Creek Mercantile (which makes furniture, sculpture, cutting boards and other wooden items that are carved or turned) and Catskill Art and Office Supply.

Giordano said other alumni work at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz, Johnson’s Signs & Tees, Kingston City Hall, and for local jewelry makers and other artisans. Others started the Hullabaloo, a very successful annual crafts fair held at the Andy Murphy Neighborhood Center in the late fall. Through PUGG, “I am constantly working with former students on developing the skills needed to forward their careers here in Kingston,” said Giordano.

Connecting with the local community through educational initiatives such as PUGG as well as with the businesses is high on the list of MAD priorities, Frumess said. “We not only do our own projects, but we also collaborate with Made in Kingston and Art Walk … We’re the glue that holds the different elements together. We’re the fiscal sponsor for Lara Giordano’s scholarship fund and the Pauline Oliveros sign,” which was installed last summer on a city-owned property on Broadway in honor of the late composer and musician, a resident of Kingston who was an ardent supporter of local arts. “We’re the nonprofit that allows people to get grants and a service organization to help with different arts-related projects.”

He reiterated the fact that the arts don’t just improve the quality of life by enriching the educational and cultural resources of the city, they also are a fundamental component of its economy. Indeed, a 2014 study by the Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach at SUNY New Paltz found that the arts accounted for $468 million in revenues, of which $245 million was direct (the remainder was the amount cultural tourists spent in restaurants, lodging, etc.) in the eight counties of the mid and lower Hudson Valley (Ulster, Dutchess, Orange, Rockland, Putnam, Westchester and Sullivan). The arts accounted for nearly 5,000 jobs (4,970, to be exact), of which 1,029 were direct employment.

According to a 2017 study by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and National Endowment for the Arts, the arts contribute more than $114 billion to New York State’s economy, employing 460,000 people and accounting for $46.7 billion in compensation. New York State ranks second among all the states in the amount of arts and cultural value added to the economy and in arts and cultural employment. It constitutes 15 percent of the nation’s total of $760 billion generated by the arts. Statewide, the cultural sector accounts for 7.87 percent of the value added to the state economy, which is greater than that contributed by the retail, construction and transportation sectors.

There are 5 comments

  1. Upstate Forever

    This article barely touches the depth of what is happening in Kingston. For example, Sawkill (which has its retail in Rhinebeck) is actually 100% manufactured in Kingston’s Midtown off Broadway and is one of the most revered furniture brands in the design industry today, manufacturing for private developers, hotels, and international interior designers.

    This is more factual support that all of the intitiatives happening in Kingston, from new retail, to new hotels, to new housing and rehabilitation are among the very
    single biggest and most importat business sectors in Kingston.

    Field + Supply at Hutton Brick Yards, is another aspect of that bringing thousands of visitors to what is quickly becoming one of New York state’s (and the nation’s) most relevant design events…right here in Kingston.

    All of this being that we MUST support the new wave of makers, creators, investors, artists, and residents who are investing and bringing this town back to life…Uptown, the Rondout, Midtown and the waterfront…it is real and it is happening faster than the naysayers realize…and we can’t continue to fight against this wave, or else we will fail. We must support this because this IS OUR FUTURE, and it will ultimately benefit everyone in Kingston.

    It is that cut and dry.

  2. Henry

    Upstate Forever – how many people does Sawkille employ and what are their wages? The company’s revered status is meaningless if they employ half a dozen people at wages that don’t support living in our area. What do their retail clerks earn? How about Rhinebeck Art’s employees?

    I have not found our saviors to be generous when it comes to wages. Not even close.

    Field + Supply might be attended by movie stars, but again – it doesn’t matter to locals if they don’t hire local people at wages that support living here, which – ftr – they do not. Around here, if you do the math – even 15 dollars an hour is not a living wage, and most don’t pay that, despite their blue creds. Do these people we must welcome support local non-profits, one of the most important ways anyone can contribute to our community?

    Do they stop at red lights even if they are the first car in line? Or second, or third? Do they smile at strangers? Do they think they are responsible for the blue wave in Ulster County? Do they text and drive?

    I don’t know who are doing these studies, but the arts contributing more to our economy than retail is a bizarre claim. Maybe if you include 100 million dollar paintings sold at auction. Oh, and if you include filmmaking. Lived here all my life and I don’t know and never have known a single person to make a living working for an artist. Frankly, lived here all my life and have known fewer than five artists to make a living AS an artist. That’s despite knowing many many artists, because Ulster County has been Artist Central for the past century, not decade.

    Being a graphic designer for a sign shop is a tenuous connection to the arts.

    How about the people who are moving here express condescend less and understand more?

    It’s that cut and dry.

    1. Paul Beichert

      Hi Henry – your thoughts are quite valid and a valuable measure of the worth of a local business. To answer some of your questions. Everyone at Timely Signs earns above the individual median income of Ulster County in terms of hourly wages. In addition to that, we offer paid vacation, personal days and bereavement days. We cover approximately 75% of a single employees heath care costs and offer a 401K retirement plan with a 4.5% match on employee contributions. Many of our staff members have been with us for over 10 years and have made their home in the Hudson Valley, They pay taxes here, send their kids to school here and are full community members.

      As far as not-for-profit contributions – Timely Signs offers a significant contribution to our community with both monetary and in-kind gifts to numerous organizations. The owners of the company and our employees live in this community and we want it to be a good community to live in.

      Saying that our graphic design team doesn’t have a connection to the arts is rather short sighted. Have you looked at some of the projects that they have designed on our website? I would encourage you to broaden your view of the arts and what make a community a great place to live. Happy to further this conversation with you in person if you like. Let me know if you have any other questions. Call me at the number on our website.

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