Kingston Art Commission coordinates city’s creatives

The nine-member Kingston Arts Commission, its members appointed by the mayor, meets monthly at City Hall. Working quietly behind the scenes, the panel is a force in supporting, coordinating, promoting and enhancing the city’s various arts-related activities. It also serves as a liaison with the city through the direct participation of Kingston’s first director of art and cultural affairs, Adrielle Farr. 

Having joined the KAC in February, I was impressed by its vision for how the arts could benefit and transform the city. Its presence puts Kingston, population 23,000, on a par with much larger cities. 

Back in 2007, Kingston was included on Business Week’s list of the 10 best cities in the country for artists to live. There was no city-wide organizational structure to coordinate arts energy at that time, no liaison between the arts community and the city government, little recognition of the substantial economic benefits from the arts. 

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In the late 2000s, a series of conversations took place among the owners of a handful of arts-related businesses, artists, artisans, two developers who have repurposed industrial buildings as artists’ lofts (one of which was Rupco, the not-for-profit agency that utilizes state and federal tax credits to develop affordable housing), the city’s then-director of economic development, Gregg Swanzey, and a few business owners and activists. Out of those conversations “grew friendships and a solidarity of the importance of the arts to Kingston,” recalled Anne Bailey, co-owner of Bailey Pottery Equipment. 

Bailey and Richard Frumess, owner of R&F Handmade Paints, have Midtown locations adjacent to each other on either side of the city’s railroad tracks. They became the prime movers and shakers behind the launch of the KAC and Midtown Arts District (MAD). Since then, dozens of other volunteers and arts professionals have also gotten involved. 

As the idea for a Midtown Arts District gained traction, “it was decided that together we could really make a difference for our under-resourced neighborhood and use the arts as a catalyst for positive change,” said Bailey. 

An Arts Advisory Board to then-mayor Shayne Gallo began meeting in March 2013, around the same time Rupco was planning to convert a former lace curtain factory on Cornell Street into affordable artists’ lofts. “There was a lot of ferment,” said Frumess. Swanzey, who Frumess called “the unsung hero of all this,” was crucial to the city government’s support and collaboration. 

The city’s Common Council replaced the Arts Advisory Board with the Kingston Arts Commission on 2015. KAC’s purpose, according to the resolution, was “to coordinate and promote all the arts activity in the City of Kingston in order to maximize their economic effect and to serve as a liaison between the arts community and the Mayor.” according to the resolution. The KAC launched the first Celebration of the Arts in 2016, and the next year the Midtown Arts District was officially established as a non-profit 501c3 organization. The KAC successfully lobbied the city to create the position of a part-time cultural affairs director. Farr was hired in 2018. 

Here are some of the initiatives with which the KAC is actively engaged:

• The MAD 100 is an annual event recognizing MAD’s initial supporters. The folding of the arts education program The D.R.A.W. into MAD was discussed.

• Last winter, KAC members Lara Giordano, founder and director of The D.R.A.W., and Anne Bailey were part of a group which visited Pittsburgh to meet with Bill Strickland, a MacArthur “genius” winner, in order to see if a similar program could be adapted for Kingston. Others on the visit included Anne Bailey’s husband Jim, Nina Dawson of the Ulster County Human Rights Commission, Harambee executive director Tyrone Wilson, and Drew Andrews, executive director of Center for Creative Education.

• A partnership of MAD, Arts Mid-Hudson, mayor Steve Noble and Kingston’s Department of Cultural Affairs plans rotating exhibitions of contemporary art at the city hall. In April a show inspired by the text scores of the late composer, musician and Kingston resident Pauline Oliveros will debut, followed by an exhibition of photographs by Mexican-American Alekz Patcheko in July.

• KAC is currently pursuing funding sources for a multi-year strategic plan to secure grants for the arts. Raleigh, North Carolina, which has two arts centers, a municipal gallery, outdoor video series, pop-up galleries that rotate among community centers, a public art program and arts awards, has such a plan. There’s a $5 per-capita allocation for grants funding and a one percent fee on capital construction to fund public art. The KAC would like Kingston to follow a similar model. 

• A  Facebook page and logo, currently in development, would raise KAC’s visibility.

• The KAC and the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs are finalizing the draft of a public art policy. 

• KAC chair Ward Mintz (recently replaced by KAC member Susie Linn) praised the organizers of Kingston’s Black History Month, noting “they have done an excellent job utilizing the many resources Kingston has to offer and have set a noteworthy example in community organizing and collaboration.” In a related development, Harambee and the Center for Creative Education are planning Kingston’s first annual African-American Festival in August.

• KAC member Linda Marston-Reid is executive director of Arts Mid-Hudson, which organizes the annual art walk planned for September 21 and 22. The event is “one of the largest outdoor gallery tours in the area.” The KAC discussed surveys to get feedback and attendance numbers. Plans include possible deployment of a bus to transport visitors around the city.

• Commission members were encouraged to discuss possible art-related opportunities and issues with their alderperson as well as feedback from them.

Reher Center, gentrification

At the March meeting, Barbara Mansfield of the Reher Center for Immigrant Culture and History provided KAC an overview of recent activities and new developments of the former bakery in Rondout. Sarah Litvin, who previously worked at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in Manhattan, had been hired to create an interpretative plan and serve as a consultant resulted in several milestones last summer. She organized a series of tours, the opening of a gallery with two exhibitions, and oral histories conducted around an artifact Litvin discovered at the center. Mansfield said this summer Litvin will be hired as the full-time director. A re-creation of the bakery circa 1960 in the original storefront will open and an educational program and culinary research are planned.

Guy Kempe, vice president of community development at Rupco, also spoke to the March meeting. His subject was gentrification, the pricing out of artists and others by escalating rents and rising home values. The recent sale of the Shirt Factory, Brush Factory and Pajama Factory, former industrial spaces that at least in the case of the Shirt Factory provided artists’ lofts at reasonable cost, is threatening the viability of the arts community. It could potentially result in the loss of dozens of affordable artists’ work and live/work units. How could the KAC help?

Kempe, whose nonprofit employer has made numerous investments in affordable housing in Kingston, has started a gentrification and community development thread on Facebook that is a forum for sharing, discussing and debating ideas about gentrification. “We’ve gotten feedback from all over the country and are capturing best practices around these issues,” he said. “We’re devising a plan for equitable development, how to advance that.” 

Kingston is where interventions that prevent displacement and yet also don’t risk the loss of reinvestment and new talent should be made, Kempe said. “It involves being strategic about preserving the resources we have, ensuring affordability for a diverse community, looking at things that make this city accessible, such as Latino businesses, Hispanic churches, mosques, informal day care for kids,” resources that “are often uncounted and underserved.” 

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Kempe encouraged the KAC to quantify the potential losses from the sale of the Shirt Factory and ask the Common Council and mayor to convene to address this issue.

Afterwards, Julie Hedrick weighed in how Toronto had established affordable housing for artists through legislation, provided artist residencies, and otherwise supported the viability of the arts. 

The KAC plans to follow through. “This is the conversation you should be having,” said Kempe.