Open letter to Mayor Noble: Don’t get involved in public art

I was disappointed to miss the public hearing about the recent “Art in Public” proposal. From what I understand, it was a potentially constructive evening, and I hope that to be the case. I’ve certainly seen no shortage of opinions on social media, and I imagine you’ll be hearing and reading many thoughts on the matter in the coming days and weeks. For my own edification, I’d like the opportunity to submit my thoughts.

My name is Daniel Goodwin. I’m a co-owner at Stuff Hudson Valley, with my wife and partner, Monik Geisel. I’m a longtime local to the Kingston area, also with a well-known and well-regarded recording studio in neighboring Woodstock. I have been visiting and working in Kingston for many years, and while I’ve never lived in Kingston, my wife and I moved our store from Rosendale last August, to the corner of Main Street and Clinton. It was one of the best decisions of our lives.

A major part of the reason this was a sound decision, was indeed the artwork that demarcates Kingston from the rest of the Hudson Valley. One would be forgiven for seeing this as trivial, but one would also be mistaken. Organic movements such as the one that has grown in our fair city, have proven to be rare and in fact, quite fragile.

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As a longtime resident of Hudson, N.Y. — just upriver from us — I’m no stranger to the debates that spring from the oft-dreaded word “gentrification.” I’m also no stranger to the sorts of political showmanship that can come to define small cities as much as they define large ones. Groups convene, stake their positions, and tensions flare just as easily in a city of 15,000 as they do in a city of 1 million. In some ways, it’s a mark of success. Nonetheless, it is a demoralizing reality of human nature that when people congregate in large numbers, our representative governments feel compelled, often with good intent, to rescind the power of the individual and wield that growing power into the concentrated hands of smaller and smaller groups. Sadly, as history has shown us time and time again, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux was right to coin the phrase, “L’enfer est plein de bonnes volontés ou desires,” which we now colloquially know as “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Now to the core of the matter in question.

I have read the missive from your office, regarding this proposal. I’ve also been long familiar with our city codes and specifically, the regulatory apparatus for the preservation of the Stockade District. As business owners, with our store right at the very gate to the Stockade, we are painfully familiar with the sometimes questionable and often necessary statutes that regulate the aesthetic preservation of our beautiful historic neighborhood. As the owners of a small business that sells and prizes design and aesthetics, this issue is critically important to us.

To that end, I am simply bewildered at the proposal to create yet another layer of bureaucracy to regulate the creation of new art in the public space. It is certainly within the city’s purview to regulate artwork installed on city property. But to create a further barrier to creation and expression on the facade of a privately owned business or home seems deeply misplaced to me. 

For starters, the City Of Kingston has its own Historic Landmark Preservation Commission, which oversees all external changes to any building falling within the historic districts of Kingston. Various sitting members of the commission have stated publicly that murals and the like are considered “temporary changes” and as such, do not need to be addressed in the same way as lasting, architectural changes. To that point, I am an adamant opponent of the HLPC regulating color choices, as they too are temporary, and represent the owner’s aesthetics and free expression, much the same way as how we would define art. But that would be an issue to address separately. My point is that the HLPC already determines the technical viability of an installation and adherence of any publicly viewable alterations to a building in a historic district.

This is not news to you of course, and your public position has been that the new Art in Public committee will address visible art in a more “nuance” way, while not making determinations based on artistic content. How this is possible comes with a very big question mark to me. For one, if we already have a commission that explicitly oversees the technical aspects of an installation without judgment of content, then why create another bureau to do the very same, if not for a more potentially nefarious reason? Your public position seems illogical at best and dubious at worst. I and others are left to wonder then what really is the motivation here?

I am left considering what happens when one unlocks a door. The door is then free to be opened. Once you unlock this door Mr. Noble, it is not a far stretch to imagine a successor of yours, or their subordinates, implementing a rigorous and selective approach to the “judgment of content.” Particularly in our current political climate, where hyperbole has replaced objectivity, can we reasonably expect that nobody would dare join the historic forces of censorship and begin a policy of judging what content they deem acceptable? I think not.

The history of mankind is littered with the fallout and the follies of those who claimed that one small and trivial idea wouldn’t lead to a larger and worse idea. We clean these ancient messes up daily, yet we are destined to repeat them, using the very same justifications. Make no mistake, this proposal can easily lead down a road that we are loathe to consider. In fact, statistics would bear out the reality that it is more likely than not. Yet here we are.

I won’t make the misplaced analogy of book-burning. However, the parallels are striking. Book-burning, as a government prescription, began as a proposal, stemming from a “public concern.” Your proposal, while on paper reads nothing like this, would create an unlocked door that need only be opened by the willing. And the willing flock effortlessly, when there is an opportunity. Think about this, please.

There is also the issue of enforcement. How will the city enforce this? Are you prepared to send crews out to erase art? Are you prepared to be known as the mayor that sanitized Kingston’s growing and vibrant community of art? I can’t imagine that’s the place you hope to occupy. I also can’t imagine the logistical rabbit hole of enforcing this proposal in any meaningful way. Who handles the liability if a city crew destroys a private citizen’s facade in service of this proposal? How do you handle two pieces of art, on the same wall, both under six feet tall? Are we taxpayers expected to endure the cost of the city attorney and city council to write new legislation to deal with these specifics? Or would these rules be implemented via “resolution,” where public input is minimal at best? In short, this proposal is all but unenforceable. And I would imagine there will be a very long line of people willing to subvert this proposal, readily. I might count myself as one of them, to be frank.

My next concern is with regard to the application fee of $25. This seems a fairly obvious oversight of fairness as this fee, while modest, will only act as a money grab, and a barrier to those less fortunate, who wish to create. It reminds me of the rollout of your ill advised parking initiative. Prohibitive costs just serve as a barrier and an irritant, rather than a boon to infrastructure and planning. Opportunistic at best, and smells of simply a way for the city to grab money off the shoulders of a movement that built itself.

I have heard the arguments that our city’s current attitudes toward public artwork help to “gentrify” and, in effect, displace communities. The data would write a very different story. But that is an argument that can be had separate from this.

Gentrification has become something of a dog whistle  — a way to separate people and give them cause to hate, resent, fight. The fact is, gentrification is less responsible for displacement than the effects of poverty itself. It can be argued that our murals have brought a new interest of wealth in our town. It can be argued that this has raised property values and as a result, rents. But it can also be argued that it has also increased the quality of life for most everyone here. Increased opportunities for locally owned small businesses as well as increased incomes for those in the service industry are just two very important net positives of this trajectory. Our schools and our health care services have improved. Our communities are now more racially integrated than ever, thanks to “gentrification.”

Our infrastructure has been slow to catch up, and that is a failure that can rightfully be placed in part, at your feet, Mayor. However, the net positives of this growing community easily outpace the perceived side effects. The artwork that we see around our homes has not displaced people. Not directly or indirectly. Poverty displaces communities, and that is a battle that transcends this issue. Social scientists have been studying it for decades, and they will continue, even after all the murals are gone.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, this truly is an issue of free expression. It is and always will be the right of Americans to express themselves freely without government intervention, so long as no harm is committed. While your proposal veers from so called “judgment of content,” the very core intent of this policy and any policy like this, is to regulate expression. Any justification for this proposal is easily superseded by this simple fact. There is no universe in which the creation of a government body to make decisions about the expression of individuals is anything but censorship waiting patiently. And that is unacceptable. The fact that we are even having this discussion is disturbing enough. One can spin this all they like, but it can truly be boiled down into one core tenet: controlling expression.

It is clear that Kingston is creating a new identity. An identity that is not simply stuck in the tales of the American Revolution or the fallout of IBM’s departure those many years ago. Kingston is no longer just a footnote in a history book or a place to go only to renew your license on your way to Target. Kingston has grown into a wonderfully diverse city that includes virtually every sort of human one can encounter in this country. The arts community has helped provide a refuge for all of those identities to come together, in enjoyment of a better quality of life. This is precisely why your proposal has divided us all very deeply.

What may seem to you as a trivial matter is a critical matter of absolute urgency for those of us who want to claim our modern place in our modern home, paying homage to the successes of generations past but unbound by their identities and failures.

I urge you and all those involved to consider shelving this proposal. Kingston is working. It is doing its own best work, without the interference of city hall. There is no problem here to solve. There is just a wonderful and colorful community of people who are pushing forward, in progress, and doing it quite well. I urge you to allow this movement to keep itself growing, and to foster a supportive role, rather than get in front of a self-driving movement.

This proposal runs the risk of not only overstepping constitutionally protected rights, but runs the ultimate risk of transforming Kingston into an “opportunity” for powerful interests, or worse yet, philistines who crave power over those who create, even if their intentions fall under the guise of protecting the “little guy.” Don’t make Kingston yet another entry into the book of policy failures.

Thank you for your time and consideration. Please do the right thing.

Daniel J. Goodwin
Woodstock

There are 12 comments

  1. fiddler

    I understand the resistance to government control of public art and your concern about a slippery slope. I have just one question for the letter writer. Do you actually like the ghoulish giant looming over the Peace Park with the rows of pustules on its chest? I don’t, even though I do appreciate the history of the bluestone quarries and understand the artist was trying to portray the “spirit of the mountains.” This particular piece gives me the creeps, and it doesn’t seem to be “temporary” as it will likely be there for the rest of my lifetime. My main objection to the art from the O+ festival is that it is not temporary. Removing the art requires sandblasting the brick surface which permanently damages it. The bricks are then more porous and do not have the same look as undamaged brick. Are there methods available that protect the brick and make the artwork removable without sandblasting? If so, the artists should be required to use these methods at least within the Stockade Historic District.

  2. Foh

    This pompous letter writer needs a reality check, and quickly. An owner of a luxury furniture store should not be weighing in on issues about gentrification. Over-priced boutique owners & privileged white men are not victims of oppression. Thanks for the French lesson, dude.

  3. -_-

    Why does it seem like the most vocal supporters of the murals are people who financially benefit from them? Business & property owners can raise rents and prices because Kingston is “cool” now. Thanks for making Kingston so desirable no one can afford to live here…

  4. NYArtist

    The commission is short-sighted and could even be stifling to independent artists… but the commission has nothing to do with housing or “gentrification.” The commission is about control

  5. Suzette Green

    The views expressed by the writer are introspective and relevant, and can apply, as stated, to gathering from 15.000 to 1.5 million people.I have seen it in my home town of West Palm Beach (though I considered my living in Woodstock from the age of 20 my real coming of age). Life is not pretty (bluestone quarry workers, steel fabricators, coal miners) and does not have to be represented as such in Barbie Doll terms. Recognize out past, present and future. Employ a trolley/transportation/bicycle access system to reduce the need for vehicle parking. Continue to grow Kingston, you have had a long haul.

  6. Venus de Milo

    Where are the Plaster Casters now?

    We need more phallic monuments like Huguenot Street in New Paltz has in front of the Abraham Hasbrouck house on the corner of Front Street. That’s a good one.

    Or The Arc, which was in downtown Manhattan in some plaza. IT was so cool cause nobody got it.

    Winged Victory?

  7. JamaicaonHudson

    “It is clear that Kingston is creating a new identity. An identity that is not simply stuck in the tales of the American Revolution or the fallout of IBM’s departure those many years ago. Kingston is no longer just a footnote in a history book or a place to go only to renew your license on your way to Target. Kingston has grown into a wonderfully diverse city that includes virtually every sort of human one can encounter in this country. The arts community has helped provide a refuge for all of those identities to come together, in enjoyment of a better quality of life. This is precisely why your proposal has divided us all very deeply.”

    Bless his heart, it’s sad/laughable how myopic the letter-writer is.

    For the record, I like (some of) the murals. However, the city should have a say over what is placed on buildings which all people have to see/suffer looking at. The artists coming here must understand that they are not the sole residents here, they are new members of a very old community. As such, arts gentrification isn’t Kingston’s savior, it’s just another footnote in our looong collective history.

    A few words of advice: (1) Planting your flag somewhere, doesn’t mean it was discovered (or saved) by you. (2) Don’t act like a locust and expect to be welcomed on the ‘farm.

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