Kingston launches Master Arts and Cultural Plan

For a city with a population of only 23,000, Kingston has considerable arts and cultural resources. It has a large performing arts center, which brings in top acts; several galleries and small museums, one of which is the only one in the world to specialize in the maritime history of the Hudson River; two industrial loft complexes that house and provide work space to dozens of artists; numerous businesses that hire people in the arts, including several nationally known arts-related manufacturers and fabricators; and the Midtown Arts District (MAD), which sponsors an annual expo of the arts, has hosted artist talks and performances as well as exhibitions, and includes two organizations, D.R.A.W. and P.U.G.G., which respectively offer visual arts workshops for adults and youth and a paid youth internship program in the arts. 

In 2015, the city government established the Kingston Arts Commission (KAC) and subsequently created an Office of Art and Cultural Affairs, hiring as the department’s first director Adrielle Farr. (Full disclosure: this reporter is one of the commissioners.) 

Wanting to further leverage these assets for economic growth as well as more social equity, educational opportunities and better quality of life, the city obtained funding for a master arts plan from a private foundation and has commissioned a New York-based consultancy, Lord Cultural Resources, to develop what’s officially referred to as the Kingston Arts & Culture Master Plan. 

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Working with Farr, who is managing the project, are Joy Bailey-Bryant of Lord Cultural Resources, Lord consultant Eve Moros Ortega, research consultant Tiffany Lyons, and Jon Stover, managing partner at Jon Stover & Associates.  

Bailey-Bryant and Moros Ortega kicked off the plan on May 27 with a Zoom presentation to the KAC. Mayor Steve Noble, with input from other city officials, has appointed 16 Kingstonians to the project advisory committee which will help facilitate the consultants’ outreach to the entire city. The PAC increases the diversity of the group involved with the master plan.

The city’s EngageKingston.com website is a tool for communicating the plan and other city projects to the public. (The members of the PAC and KAC are posted on the site as well as an overview of the plan.) By registering on the site, people can provide feedback and get updates from the city by email.

Encouraging participation 

The first phase of the plan, which is occurring over the summer, is a needs and resources assessment that will consist of stakeholder interviews and public engagement workshops. (Due to Covid-19 restrictions, the consultants will be utilizing Zoom for these.  As the city opens up, whenever possible it will host meetings in person.) 

The second phase, due to be completed this fall, is the design of two surveys, one on cultural participation and the other mapping the city’s cultural resources using GIS technology. As part of that work, consultant Jon Stover will be conducting an economic impact analysis of the city’s cultural resources.

Once the data has been collected, the consultants will present a draft plan in phase three. “We present the key findings and create priorities in drafting the plan,” said Moros Ortega. Getting feedback is an important part of the process: “The plan is not cast in stone. It’s a living document.” 

The final plan will is expected to be completed in early 2021. “The end goal is to have a comprehensive document that’s an assessment of what’s currently in the city and also hopefully some sort of plan and strategy of what the future of arts and culture should look like,” said Farr.

If an arts plan seems to fall low on the totem pole of priorities at this extraordinary time of pandemic, nothing could be further from the case, said Farr. “This is not about some people in the community deciding, for example, they want a contemporary art museum, but being able to have data about the resources that are already here so we can apply for grants and have a conversation about more equitable development,” she said. “It’s a project for the entire community. The work is dependent on us being able to come together as a community and trust one another and have that conversation.” 

The plan “will improve access to the arts not only through formal education but for people of all ages, in all walks of life,” added Susan Linn. “It’s about quality of life. Everybody should be able to express themselves creatively” — a capacity that typically shuts down when children, who are naturally creative, become adults — “whether it’s through making a sculpture, cooking, or planting a garden.” 

Having an outside consulting firm with comprehensive experience is invaluable in providing a context and broader perspective on the city’s assets and challenges, Farr said. 

A mechanism for creatives 

The idea for developing an arts and culture master plan for Kingston has been several years in the making. Peter Criswell, a Kingston Arts Commission member and Ulster County legislator, had discussed funding mechanisms in the city to support the arts. After learning that this initiative often is linked to a master arts plan, the KAC appointed a committee to further research other cities’ arts plans and possible consultancies as well as seek funding sources. As that process evolved, it became clear “the city should own the project, which was the funder’s wish as well,” said Criswell.

The proposal from Lord Cultural Resources stood out. “They had an energy that felt very approachable. I could see them sitting and talking with different arts groups,” which would fulfill the committee’s desire to find “ someone who could open doors and start conversations,” Criswell said. 

Added Farr: “They were selected because of their methodology and approach to cultural planning. One of the reasons I’m excited to work with Lord is they prioritized listening.” Plus, “they’re very experienced and understand the pitfalls, challenges and successes” in developing a plan, she said. 

At Lord’s kick-off meeting with the KAC on May 27, commissioners cited the faith community, sports groups, LGBTQ Community Center, jail population and social justice organizations, area colleges and senior citizens as among the possible constituencies. “The goal is strengthening and growing the arts and cultural sector by creating a mechanism for the community to come together,” said Bailey-Bryant.

Did anything about Kingston initially strike the consultants as unusual or noteworthy? “The Restorative Justice Center jumped out at me. That felt pretty unique,” responded Moros Ortega, who said she had previously visited Kingston multiple times. Plus, “the amount of planning done in such a small city is impressive.”

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Bailey-Bryant was struck by Kingston’s “commitment to the arts and cultural sector. The creation of Addie’s position is so important. You’re walking the talk,” which is the first indicator that “the city is serious and doing the hard work to move forward.” 

A plan that leads to action

Criswell echoed other commissioners when he said a major priority is ensuring the plan was actionable. “I’ve been involved with plans for nonprofits,” he said, “and the fear is it sits somewhere. I’m going to be pushing those actionable items forward, so they have a real application.” 

“We’re so rich in resources, but we need greater coordination so we can collaborate more,” agreed Richard Frumess, a former KAC member, co-founder and board member of MAD, and owner and founder of R&F Handmade Paints. He hopes the master plan will build on MAD’s mission “to make the community the owners of the art. The community benefits from this. This is not just a showcase, not just some pretty buildings, but participatory. We have a great leader in Addie, and I believe this is possible and will happen.” 

“We are super excited about this plan and want to encourage all of Kingston to take part,” concluded Bailey-Bryant. “Take the surveys, attend the meetings, and participate in the forums. This is not just about engaging the arts and cultural sector but the entire city.”

“Right now things look dire, but in two years it’ll be a different story,” predicted Linn. “The master plan is for the future. Where do we want to be in five years? This document … needs to be a base to build upon.”