Eighteen years ago, Ward Mintz and his partner, Floyd Lattin, bought an 1850s house in Kingston overlooking the Hudson River. Since then, the two have assembled a significant collection of contemporary and historic art, including many works by artists living in Kingston and the region. Mintz is more than a local art patron. He’s contributed significantly to the enrichment of the city’s arts and cultural community.
His decades-long experience in community arts and museum work has connected him with leading museum professionals, contacts that have resulted in curators, arts programmers and graduate students from prestigious institutions coming to Kingston. His seasoned talent for identifying and helping develop cultural opportunities within the local community, always with a mind to celebrating the city’s diversity and shedding light on the historical context as well as the culture of its working-class and underserved communities, has benefited the city as well.
He was one of several arts movers and shakers who successfully lobbied the city to create the Kingston Arts Commission (KAC) as well as hire its first director of arts and culture. As the second chair of the KAC, Mintz suggested a master plan of the arts, which is now under way. The commission obtained private funding for the hiring of consultancy Lord Cultural Resources.
Besides offering a well-informed perspective on community arts, historic preservation and local cultural history, Mintz’s dedication and personal skills — an implicit respect for others and an ability to listen, plus a sly wit and quiet tact — have enabled him to put his ideas into action.
Mintz also is executive director of the Coby Foundation, which provides funding to projects centered around textiles and fashion. The foundation awarded $638,000 in grants last year, many to support exhibitions of modern and contemporary art, including a number of women artists and artists of color. The exhibitions were at museums small and large, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Mass MoCA, Met Breuer, Winterthur Museum, and Bard Graduate Center.
Here are excerpts from a recent interview of Mintz on the patio of his and Lattin’s home :
You grew up in the Borscht Belt. How does a kid from Sullivan County end up having a storied career in the arts?
I was born and raised in South Fallsburg. My father was a lawyer and politician and my mother a teacher. I had a wonderful cousin who was a lawyer who worked for [New York City mayor] John Lindsay. He helped me get a summer job working for New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs. I was fortunate to work under Courtney Callender, the city’s first deputy commissioner of cultural affairs and a pioneering African American arts administrator. I was the advance man for mobile units traveling the city’s neighborhoods showing movies.
This was in the late 1960s, when you were a student at Cornell. It must have been an exciting time.
The community arts were essentially being born. The second summer at the department I was assigned as the assistant to Doris Freedman, the commissioner of cultural affairs, which gave me administrative experience. Her father had a real-estate business [he owned the Chanin Building]. I had never met people like this before.
What did you major in at Cornell?
Asian studies with a concentration in China. I loved every second. Daniel Berrigan was there, and we had sit-ins and a trial in a raised auditorium in the vet school. I graduated in 1969.
You were at the Brooklyn Museum. Was that after graduation?
Yes, my cousin helped me get a job at the museum, where I worked for the deputy director of administration. Then I was assistant to the museum director. I was so lucky to learn from all these people. After three years. I left and was hired to run an arts project in Jamaica, Queens.
This was a project incorporating the arts into a major urban redevelopment in Jamaica, which has a large African American community. We worked with an activist artists’ group called Jamaica Art Mobilization, which did projects around the borough working with community groups. We established the Jamaica Arts Center in an 1895 beaux-arts building that had been the city register’s office.
I was approached by Janet Henry, an artist who wanted to do a mural on the side of the health department building in South Jamaica, which was my first experience with public art. After we got the arts center open, we started multi-arts programming, with performances, readings, and exhibitions.
You then helped found a museum on Long Island in a very affluent community.
The art critic for the Long Island Press, which was a daily newspaper, had convinced the Nassau County executive to use the Frick estate, whose 138 acres in Roslyn Harbor the county had acquired, as an art place and possibly a museum. In 1975 I was hired as the director.
We established a community gallery downstairs in the brick colonial revival house and also did shows of major outdoor sculpture, including Lynda Benglis’ poured pieces, which were displayed on the front terrace, works by Mary Miss, Ursula Von Rydingsvard, and Louise Bourgeois throughout the property, and the blown-up latex balls of Louise Kramer in the pond.
We set up a community advisory group and brought in teaching artists. Unfortunately, the county executive was replaced by a new Republican, who fired all the museum staff and put in his own people.
Is that when you began working for the New York State Council for the Arts (NYSCA)?
I went back to the Brooklyn Museum for a while, where I met Floyd, who was a curator in the Egyptian department. When I was at the Jamaica Arts Center, NYSCA sent a few young professionals, including me, to Europe, and I got to know Joan Rosenbaum, who worked at the council’s museum program. She became the director and hired me as her assistant; after she left, I applied and became director. My job was to administer millions of dollars’ worth of public funding annually to art, history, and science museums throughout the state, which involved extensive travel. I also helped museum directors connect with their colleagues as well as regional history service organizations to assist them with their operations.
We have such wonderful resources in upstate New York, and there’s much to be gained by increasing communication among these resources and cooperating. The council also established an affirmative action committee, which I was asked to serve on.
After seven and a half years at NYSCA, you went back to museum work, becoming deputy director of programs and collections at the Jewish Museum.
We set a new standard for art exhibitions using the humanities to contextualize the art. For example, one of our major exhibitions was an exhibition called “The Dreyfus Affair: Art, Truth and Justice,” which was followed by a show about Jews, Christians and Muslims in medieval Spain. I initiated a show called “Bridges and Boundaries” examining the relationship between African Americans and American Jews, which was very successful as well as controversial and traveled widely.
You then became deputy director at the Newark Museum, serving a very different community.
Community arts was pulling at me — the Jewish Museum was well established — and the diversity of the community in Newark interested me. We hired an educator from the American Museum of Natural History who happened to be Latino, Ismael Calderon, to run the science program, and who created a new interactive science exhibit. The museum had never figured out how to interact with the Portuguese community, so I got an important curator, Jerrilynn Dodds, to do an exhibition called “Crowning Glory: Images of the Virgin in the Arts of Portugal.”
People who had never visited the museum before came and were so inspired they were singing hymns in the galleries. We also did a post 9/11 show and programs working with Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
You’ve also worked as a freelance curator.
Yes, FiveMyles in Crown Heights asked me to do an exhibition, which was called “Art/Sewn” and was about artists, all women, who use textiles in their work. In 2019 I curated an exhibition entitled “No People, No Trees: Four Artists and Abstraction” at Wired Gallery, in High Falls. I’m currently working with Sarah Litvin, director of the Reher Center for Immigrant Culture and History, located in the only surviving original storefront in Kingston’s Rondout, on an exhibition entitled “Sewing in Kingston: The Common Thread,” which will open this fall.
While you were on the board at Friends of Historic Kingston (FHK), you also curated a show about IBM and edited the informative catalog.
Kingston has all these modern buildings, and almost everyone involved [with IBM] was still alive. I also worked with Brian McCarthy, an interior decorator and passionate contemporary art collector with a house in the area, to redecorate the Fred Johnston House [owned by FHK] over the Christmas holidays. And I helped edit copy for the exhibition on Kingston’s [Hudson River School painter] Jervis McEntee and arranged for Linda Ferber. former chief curator and curator of American paintings and sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum, to give a presentation on McEntee and his colleagues.
As a member and former chair of the Kingston Arts Commission, you lobbied for the city’s master plan for the arts. What do you hope the plan will achieve?
My feeling was the local arts groups didn’t communicate with one another in part because of the city’s fragmented geography. We don’t have a good sense of physical settings that could be potential sites for arts programming. When the Bank of America building on Broadway and Henry was taken over by the city, my dream was that it be used it as a multi-arts facility. But the city sold it.
Having the consultant for the Kingston Arts and Culture Master Plan inspect different city-owned facilities and others could give a new view of what their potential is. We need a place to present the work of a variety of artists living and dead, performing, media and visual.
Besides an arts facility, the other thing [to consider] is a Percent for Art program, [to fund the arts]. The city has all these capital projects, so why not charge [the developers] one or half a percent for public art money? Many midsized and small cities have embraced a Percent for Art program.
As a board member of the Reher Center, you made the connection with Sarah Litvin, who was chief interpreter at the Tenement Museum, located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. What made you want to get involved with the Reher, and how did Sarah get there?
I went on a tour and was very interested in this bakery stuck in time. I knew Annie Polland, the deputy director at the Tenement Museum and asked her to visit. She, her husband, and daughter visited and thought it was a fantastic place. Knowing our need for a director, she recommended Sarah. The Reher is about people who came and struggled to create new lives. It was the working-class people of Rondout who were customers of the bakery.
Yet another civic commitment of yours has been serving as the chair of the advisory board at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz.
So few places on our side of the river do what the Dorsky does, which is organizing exhibitions of historical and contemporary work featuring artists of the Hudson Valley. It also has a significant art collection reflecting that mission.
Thanks to your efforts, next year the Dorsky will organize an exhibition on Ben Wigfall, the late SUNY New Paltz art professor who ran a gallery in Kingston and printmaker. Back in the 1970s, he started Communications Village, a print workshop for neighborhood children in Ponckhockie.
I’m really proud about helping to bring the Ben Wigfall exhibit to the Dorsky. I’ve been working with Richard Frumess, who has devoted himself to the artist’s legacy, for a while and realized this was an opportunity to do an exhibition about Wigfall and Communications Village and the amazing circle of African American artists he brought there. The Dorsky is also working on a twentieth-anniversary project, which will honor the Dorsky family and other donors and we hope add significant gifts to the collection.
You also served on the advisory board of the Latino Folklife Project.
The project, a survey of Kingston’s Latino community, was a collaboration with Arts Mid-Hudson. We got hundreds of responses to our questionnaire and people were interviewed face to face. We learned many interesting facts, such as there are more people from Puebla than Oaxaca living in Kingston.
What is your prognosis for the arts in Kingston?
The city is becoming more and more important as a location for the arts. But it needs more major private donors badly. It needs the city to start investing its own money in the arts. We’re fortunate to have an active city grants office, but we need more grants for the arts. And once the Arts and Culture Master Plan recommendations are made, we need to put them into action. While the Midtown Arts District has done an extraordinary job, we continue to need the various art organizations to communicate better with one another.
Especially during this time of pandemic, some may feel the arts are low on the totem pole of priorities.
It’s not one or the other. The arts are extremely important to the economy, which will come back. Kingston is such a critical city in terms of the county economy and the cultural vitality of the Hudson Valley.