Cavernous former steamboat building in Kingston transformed into gallery space

The exhibitions are curated and directed by Laurie De Chiara. (Photos by Dion Ogust)

In this summer of shutdowns, there’s been a flicker of life on the Kingston waterfront. ArtPort, an exhibition and cultural activities space that opened in the historic Cornell Steamboat Building last December, re-opened its doors on Saturday and Sunday afternoons in late June (after having closed mid-exhibit, along with the rest of the state, in mid-March). Artworks are arranged on the first and second floors of the cavernous historic building, which was built to maintain the fleet of tugboats that the Cornell Steamboat Company owned and deployed in the Hudson Valley from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. It is now among the Rondout properties owned by Rob Iannucci.

The exhibitions are curated and directed by Laurie De Chiara. Her husband, Stefan Saffer, oversees the art education program. They moved to Kingston from Berlin in 2016.

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Iannucci was inspired to create ArtPort for several reasons. “It’s a good use of the building,” he said. “People are curious about it, and it’s nice to satisfy that curiosity,” he added. Plus, “Laurie is an exceptional person … and I like art.”

Downstairs are several installations, adjacent to the storage area for Iannucci’s motorcycles and PT boat engines. There’s also a space for workshops, where kids and adults constructed artworks for a “Shadow Play”-themed program held Sunday afternoons in July and early August. Art teachers Roberta Ziemba and Beth Humphrey provided instruction, and the classes attracted both kids and adults. (Future workshops will be listed on the website, artportkingston.com.) 

Upstairs, sculptures, paintings, installations, and fabric pieces, variously placed on the floor, draped on the walls, and suspended from the massive exposed beams, enliven the soaring industrial space, which has multiple clerestory windows and a view of the Rondout Creek. 

The transformation of the former maintenance facility into an art space literally happens as you ascend the stairs and are surrounded by Christine Stiver’s lively black-and-white painting of swooping forms suggesting birds and fish, which wraps around the stairwell.  Entitled “The Ripple Effect,” the exhibition, which extends outside the building to the side yard and along the rail tracks bordering the creek, includes works from the previous winter’s exhibition, entitled “The Making Of,” as well as new ones.

Interactivity’s the key

De Chiara said the shifting inventory of works creates new relationships. “The format of a definite beginning and ending doesn’t exist any more,” she said. “The space] is in flux and is about creating new structures.” Added Saffer, an artist and art educator: “By showing different works at different times people can see how a dialog evolves. When they come back again, they’ll experience new works.”

The couple, who previously curated shows in a series of pop-up spaces after moving to Kingston, want to show “artwork that will appeal to people not comfortable coming inside a gallery,” as De Chiara puts it. Hence many of the pieces are interactive, if not to say playful: downstairs, visitors are encouraged to throw ping pong balls, kept in a bucket on the corner of a piece of red carpet that climbs from the floor up the wall, at various drumheads, each inserted into colorful painted frame with geometric design, suspended on strings; each emits a different resonance when hit, transforming the mobile into a kind of percussive instrument. The piece, which was created by Saffer, extends to the Matisse-like cut-out letters in a section of the carpet, a nonsensical message that speaks back to the viewer. 

Another interactive piece, Blue poem painting #1, #1, #3, by Julie Hedrick, is meditative. Visitors are invited to sit down in a chair painted a deep cobalt, which matches in hue Hedrick’s abstract painting on the wall, and listen to her recitation of  her poem to musical accompaniment by Peter Wetzler through a set of headphones. Susan Jennings’ Sound Rises on the Air consists of metal pieces, rope, and other objects and materials hung from a tall three-dimensional metal rack that people are invited to strike to make various sounds. 

While many might be afraid of having a dialogue with the public in these politically polarized times, Saffer welcomes it — even with those who’ve been critical. Specifically, after Ben Quesnel installed his sculpture, Nonument, three weeks ago along the railroad tracks at the foot of Gill Street, people objected vociferously on Facebook. The plaster piece depicts a statue-like pair of legs resting on a base slashed off above the knees, and it caused a lot of hoopla. 

“There were comments by right-wing people on the I’m From Kingston page,” he said. Having extensive experience with public art projects in London and Berlin, Saffer was nonplussed. “I’ve invited everyone to come here and face me, but not one came,” he said. “Some said ‘I don’t get it’ and I said ‘that’s exactly it. It deliberately looks unfinished.’” 

Where they’re coming from

The outdoor sculptures include several pieces in the adjoining yard, which the couple call the ArtStream, as well as a mystery piece from a past Kingston sculptural biennial — two towers by the side of the creek whose creator is unknown. When I visited, Susan Rowe Harrison, who created the colored designs in transparent vinyl that adhere to two of the large clerestory windows on the second floor (the pale colors and attenuated geometric forms suggest a whimsy and energetic lightness),  was painting the long steel support of one of the gigantic trailers on the grounds, presumably used for transporting Iannucci’s PT boats (which are stored nearby). Judging from the small painting she used as a model, the steel will be transformed into an abstract composition of vibrant color, drawing attention to the site and changing our awareness of it. 

Since opening from noon to five on Saturdays and Sundays — recently extended to Fridays from four to seven — “we’ve had tons of people come in,” reported Saffer. All visitors must wear a mask and social-distance. Most viewers are from the region but outside Kingston, he added. 

While De Chiara and Saffer take a commission for pieces they sell, both say love of ArtPort, certainly not the possibility of earning money, is what motivates them. The couple, who have two children and live in nearby Bloomington, have long-time careers in the arts. De Chiara, who grew up in New York City and has a graduate degree in arts administration from New York University, opened two galleries, the first in Chelsea in 1997, the second in Berlin in 2001. She has participated in numerous art fairs and curated exhibitions all over the world, including two upcoming shows in Luxemburg and Stuttgart. 

In 2010 she started a nonprofit called ArtPod to host large-scale accessible art projects and commissioned exhibitions, including an art show curated for a public school in the West Village.

Saffer grew up in a tiny farm village in southern Germany. He studied art at the Academy of Fine Arts Nuremburg and earned an MFA at Goldsmiths, in London. He started a collaborative project called Mobile Porch, a circular-structured vehicle that traveled to urban development areas in London for community art projects, and later conducted art workshops for major corporations. He participated in an independent study program at the Whitney Museum of Art in 2003-4. As a practicing artist he has been commissioned to do numerous public art projects, been selected for artist’s residencies in Europe and the US, and in 2019 participated in the O+ Festival (for his project, called Share a Chair, he collected donations of chairs, painted them, and put them in the street for people to sit on and take). 

De Chiara and Saffer moved to the Kingston area for family reasons, and they haven’t looked back. “I compare Kingston to Berlin as it was 15 years ago, when it had the same open playing-field structure,” Saffer said. “It was very poor. But artists started doing things, as they did in Chelsea in the late 1990s …. We believe in the power of art. Art always survives. What it does is open a new view. We could be planting a seed here that blossoms into something else.”

Added De Chiara: “I want ArtPort to be a cultural harbor. We want to do film screenings and panel discussions and make people feel comfortable coming in. To be a place that brings people together. To create a community, that’s part of the plan.”