The Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center has hired a new executive director. Peter Criswell will soon be taking up the mantle of longtime chief Jeff Rindler, who plans to step down within the next few months in order to devote more time to an elderly parent’s health needs. “I’m not in the chair yet,” says Criswell. “I’ll be going through a transition period with the previous executive director.”
Criswell is also a first-term county legislator from Kingston. He serves as a member of the City of Kingston’s Arts Commission, where he’s working on drafting an arts and culture master plan. He has done curriculum development at the Omega Institute, and is an active participant at the Dharmakaya Center for Wellbeing in Cragsmoor, where he has also been executive director for the past year and a half. He sings tenor in the regional LGBTQ chorus, Key of Q, and he has played the part of Rip Van Winkle in the annual Sinterklaas parade.
Native to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Criswell first came to live in the Hudson Valley in the late 1980s, when he was studying theater and anthropology at Bard College, pursuing a fascination with “ritual theater.” He credits his liberal-arts education at Bard with providing him a toolbox for “problem-solving and figuring out how to make things happen.”
Later on, he delved deeper into the “sacred art” of clowning at the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Clown College, and later still organized tours that sent students to perform commedia dell’ arte shows at Bosnian refugee camps. Criswell’s résumé is laced with threads of interest that don’t necessarily appear related at first, but go on to interweave into a vocational tapestry that makes perfect sense seen as a whole.
His graduate work – at Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania and Manhattanville College – has focused on not-for-profit management, which he calls “a natural segue for me” after his early gigs performing and teaching physical theater.
“So much of it’s about relationships,” Criswell explains.
His professional trajectory led him back to his home state of Pennsylvania for his first taste of being an executive director at Historic Philadelphia Inc., while also starting up his own business, Interactive Antics, to do things like organize corporate retreats and train actors and singers to perform in Victorian costume.
Then it was on to New York City, where he spent two heady summers as company manager for the Lincoln Center Festival. “I had to find accommodations for 100 dancers from Korea while 50 singers from Brazil were arriving at the same time.” While there, and for years afterwards, he helped produce the Greenwich Village Halloween parade.
While he loved the work, the Lincoln Center gig was only seasonal, so he took the opportunity to become interim director of Hudson Valley Heritage, a job which lasted a year. Returning to New York City, he ran study-abroad youth programs for the International Partnership for Service Learning and Leadership.
His next executive director job was for Big Apple Performing Arts, the umbrella organization for the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus and Youth Pride Chorus. The latter he calls “heart work,” citing the way young people estranged from their families blossomed and found self-confidence as they sang together onstage. “The arts have power,” Criswell observes.
By 2015, he felt the urge to come back to the Hudson Valley, and took the position at Omega, which he calls “one of the premier retreat places on the planet.” After about four years, he says, “I wanted to get back into executive director mode.” So he got involved with the startup of the Dharmakaya Center. “But that abruptly got dismantled by Covid. Then the job at the Center came out, and I decided I wanted to get closer to home physically.”
His new position at the LGBTQ Center should mesh well with the committee work he has been doing on community issues as a county legislator. Arts, education funding and public health are all part of his portfolio. One of the Center’s best-established programs is the Well-Being Institute, which offers yoga classes, counseling sessions and wellness resources that seem a natural outgrowth of Criswell’s work at Interactive Antics, Omega and Dharmakaya.
It helps that Criswell has grown very fond of his adopted city of Kingston, which he describes as “a little gritty and a lot artsy.”
Reaching out to the LGBTQ Center’s underserved constituencies in farther-flung parts of the county will be a priority as he takes the helm, he says. The organization’s shift to virtual programming to adapt to the pandemic is something that he hopes will serve as a long-term transformative experience. “We cannot ignore this,” he says. “In the future, there’s going to be blended learning.”