For the arts, stagnation is never a good thing. In New Paltz, the Unison Arts and Learning Center – founded in 1976, with a devoted-but-greying audience base – has struggled over the past decade to make itself more relevant, to broaden its appeal. Geographically remote from potential younger users on the SUNY campus and strapped for cash to do much-needed maintenance, the not-for-profit organization came within a hair of giving up its longtime home at 68 Mountain Rest Road and moving downtown at the end of 2014. Supporters rallied, Unison headquarters was saved and renovated; but turnover of executive directors remained high, and freshening its audience remained a challenge.
Now there’s a new guy in charge, and his ideas for how to pump new life into the beloved arts center border on the radical. He wants to “embody social justice in the practices of the arts” and make sure that artists who show their work at Unison always get fairly paid, for example. The idea of running a not-for-profit purely on donated energy appeals to the idealism of both the hippie generation who founded the place and Gen Z hipsters who have mastered creative employment of crowdfunding and the barter economy; but it isn’t a sustainable model.
Luckily, new money and new arts-savvy consumers are flooding into the mid-Hudson in the wake of the pandemic, and awareness of the arts as a green industry that can help drive the local economy was already on the rise in Ulster County even before COVID struck. It also helps that a historic building in New Paltz, right near the Thruway exit, was donated to Unison one year ago: a beachhead that can serve to enhance the organization’s visibility to townies and tourists.
Into these changing circumstances strides Faheem Haider, who took up the mantle of Unison ED – last worn by Alex Baer – on October 1. Aged 43, he looks younger, perhaps due to his long hair. Haider was born in Bangladesh and moved with his family to Orange County at the age of 13. He’s still an Orange resident, although he traveled, studied and worked widely in the years since. His education at NYU and Columbia was in Political Science, with a special focus on democratic theory and South Asian politics. He started a doctoral program at the London School of Economics, but dropped out due to a family emergency and came back to the US. Wherever he lived, he was spending his leisure time visiting art museums.
Haider found work at think tanks like the Foreign Policy Association and the Wilson Center, writing and organizing roundtables about issues in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh. But by 2011, his secondary interest in art had lured him to enroll in an MFA program at SUNY-New Paltz, “without having had a single art class in my career.” He took over the role of art critic at Chronogram from Beth Wilson, one of his mentors on the SUNY faculty, and soon became a Hudson Valley correspondent for art publications including Hyperlergic and Sculpture.
His MFA completed, Haider got hired as an adjunct in the SUNY Art Department, got involved with labor activism, became a sounding board for undocumented students and other students of color who were struggling with issues like loan debt. “The presidency of Donald Trump broke me,” he says. “All those kids came crying to me; they told me things I was not prepared for – their despair and desolation. The extra labor of being witness to their suffering became too much, and I left.”
While continuing his involvement in the arts by curating exhibitions, Haider then immersed himself in local and regional politics. He worked on the Board of Elections, became vice-chair of the Orange County Democrats, volunteered as field director for Chad McEvoy’s unsuccessful District 101 Assembly campaign in 2020 and founded a local chapter of Our Revolution, a national spinoff of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.
This commitment to political activism is an integral part of the skillset and mindset that Haider brings to Unison’s mission. He sees art as always contextual, reflective of the social milieu in which it’s created, and wants to present it as “not objects, but a way of conveying resonance, as embodied experience.” He’s determined to curate shows at the center with an attitude that “the work itself matters, as labor – to convey respect.”
He also notes that the population of the Village of New Paltz is “young and very poor,” with a median age of 23, 73 percent of them renters. To connect this audience to the arts center, at either of its two locations, means engaging with socioeconomic, political and environmental issues that impact their lives, to “make sure people see themselves in Unison.” “Broadening and deepening our relationship with SUNY” and “building relationships with community partners” are two approaches that will get more emphasis on his watch, Haider says.
How will this play out in practical terms? A “robust” internship program at both sites, for one thing. An afterschool performing arts program called Unison Arts Academy will be starting up in 2022, run by artist-in-residence Stephen Jacobs, a musician whose Dirty Sock Funtime Band was a regular on the Nick Jr. Channel. Haider, his staff and board are hoping that young families, perhaps new to the area, will bring their kids to Unison classes and get equally enthusiastic about the programming for adults.
But we can also expect more exhibitions in the vein of the Unison sculpture garden’s current “Owning Earth,” up through October 2022, in which artists “challenge the intolerable cruelty of deeply entrenched systems of domination – over our environment, other species and other humans – and imagine alternatives based on mutuality and reverence.” Haider sees such work as a logical outgrowth of Unison’s long-running countercultural tradition, himself as a “steward” of that legacy and the center itself as “an intimate, plucky space” that can support shows that resonate for new generations.
Up next at Unison’s Mountain Rest location is “here/elsewhere,” a solo exhibition of photography by Kimberley Ruth, professor at SUNY New Paltz and host of the podcast Art Uncovered. It opened on December 18 and runs through February 6. To keep visitors coming to the sculpture garden during the colder months, one of Unison’s founders, Peter Pitzele, will host a free weekly community gathering around a hearth dug in the ground, where there will be a welcoming fire and a grill. These potlucks will be held every Sunday beginning January 6.