The Hinterlands: Can artists and dealers change the creative and economic landscape of Upstate New York?

The artist Swoon got something right in capturing a cultural sea change, when she sailed a flotilla down the Hudson River in 2008. Commanding a small fleet of radically aestheticized junkcraft and theatrically unseaworthy flotsam, she embarked on a monthlong voyage from the rusty post-industrial town of Troy to New York City, 150 miles south. The freak flag armada paid calls at numerous rivertowns and sagging mill cities along the way—Hudson, Kingston, Beacon—depressed communities then experiencing one degree or another of cultural and economic revival. Intentionally or not, the Huck Finn-meets-hippie-steampunk art action tapped into (and in some sense symbolically upended) a complex, unequal, and long-standing symbiotic cultural relationship between New York City and its upstate hinterlands, a push-pull codependency that has centered, both geographically and psychologically, on the axial artery of the Hudson River Valley. By delivering art from the boondocks to the metropolis, as it were, Swoon’s Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea, however inadvertently, questioned the abiding model of the cultural dominance of the city center to the periphery, the established powerhouse of the urban art world to the far-flung artistic communities, economies, and creative endeavors existing in its backyard orbit.

Much has been made of late about the “Brooklyn-ization” of one rundown upstate mill town or farming community or another. (Glossy magazine features and over-heated blogs engage in such dubious exercises as speculating whether Kingston is the new Bushwick, Millerton the new Greenpoint.) Handy catchphrases of millennial “rurbanista” hipsterdom belie the complexity of the forces at play in the region as a whole, the ad hoc, uneven nature of this latest revitalization. Nonetheless, the resurgence is genuine, and changes in New York City’s economic and cultural landscape have everything to do with it. When artists can no longer find affordable studios, let alone housing, in a metropolitan area rapidly running out of places to “discover,” and when that condition has a deadening effect on the vitality and vigor of the emergent artistic life of the city, artists will begin to look elsewhere. And they are.

Consider the town of Catskill: This once thriving manufacturing hub turned passed over economic deadzone can still, on any given weekday morning, appear as destitute as it has for decades, with its sulking old mills and vacant shops offering little visually in the way of hopeful bustle. But the town is stirring. In February, artists Christin Ripley and Patrick Kiley opened Publication Studio Hudson in a 19th-century brick storefront on Main Street. The two see the space as a nimble multidisciplinary enterprise—a studio for producing everything from handmade artists’ books and print editions to larger-run publications for specialty presses; an exhibition space with a tight program of group shows of local and city-based artists; and an event space for summer film series, talks, workshops on paper marbling and bookbinding, and salons. Although less than a year old, PSH has seen attendance and support grow swiftly and Ripley and Kiley realize they are serving a need for a meeting place for artists, artisans, and other “makers” living in the area.

The two are good examples of the new young-ish demographic simultaneously finding and building a community in the area (both studied art in New York City, and after struggling with the grind, decided to become willing exiles in a land of affordable rents and spaces to work). To pay the bills, they and their cohort of fellow artists work a spectrum of odd jobs and side trades as studio assistants, carpenters, organic goat farm workers, seamstresses, and preparators at galleries in Hudson, but unlike in the city, they have short commutes and more time left over to work at what they love.

Like many of their friends, Ripley and Kiley planted their flag in Catskill but live across the river in Hudson, a small city of almost 7,000 that has emerged as the poster child of this swift reversal of upstate fortune. Twenty years after a crop of antique shops became the first beachheads of gentrification, Hudson has become an end-destination for full-time residents who count themselves among the “creative class”—or those who identify with it—a nebulous tribe including artists, writers, musicians, designers, and art dealers, but also counting internet entrepreneurs, rustic-chic furniture purveyors, magazine editors, freelancers, woodworkers, crafters, and to serve them all, a cadre of well-trained baristas. Those who’ve fallen in love with Hudson frequently compare this town (once renowned for its upriver whaling port, high crime, and disproportionate number of brothels) to larger alternative enclaves in places like San Francisco, Montreal, Portland(s), or Ashville, North Carolina.  

Last winter, Chelsea gallerist Zach Feuer teamed up with Lower East Side dealer Joel Mesler to open Retrospective, a storefront gallery on Warren Street featuring a freeform, experimental program for younger, lesser-known artists away from the glare of Manhattan. Feuer, a longtime second-homer in the area, moved to Hudson when he realized that physically occupying his Chelsea space attending to foot traffic was as ludicrously inessential to the success of his business as it was boring—his sales, he says, come from art fairs, phone calls, and the internet, not brick-and-mortar. In recent months Retrospective has branched out to satellite pop-up spaces in old buildings and rowhouses around town, featuring shows with a swift turnaround time. (A recent rambling installation by painter Landon Metz allowed him to fill three floors of a breezy domestic interior with his minimal dyed canvases; another summer exhibition, “Ambulance Blues,” a group show curated by Erin Falls, featured nearly 20 artists and music by metal guitarist Mick Barr and others mounted in multiple spaces, including the massive performance venue, Basilica Hudson.) The gallery has been joined by others, including ex-Chelsea and fellow NADA member Jeff Bailey, as well as Jack Shainman’s outpost The School in nearby Kinderhook—a rehabbed high school turned expansive exhibition space.

The trend of for-profit, nonprofit, and institutional artistic reclamation arguably began with Basilica Hudson itself, the labor of love started in 2008 and formalized in 2010 by former Smashing Pumpkins and Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur and filmmaker Tony Stone in a cavernous 18,000-square-foot, 19th-century railroad foundry and glue factory on the city’s post-industrial riverfront. Basilica hosts summer film series, workshops, occasional art installations, two non-commercial editions of the NADA art fair, and the popular annual music festival Basilica Soundscape every September. The driven and outspoken Hudson-booster Auf der Mauer is currently seeking nonprofit status for the artist-run space and leading the effort to make the local political climate more friendly to fledgling arts institutions and the positive changes they can bring to a town still in transition. Following the trend, the Marina Abramovic Institute, a space that will be devoted exclusively to the support and presentation of “long durational work”—performance, sound, dance—in a Depression-era theater being overhauled by Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture, will open in 2016. Everyone is wondering what further changes the “Marina Effect” will bring to a town that remains a Rorschach blot for people’s expectations, hopes, and fears. For some, Hudson risks edging toward a hothouse hipness and over-curated self-reflexivity, in a community where 20 percent of the original population still lives below the poverty line and has yet to visibly benefit from this renaissance. For others, it is a place where art could play a meaningful role in the way a uniquely unconventional town can determine its future and shape its identity.

Heige Kim worked for Matthew Marks Gallery in Chelsea before joining the upstate diaspora in 2007, when she and her husband moved full-time to Rosendale, NY. Sitting in the hill and hollow country just west of the river, Rosendale, like nearby Kingston (with its clutch of alternative galleries like Oo and emergent music scene), is slowly defining itself as a more low-key enclave for creative urban refugees. At the center of this growing artistic community is Kim’s Roos Arts space, inaugurated in 2009 in a vacant Hopper-esque storefront, which looks onto the Rondout Creek. She knew immediately that Roos could be the perfect place to meet artists, make new friends, and install shows that she actually wanted to see and experience, with a program of readings, performances, and events. Since her welcoming debut show “Meet & Cake,” Kim has made Roos an eclectic forum where contemporary practitioners from various locations and disciplines can share their work and initiate conversations to enrich the community as a whole. In the years since relocating to Rosendale, she has seen the neighborhood evolve and vacant buildings reinvented (the old roadhouse out on the main route became a hip bar, breakfast spot, and music venue operated by other Brooklynite émigrés).  Kim is still fine-tuning her space to keep it responsive and energetic, opening Roos Mart (a small shop offering affordable artist-produced objects and editions), showing more local artists as the sophistication and quality of that art evolves, while welcoming partnerships with other emergent art spaces and initiatives in the region. (The hamlet is also home to the innovative CHRCH Project Space and the 40-year old Women’s Studio Workshop, a pioneering exhibition and studio program with a feminist mission founded in 1974.)

Filling out this terrain is a growing number of seriously engaging and diverse artist residencies in the region—from the radically rigorous yet rustic annual series of workshops and collective projects based at Mildred’s Lane, founded in 2009 by artists Morgan J. Puett and Mark Dion on their farm near Narrowsburg, N.Y., to the brand new Shandaken Project in the Catskill Mountains on the grounds of an old hunting and gambling redoubt. Add to this the emergence of noteworthy seasonal festivals that more closely resemble backwoods boot camps for those equally interested in plein air whimsy and performative happenings, pop-up sustainable architecture seminars, experimental film screenings, pirate radio, nomadic roots music, farm-to-table workshops, and multi-generational creative play (Peter Coffin’s annual The Last Weekend project in Wurtsboro, the O+ Festival in Kingston) and a richer panorama of creative ferment and activity, distinct and independent if not wholly autonomous from the gravitational tug of New York City, begins to suggest itself. Whether this rising tide of energy and vitality can succeed in benefiting more than a relative handful of ex-urban newcomers and change the quality of life and economic landscape for the region as a whole is a tall order. What differentiates this new culture from those pastoral art communes and colonies of the early 20th century, or the postwar trend of artists fleeing the city to tranquil seclusion, is a new holistic approach to living that is sophisticated, skilled, multidisciplinary, collaborative, and global in its outlook to its local surroundings. In an ideal world, that distinction may give this latest cycle of rural creative revitalization a fighting chance at enriching everyone, farm to table.

Images: Exterior view of Publication Studio Hudson, 460 Main St., Catskill, NY, 12414. Exterior view of Jeff Bailey Gallery, 127 Warren Street, Hudson, NY 12534; installation views of “Martin McMurray: The Case for Dream Insurance” at Jeff Bailey Gallery. Retrospective Gallery and Retrospective Gallery @ Basilica Hudson images courtesy of Retrospective Gallery, Hudson, NY. Installation views, Nick Cave, The School, Kinderhook, New York; ©Nick Cave. Photos by James Prinz Photography and Jeremy Lawson. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Installation views, “Mise en Scène,” The School, Kinderhook, New York. Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Roos Arts, 449 Main Street, Rosendale, NY.