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Kingston: Capital of Culture

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Leighann Kowalsky at the Dance Studio at BSP. - JOHN GARAY
  • John Garay
  • Leighann Kowalsky at the Dance Studio at BSP.

Perhaps not since the British came blazing through town during Revolutionary War days has Kingston felt quite so on fire. Thankfully, a good 240 years later, Kingston's strictly metaphorically "hot" these days, as it's firmly transitioned from its former role as New York State's 18th-century political capital to its 21st-century one of a cutting-edge cultural center, oozing buzz and newfound potential.

Indeed, ask just about anybody with a creative inkling, and they'll surely tell you that Kingston rocks. That it does. But it also paints, dances, acts, films, and otherwise creates. The small city-that-could—a neo-Bohemian waypoint between New York City and Albany—is in the midst of a full-fledged, synergistic, arts-driven urban revitalization and reinvention. It's been bolstered by a burgeoning creative-class citizenry, with newcomers drawn by the flourishing arts-and-music scene, paired with the city's historic sites, diverse architectural inventory, outstanding dining, natural beauty (with a location wedged between the Catskills and Hudson River), and overall affordability.

"Kingston's art scene has exploded in the past year," said Linda Marston-Reid, executive director of regional arts organization Arts Mid-Hudson. "Many innovative new galleries and events have joined the vibrant scene, creating a buzz around the entire city of Kingston," she added.

Ward Mintz, chairman of the just-over-a-year-old, City of Kingston-backed Kingston Arts Commission, expressed that the arts renaissance here has not only been a magnet for cultural tourism and community building, but that it also serves as an important economic generator. "I believe that a reason that the economy is doing so well is because of the arts," he offered.

While the fast-evolving city encompasses a patchwork of three distinct yet collaborating creative communities—Uptown, Midtown, and Downtown (or, the Rondout)—it's Midtown that's in the midst of the most palpable and rapid-fire transformation.

Midtown Rising

Launched in fall, the Midtown Arts District (MAD)—an organization of more than 200 art-based businesses spread out across 40 Midtown buildings—was formed "as a platform for revitalization, economic investment, and community enrichment" in the Midtown area, the city's former industrial epicenter and its historically economically depressed core. A series of old vacant and underutilized industrial buildings are now being inventively reimagined by artists and entrepreneurs alike.

Some of MAD's current initiatives include forming a citywide gallery coalition, launching a Midtown-based community arts program, and backing the development of the Broadway Commons community space, a seasonal Spiegeltent-inspired special events venue that will overtake an abandoned lot on Broadway in late April.

The most transformative Midtown projects to date have involved the arts-oriented repurposing of several old factories, including three century-old buildings transformed by real estate developer Mike Piazza over the last 15 years. Piazza's artist loft/studio space-friendly trio includes the Brush Factory and Pajama Factory, and his flagship Shirt Factory; the latter includes 60 commercial and residential units, including the new Hudson Valley Silverworks school (offering jewelry and silversmithing classes), as well as studio spaces for artists like ceramist Robert Hessler, painter Leslie Bender, and visual and performance artist Nina Isabelle.

Kingston-based affordable housing advocate and provider RUPCO has likewise backed a trio of major Midtown revitalization projects, including the highly lauded, July 2015-debuted The Lace Mill, which reimagined a former curtain factory as an affordable 55-unit artist live/work space complex, including several public galleries. Other upcoming RUPCO projects include the Energy Square development at the site of Midtown's soon-to-be demolished bowling alley; at least two years out, it will bring together mixed-income housing, the Hudson Valley Tech Meetup headquarters, and a new location for the Center for Creative Education, offering arts, wellness, and cultural programming geared toward underserved youth.

RUPCO's The Metro complex on Greenkill Avenue (about 20 months out from its anticipated opening date)—set within the former Pilgrim Furniture factory—is slated to house maker spaces, as well as the Stockade Works film and production studios (the brainchild of director-actor Mary Stuart Masterson). Stockade Works will surely catapult Kingston's budding TV and film industry, boosted by recent film production tax credits in the Mid-Hudson Valley: Already established businesses include turnkey media production facility Seven21 Media Center, and prop and set developer American Made Monster Studios.

Broadway has proven fertile ground for a slate of newish galleries: the July-debuted Broadway Arts; the September-launched (P)optimism Shoppe; and the 2.5-year-old ARTBAR Gallery. The Pop-Up Gallery Group (PUGG) debuted in December in conjunction with a two-year-old arts management training program at Kingston High School, giving participating students hands-on experience in running a gallery. Opening in June, the Kingston Pop Museum will show monthly exhibitions curating works from international and local artists.

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