Kingston: Capital of Culture | Kingston | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
Kingston: Capital of Culture
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.

Midtown restaurants are melding cuisine with the arts scene. Peace Nation Café;, serving Latin farm-to-table fare, and southern eatery Pakt have both recently launched monthly art openings, while gastropub/cocktail bar The Beverly presents events like film screenings and burlesque shows.

Several more multi-use Midtown cultural institutions combine gallery showings with regular cultural programming, like Cornell Street Studios, A.I.R. Studio Gallery, and the year-old Green Kill Gallery. Look out for neighborhood arts stores hosting classes and workshops, like R&F Handmade Paints and Bailey Pottery, along with artists-and-musicians supply shops, Rhinebeck Artist's Shop, and Barcone's Music.

Longstanding cultural anchor Ulster Performing Arts Center (UPAC) – a 1,500-seat historic show palace on Broadway, dating to 1927—programs a slate of year-round entertainment spanning concerts, comedy, theater, dance, and film. Run by the Poughkeepsie-based Bardavon since 2007, the venue is gearing up for a major $4.7 million renovation, which will see it close for six months starting in June.

For live music, bands regularly play at craft-beer-and-burger joint The Anchor and microbrewery Keegan Ales.

Uptown Rhythm

The heartbeat of Kingston's music scene, though, emanates from the landmarked buildings littered throughout Uptown's historic Stockade District. BSP Kingston (Backstage Studio Productions), set within an early-1900s vaudeville theater/movie house on Wall Street, is one of the Hudson Valley's top spots for live music, DJ-helmed dance parties, and special events.

More music venues line Wall Street: Alley Cat Blues & Jazz Club opened over the summer with live blues and jazz bands most weekend nights. The LGBTQ a cappella chorus Key of Q frequently performs at the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center; the center also runs art openings, Latin dance nights, and film screenings. The 1852 Old Dutch Church hosts a regular series of concerts, as well as occasional theatrical productions. Around the corner, year-old event space Senate Garage recently introduced a series of Thursday- night jazz performances.

Diego's pairs Mexican fare with live music on Fridays; Two Ravens Tavern features an Irish band the first Sunday of the month; and Stockade Tavern hosts occasional jazz nights. Uncle Willy's and Snapper Magee's, two North Front Street dive bars, tout active live music calendars for touring and local bands.

North Front Street proposes one-stop-shopping for musicians and connoisseurs alike, with music/bookshop Rhino Records and vinyl-specialized Rocket Number Nine Records (around the corner, on Wall Street, Blue-Byrd's Haberdashery & Music sells new and used CDs), along with two guitar shops: Saker Guitar Works and Stockade Guitars.

Naturally, where there's music, there's movement. At the BSP complex, the Dance Studio at BSP hosts weekly scheduled dance classes; Uptown Swing runs a monthly night of live jazz and swing dancing; and the 2016-debuted Hudson Valley Circus Arts school leads circus and aerial arts instruction.

Kingston: Capital of Culture
John Garay
Connor Brainard and friend at Half Moon Books.

Beyond beats in Uptown, check out bibliophile haven Half Moon Books; bi level arts-and-crafts emporium Catskill Art & Office Supply; bazaar-style shop Bop to Tottom; upscale home design boutique Exit Nineteen; the June-debuted doll artists showcase Uncanny Gallery; the street-level studio of Kingstonian artist and diorama fanatic Matthew Pleva; and The Yoga House, for its original mandala mural and artsy yogic community.

Downtown Arts

Kingston's maritime-flavored Downtown area—dubbed the Strand or the Rondout (thanks to its waterfront location on the Rondout Creek)—touts more traditional art galleries.

The nabe's cultural heavyweight is the Arts Society of Kingston (ASK) on Broadway, which puts on two visual arts gallery shows per month; upstairs, a performing arts space was added on in 2015 to host a range of concerts and events. More notable neighborhood galleries beckon: the One Mile Gallery, Donskoj & Co., and The Storefront Gallery.

On Broadway, the May-debuted Clove and Creek boutique vends a selection of handmade crafts and housewares from local makers; two-year-old Brunette wine bar hosts author book readings, art shows, and a monthly vinyl music night; and Pivot Ground Cafe & Workspace—a coffee shop/co-working space—likewise puts on music events and art shows. Nearby, the nearly 70-year-old theater troupe Coach House Players is billed as the longest-operating community theater company in Ulster County.

The Rondout's culturally flavored festivals and events include the 2016- debuted, Brooklyn-transplanted foodie fest Smorgasburg Upstate, featuring grub and live music at the historic Hutton Brickyards; Broadway's Kingston Night Market, matching live music with 40-plus artsy vendors; and the quirky Artist Soapbox Derby, a "parade of kinetic sculptures" held on Broadway each August.

Festival Frenzied

Beyond Downtown, more citywide arts-and-music fests and events abound, like First Saturdays, first-Saturday-of-the-month evening gallery receptions held throughout the city, and the two-day Art Walk Kingston (September 23–24, 2017), which showcased over 70 local artists and galleries in its inaugural 2016 edition. (And save the date for the fifth annual Chronogram Block Party on August 19.)

The king of local festivals is the annual weekend-long arts-and-music-packed O+ Festival, which matches participating artists and musicians with free health-care and wellness services. In its seventh year in 2017 (October 6-8), the fest has more than doubled in size since its 2010 debut, spawning nationwide spin-offs, and leaving a permanent legacy in Kingston via the 22 murals that it's commissioned across city walls.

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