Writer and editor James Trainor’s recent essay in Artsy about the Hudson Valley art scene — obnoxiously titled “The Hinterlands: Can artists and dealers change the creative and economic landscape of Upstate New York?” — reads like a call to artist-saviors to move up the Hudson in order to colonize the virgin, green Hinterlands in the name of high culture. A long quote right from the first paragraph, ostensibly about a 2008 work by Swoon, gives away Trainor’s view:
The freak flag armada paid calls at numerous river towns 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.
Trainor’s account, even while allowing the critical potential of Swoon’s work, suggests a view of the Hudson Valley as a hinterland, uncharted and unknown (though codependent!) — not, as is actually the case, a place with a cultural economy that’s long sustained itself and even helped shape art and material practices that have redefined the way “centrists” in New York City view themselves.
Reading on in Trainor’s essay, we find: “backwoods boot camps,” “the cultural dominance of the city center to the periphery,” and finally, “cultural and economic revival” (emphasis mine) — as if these expressions were sufficient to describe the Hudson Valley, as if the area had no prior lived history in art and life. Though he name-checks good people who moved up the Hudson recently to live and start up art spaces around the area, Trainor chooses to ignore the longer history of art, art production, and culture in the area. In doing so he offers a static, sui generis, ahistorical account that has a “Gentrifier’s Manifesto” vibe.
Never mind that in 1825, Thomas Cole, a working-class English émigré landscape painter, sailed up the Hudson River and helped shape the first homegrown American “school” of painting, the Hudson River School. Cole and his friends and students were interested in painting the sublime, that great pictorial index of the Second Great Awakening, and sailed up and down the Hudson River to paint landscapes around the Catskill Mountains. Eventually Cole, and later his principal student, Frederic Church, moved up to the Catskills to paint nearly full time. Church became the recognized leader of the movement and helped propose new accounts of life grounded not only in representations of the sublime, but also in active engagement with, and stewardship of, nature. You can trace the roots of current practices in environmentally conscious art, eco-art, to the Hudson River School. Indeed, a wide range of practices and collectives umbrellaed under that rather bland term are thriving in the Hudson Valley.
Around the same time that Cole and his colleagues were defining the terms of an genuinely American art, local Newburgher Andrew Jackson Downing was developing new modes of horticulture based on sustainability and employing them in landscape gardening and architecture. Interested in Romanticism and urbanism, Downing was commissioned by President Fillmore to develop the spaces around the Mall in Washington, DC, and although his plans were never fully implemented, whatever bits Congress funded are what you see around the Smithsonian museums today. One of his disciples, Frederick Law Olmstead, designed a rather famous large park according to Downing’s views on living culture: Central Park. The New York City landmark is part of the history of art and life in the Hudson Valley that I love.
Trainor writes anecdotally about the gallery and experimental project spaces that really have engaged new and developing communities of residents and visitors upstate. But his account focuses on the experiences of recent New York transplants, only reinforcing the model of the displaced city art-worlder as savior of down-and-out towns. In fact, the Hudson Valley is home to a large number of local institutions that have long been doing their share to offer art and cultural amenities. Take the Hessel Museum at Bard College, the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, and the various small and large art spaces at SUNY campuses. Take Ann Street Gallery in Newburgh, around since 2007; it shows emerging contemporary work in a space as large as any in Chelsea and has programming as current as any on the Lower East Side. Trainor isn’t interested in the entrepreneurs and artists who’ve worked in the Hudson Valley for decades, and whose work makes the art you see in the city — so, no mention of Dick Polich, the founder and owner of Polich Tallix fine art foundry in Rock Tavern, which fabricates all the Koons piece that people have been going gaga over (among others). The artists and craftspeople who’ve been fabricating monumentally scaled sculptures since the late ’60s right here in the Hudson Valley would be surprised to hear that the work they do came from some sodden hinterland in need of saving.
The Hudson Valley doesn’t need more house-flipping believers in Manifest Destiny; it needs voyagers and adventurers like the advocates of art and life people now call the “Hudson River School,” who want to seek out new possibilities, push on despite challenges, put roots deep in the ground, who have long-term views on life and dwelling, who work hard yet wish to leave as little disturbed in their path as possible. If you’re one of those, come join us. We’ve been waiting for you.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.