Hudson Valley proves the arts can transform a community

NEW PALTZ, N.Y. — An interesting idea to improve the economy has spread through communities in the Hudson Valley. The idea is simple – if you want people to buy things, attract them with art first.

The concept is simple enough. The communities pick a day during which artists put their wares on display near the street – paintings, sculptures and other works of art enliven the area with beautiful things to look at. As it pulls in the people, it also pulls in their money.

In Beacon and Woodstock it is called “Second Saturdays.” Kingston claims “First Saturdays,” Phoenicia has “Third Saturdays” and Saugerties holds “First Fridays.” Each town employs a version of this promotional strategy to draw out members of the community and visitors from afar to enjoy art and explore shops and restaurants.

On the designated Friday or Saturday of each month the streets come alive. Special shows and musical events go on throughout the day, parking lots overflow, art galleries open new exhibits and stay open late, artists come to speak about their work, restaurants offer special menus. For some, like Beacon’s Second Saturdays, the event has spread beyond the arts, with other organizations, such as environmental groups, getting in on the action. In all cases, from the city of Kingston to the hamlet of Phoenicia, it is a community affair.

While there are foundational similarities between the vibrant monthly events of each town, there are also differences in how the events are run. In the small hamlet of Phoenicia “Third Saturdays” are hosted by and for The Art Upstairs, the only art gallery in the community. For them, Third Saturday marks the opening of a new exhibit in the gallery–a celebration which brings the community together in an eclectic potluck of art, food and music. According to the director of The Art Upstairs, Margaret Owen, Third Saturdays in Phoenicia are a staple in the community, so ingrained that the main form of event promotion is word of mouth.

It is quite a different story for Beacon, whose Second Saturday events are strategically organized and promoted by BeaconArts, a nonprofit that promotes culture and the arts in Beacon. Kelly Ellenwood, president of BeaconArts, described Second Saturdays as a marketing tool for the community. BeaconArts promotes Second Saturdays online and with brochures, advertising which day people should visit Beacon. According to Ellenwood, it is open to all the local businesses if they want to participate. Any business or organization hosting an event can contact BeaconArts to get their name on the list of Second Saturday events. Beacon also benefits from a world-class art museum, Dia:Beacon, whose arrival first inspired the Second Saturdays in Beacon.

For most of these communities, the monthly event is not a new development. This year Beacon celebrates 15 years of Second Saturdays. Kingston’s First Saturdays are at least 14 years old and Phoenicia’s Third Saturdays at least 12. Though Saugerties’s First Fridays are relatively new–beginning in 2014–their positive effects on the community are as noticeable as in the other towns.  

Mark Smith, chairman of the Saugerties Chamber of Commerce, called First Fridays a “community social event.” According to him, the locals look forward to it and it brings their tight knit community even closer together.

Similarly, Margaret Owen of The Art Upstairs called Third Saturdays “the most popular event that happens in the little town of Phoenicia.” She said many locals have expressed how important and valuable the event is to them and the town.

As well as bolstering the community socially, the events benefit the Hudson Valley communities economically.

Ward Todd, president of the Ulster County Chamber of Commerce, praised the role of the arts in his communities. “Ulster County is blessed to be the second highest concentration of artists per capita, outside of New York City,” Todd said. “The restaurants are busier, the other shops are busier.”

Todd and others noted how the arts can change a community, attracting visitors and new community members.

Residents of Phoenicia and Beacon note such transformations. Dave Channon, a local artist and former public relations officer for The Art Upstairs in Phoenicia, emphasized the cultural diversity that the event brings to the community. Phoenicia used to be known for and marketed as an outdoorsy getaway, featuring tubing, hiking, trout fishing, and hunting. According to Channon, the emerging art scene is changing Phoenicia’s image, diversifying it. Kelly Ellenwood of BeaconArts also cited how art had revitalized and diversified the Beacon community over the past decade or so. Interestingly, both Channon and Ellenwood said that the growth in the arts seems to have led to an increase in Airbnb’s in their communities. What were once economically struggling communities have flourished into “vibrant, friendly, welcoming communities,” Ellenwood said.

“The arts tend to transform a place,” Ellenwood said. “Property values rise, businesses are established, a scene is created.”

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