Hudson Valley – The Hidden World of Art in Upstate New York

Fri, 22 April 2016
manitoga studio hudson valley new yorkManitoga

Beyond New York, you’d probably look to Chicago or Miami for the next art capital in the US, with Florida playing host to one of the country’s most on-trend annual art fairs. New Yorkers (myself included) are willing to shell out hundreds of dollars each December and travel thousands of miles to move at a snail’s pace through the crowds at Art Basel. All the while, a much smaller and more cutting-edge art scene is quietly emerging on our doorstep.

Hudson Valley – a picturesque cluster of towns running along the Hudson River – is the epicentre of American contemporary art. Here you’ll find sculpture parks, stunning installations, artist workshops and schools, galleries and multimedia performance spaces nestled among rolling hills and thick forests. Yes there’s Dia:Beacon and Storm King just outside the city, both of which are frequented by those in the know, but venture even further north and you’ll find a treasure trove of hidden cultural hotspots. Millbrook, Sleepy Hollow, Kingston, Rhinebeck and Poughkeepsie are just a few examples of Upstate locations experiencing an artistic renaissance. Most prominent of these is the small town of Hudson.

When I told my mother – a New York native – about my upcoming trip to Hudson, her immediate response, complete with a grimace, was: “Why?” To my mother, Hudson had nothing to do with sleek galleries, farm-to-table restaurants, concept coffee shops and Marina Abramović (more on this later). To her, Hudson was a place of inertia and decay; a sleepy unsophisticated location where she spent painfully slow summers at her grandparents’ Victorian home (a former convent; now a happening bed-and-breakfast.) This is the Hudson most New Yorkers know, and it’s difficult to talk about the town’s flourishing present without bringing up its dark and desperate past.

Established in the 1780s, Hudson operated for over a century as an active port for whalers and merchants coming down the East Coast. But where there are sailors (and, let’s face it, men travelling on business) there is sex; and it wasn’t long before prostitutes became as prevalent in Hudson as the workers passing through it. Brothels, bootlegging and ‘bawdy houses’ began to proliferate and by the peak of the Prohibition era, Hudson had become infamous as “the little town with the big red-light district”. By the 1950s, after significant law enforcement, things had died down – across the town. For decades nothing much happened in Hudson; even if the mischief and promiscuity were minimal, Hudson’s reputation had stuck and most New Yorkers (like my mother) were loath to tell people they had any association with the place.

However in the 1980s things took a pleasant turn. As the population and prices in New York City shot up, and bohemian neighbourhoods like Greenwich Village were taken over by fat cats, the artists of New York began to emigrate north, seeking an authentic, peaceful community to provide fertile ground for their craft. In Hudson the rent was cheap and the drive from the city was easy. A few designers took note, then a few more… and the rest is history.

Today Hudson draws what can best be described as a ‘Brooklynite’ crowd: creative, youthful (but not necessarily young) and alternatively minded. The hip hotels, innovative restaurants and main street comprised exclusively of teeny-tiny galleries, antique shops, artisanal grocers and vendors of local crafts (from avant-garde florists to sustainable perfumeries) cater to the kind of person who buys vinyl, adores foreign cinema and makes their own jam.

Which is not to be derisive; nothing about Hudson feels like a cliché, but the people and places of the town do possess the artistic sensibility you tend to find in hipster neighbourhoods (did I mention that the Etsy headquarters are located here too?) And word is spreading. Trendsetting creatives from New York are flocking to Hudson for retreats, holidays and weekend escapes from the city. After an indulgent Christmas (lots of beach, lots of alcohol, very little culture) I decided to hop on the bandwagon and explore the destination for myself.

Getting there is half the experience. The route from Manhattan is peppered with impressive cultural destinations that don’t get anything close to the publicity they deserve (hence why it’s better to drive, rather than taking a direct train from the city.)

First stop on your mini road trip should be the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art (HVCCA) in Peekskill. The 12,000sq ft space, which also participates in an annual art festival known as the Peekskill Project, hosts a regularly updated series of modern art exhibitions with themes ranging from love and word to the seven deadly sins. The HVCCA warehouse is easy to spot by its facade: a blue and white brick mural with the words “it’s what’s outside that counts”, a feature which aptly reflects the punchy artwork housed within.

Manitoga is next. Also known as The Russel Wright Design Center, this stunning Modernist home sits nestled in the lush green forest of Garrison, New York. Created by the great midcentury designer Russel Wright, Manitoga is a manifestation of his creative principles; the house reflects a minimalist, Japanese aesthetic with glass and wood features which allow it to blend almost seamlessly into the surrounding landscape. Design lovers will enjoy perusing Manitoga’s interior (think Mad Men meets Ex Machina) while the more outdoorsy types can tour the grounds’ meticulously landscaped gardens designed by Wright himself (you’ll also spot changing installations, like Stephen Talasnik’s floating sculptures in the quarry pool.)

Continue driving north and you’ll soon arrive at Storm King and Dia:Beacon – easily the most famous Hudson Valley art destinations and arguably two of the most important sites for contemporary art in the US. The former’s 500 square acre offering of awe-inspiring outdoor sculptures from the likes of Sol LeWitt, Richard Serra and Roy Lichtenstein make it one of the most photogenic ‘museums’ in the country. Visitors can pack a picnic basket, rent a bicycle and spend the afternoon winding through the grounds. And yes, we really mean the whole afternoon; it’s recommended that you allocate at least four to six hours to take in the art at Storm King (and even then, you might not see it all.)

Dia:Beacon, conversely, can be seen in only a couple of hours. A little further north by car, the former Nabisco box factory has the kind of free-form open plan you can glide through. Favourites from their collection include Dan Flavin’s neon light works, Michael Heizer’s cavernous floor installations and John Chamberlain’s mammoth abstract sculptures. There are also updated exhibitions, like Robert Irwin’s immersive installation of interconnecting rooms. One of the unique elements of the Dia space are its skylights (an original feature from the former factory) which mean the building relies almost entirely upon natural light. The atmosphere can therefore shift dramatically and no two visits are ever the same.

And so to Hudson, an hour’s drive north from Dia:Beacon. I should note that entering the town is a pretty surreal experience. Though it’s now known for its contemporary art scene and forward-thinking residents, there is something about Hudson that makes you feel like you’ve been transported back to the 1950s. It’s not just the run-down, Hitchcockian-style homes and dilapidated barns dotted across the outskirts. Driving into the town itself is like entering an Edward Hopper painting; the streets are infused with an air of old-school Americana.

Rivertown Lodge stands at the entrance of the town. Originally built in the 1920s as a cinema, the hotel’s past can be felt in its present. The more I explored the town the more it became apparent how impressively Hudson has re-purposed itself; from the coffee shop that used to be a garage, to the blacksmith that’s now a trendy restaurant.

Accordingly, Rivertown Lodge combines mid-century minimalism with cosy American accents. The lobby offers a library complete with vintage furniture and wood-burning stoves, as well as an open kitchen with a communal dining table where guests can help themselves to coffee and breakfast in the morning. Groups of people in their twenties and thirties tend to hang out in the lobby library, which the hotels’ creators intentionally conceived as a ‘public living room’ for the town.

Bedrooms continue the ‘early American’ aesthetic, with cherrywood bed frames, embroidered blankets, vintage Marshall radios and upholstered reading chairs. Ray Pirkle, the hotels’ co-creator, explained to me the efforts taken to ensure that Rivertown Lodge represents Hudson as much as possible. Everything from the bath products, artwork, room key rings and furniture to the offerings in the ‘honour pantries’ on each floor (simply write a note of what you’re taking) were created and/or provided by local craftsmen. According to Ray, who has an impressive portfolio of projects in the hospitality industry, hotels too often rely on imported pieces and international design over authenticity; his hope is that Rivertown Lodge reflects its location to guests, some of whom have travelled thousands of miles to experience the town.

Navigating Hudson itself is not difficult; a perfect day can be spent slowly wandering down the main thoroughfare, Warren Street. Start with breakfast at Bonfiglio & Bread, the little bakery with a big following that serves poached eggs over avocado, glazed cinnamon buns and bialys with lox. With coffee to-go you can begin exploring the galleries, antique shops and local suppliers. The Carrie Haddad Gallery and Retrospective are favourites for visual art and photography, while Red Chair and 3FortySeven (which also operates a lively bar next door) have an impressive offering of secondhand objects and antique furniture. Stop in at Flowerkraut to ogle their flower arrangements and homeware, then head over to Talbott & Arding, Hudson’s answer to Ottolenghi, for a lunchtime salad or sandwich (and buy a few jars of fancy chutney.)

Take a break from all the culture and treat yourself to a facial at Bodhi Holistic Spa & Yoga, which is also on Warren Street. Ask for Kathleen, who will shower you with compliments as she talks you through treatments, which are good for the soul and the face. ÖR Gallery & Tavern is a wonderful spot for a late-afternoon coffee or cocktail. The former auto-shop now functions as a bright and airy concept space, combining a bar, a coffee shop, a retail component and an art studio.

The restaurant scene in Hudson is also impressive, with lots of big-name chefs migrating from Manhattan to launch independent operations catering for a smaller discerning crowd. Zak Pelaccio’s farm-to-table restaurant Fish & Game is a case in point. Housed in a former blacksmith’s, the interior reflects that of a stately country manor, complete with plush velvet wallpaper, a lavish bar and plenty of taxidermy. The seven-course tasting menu artfully utilises local fare, with standout dishes including oyster mushroom with chicken and kohlrabi, quail with buttered cabbage and sweet potato, and fresh tagliolini pasta with rabbit and crème fraîche. While the food and wine pairing is decidedly upscale (with impeccable service to match) the crowd at Fish & Game is young and edgy – lots of facial hair, lots of thick-rimmed spectacles. I felt like I could have spent hours working my way through their cocktail list.

If you’re looking for a more cost-conscious dinner, then Hudson Food Studio is the answer. The perennially packed restaurant offers a Vietnamese menu inspired by local ingredients sourced from nearby farms. Try their mouthwatering pork buns and their Berkshire pork baby back ribs. Come hungry and early – the generous portions here are no secret and most tables get snapped up by 7PM.

If all of this is giving you the impression that Hudson is small and quaint, then think again. The town is expanding – and fast. Just outside Hudson is Omi International Arts Center, a gallery and sculpture park that offers a stunning alternative to Storm King, with 80 outdoor installations from DeWitt Godfrey, Bernar Venet and Philip Grausman. Meanwhile the Basilica Hudson stands on the edge of town alongside the river in a former steel foundry. The multi-disciplinary arts centre, characterised by its industrial windows, brick walls and terracotta tiles hosts film screenings, concerts, flea markets and festivals as well as art exhibitions.

The world-famous Serbian artist Marina Abramović has also announced that she will be opening a 33,000sq ft space for performance, multidisciplinary collaborations and educational programming in Hudson’s main square. Her lofty intention is that the Marina Abramović Institute will function as “a new Bauhaus” – a place for artists, designers and scientists from all schools of thought to experiment, collaborate and innovate. Although it is unclear exactly when the institute will open, there’s no doubt it will have a huge impact on the town. The high-flying celebrity crowd that Abramović tends to attract will add a whole new demographic to Hudson, and hotels like Rivertown Lodge will make them want to stay just that little bit longer.

It is fitting that the Marina Abramović Institute building has, according to the website, “lived many lives”. First as a theatre, then an indoor tennis court and finally as an antiques warehouse, it fell into disrepair and was left abandoned before being resuscitated for this new endeavour. It’s an apt symbol for the town of Hudson, which continues to reinvent itself, one artistic step at a time.

Wake Up Here

Rivertown Lodge, Hudson Valley

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