The arts fueled Beacon’s transformation. What happens when high rents push artists and galleries elsewhere?
It was a picture-perfect Saturday in early May when Dia:Beacon celebrated its 20th anniversary.
Common Ground Farm set up a booth and prepared an educational demonstration. Other scheduled events included a zine-making workshop and a tour led by an artist who snuck into this former Nabisco factory over 20 years ago, before Dia moved in, to shoot an indie movie. There were also tours for Spanish-language speakers and parents with strollers.
“Kids get it immediately,” says Jessica Morgan, executive director of the Dia Art Foundation, about the museum’s sculptures. “They intuitively respond; you don’t have to read a book to understand it.”
Beacon residents have been admitted at no charge to Dia:Beacon for years. To mark its 20th, the museum extended the offer to residents of Newburgh, in part because many Dia:Beacon staff and many local artists now live there.
Dia didn’t bring the arts to Beacon when it opened in 2003. The Polich Tallix fine art foundry was here, casting works by Louise Bourgeois, Alexander Calder, Richard Serra and others. Hudson Beach Glass had been blowing glass on Maple Street since the 1980s before buying the old firehouse on the western end of Main Street in 2001 and opening to the public a few months after Dia.
The boarded-up storefronts and empty factories left in the wake of the city’s industrial decline were like catnip to artists priced out of New York City and looking for affordable housing and ample studio space. “What some people see as terrifying, artists see as opportunity,” said John Gilvey of Hudson Beach Glass.
But Dia:Beacon did seem to accelerate the transformation the city has undergone. A wave of galleries followed, public art projects bloomed and scores of artists found community.
Twenty years later, Dia:Beacon and Hudson Beach Glass are still here. But few of the galleries and other cultural projects that opened in their wake remain. In their place is the fear that the same economic forces that drove so many artists and galleries out of New York City have followed them north, pushing them from their homes and studios once again.
“Artists can’t afford to live in Beacon now,” said Gilvey.
Taking a risk
The Dia Art Foundation came to Beacon for the same reasons that many artists did: It needed room.
Specializing in site-specific works, the Manhattan-based foundation didn’t have the space to display its rapidly growing collection. Morgan wasn’t part of Dia then, but she’s well-versed in the story: The director of Dia at the time, who was also a recreational pilot, loaded the president of the Dia board into a two-seater and flew up the Hudson River to check out a vacant industrial site in the Berkshires. But before they hung a right, they noticed an empty warehouse on the Beacon waterfront. (The Berkshire site became the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.)
Not every Beacon resident was thrilled about the prospect of a museum. Many hoped the site would continue to be used as a factory and provide jobs. Proposals were in the works for a fish-processing facility or a tire warehouse.
“The city, thankfully, got behind it and saw what the future could be, which was taking a risk,” says Morgan. “No one knew how it would turn out.”
Maybe one person did: Gilvey was a student at art school in the 1970s when the Dia Art Foundation set up shop in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. Many of his teachers were involved with Dia, and he saw how quickly New York’s art scene subsequently ditched SoHo for Chelsea.
Now, Dia was moving the bulk of its collection to Beacon. “It was obvious that something was going to happen,” he recalled. “It didn’t dawn on us how it would happen, but we all watched it and it was pretty amazing.”
Gilvey was part of a group of artists who created the Beacon Arts Community Association (now BeaconArts) in 2002 in anticipation of Dia and to serve as a de facto chamber of commerce. “There was no business organization at the time because there was no business,” he said.
In the winter of 2003, the organization held its first Second Saturday event. It was cold and raining, and the new Hudson Beach Glass building didn’t have heat. But Gilvey said they put out some glass, opened the doors and people filled the space.
Randy Casale, the former Beacon mayor, used to joke that you could have rolled a bowling ball down the length of the mile-long Main Street in the 1990s and not hit anything. That cold winter night in 2003, with the Dia opening just a few months away, it became clear that those days were over.
‘A pile of junk’
It was a rite of passage for New York City artists: Rent a car for the weekend, pack it with a bunch of your friends and drive in ever-widening circles from the city until you found a place you could afford. For many artists, that circle ended in southern Dutchess County.
“For the same cost as what we were spending on dog walkers, we could buy a house in Beacon,” says Ed Benavente, who arrived in 2006, as he sat around a table at Kitchen + Coffee recently with Kelly Ellenwood (2002) and Matthew Agoglia (2011). All three are board members of BeaconArts.
Benavente grew up in Los Angeles before moving to New York City; he knows a bit about how difficult and intimidating it can be to break into the art scene in a new city. With Beacon, he didn’t have that problem because it seemed like all the artists were in the same boat. “It was like the first day of college,” he recalled. “ ‘Hi, what’s your name? What’s your major?’ ”
That easygoing spirit extended to the artists’ relationship with the city. “You’d see the mayor or anyone from the city government on the street and you’d say: ‘Hey, why don’t we do this?’” said Benavente. “And they’d say: ‘Great, why don’t you do that?’ There weren’t a lot of rules and there wasn’t a lot of oversight.”
What followed was an explosion of annual citywide public art projects. There were Windows on Main, in which artists created displays for businesses; Beacon Open Studios, in which the public was invited to see where artists worked; Beacon 3-D, in which outdoor sculptures sprung up all over town; and Keys to the City, in which artists decorated donated pianos to be installed up and down Main Street, leading to countless impromptu concerts.
In 2008 and 2010, Main Street was shut down at the dummy light for Electric Windows, a block party in which artists created murals that were hung in the windows of the then-vacant electric blanket factory at 1 E. Main. It culminated in 2011’s Electric Projected, in which animators armed with an enormous movie screen and thunderous breakbeats made it seem as if the colorful murals were coming to life, writhing and crawling over the abandoned and faded husk of the city’s industrial past.
And then there was the bicycle tree.
BeaconArts had wanted to hold a Christmas tree lighting for years, but trees cost money, which none of the artists had. During a 2010 meeting, Benavente announced that he had figured out how to get a tree that would cost nothing but elbow grease: He would build one from discarded bicycle parts.
“Reduce, reuse, recycle,” said Ellenwood. “Also, it was during a recession.”
The group realized that a tree made of sustainable transportation parts could serve as a symbol of Beacon as an environmental vanguard. “It immediately set us apart from everywhere else,” Ellenwood recalled.
The first tree lighting was a low-key event at the vacant lot on Cross Street and Main, but it soon became a city-sponsored event complete with Santa Claus arriving on a pedicab with Benavente playing the reindeer. A bicycle menorah soon joined the festivities. One year Benavente made a miniature version for Rabbi Brent Spodek of the Beacon Hebrew Alliance, who passed it on to then-First Lady Michelle Obama during a visit to the White House, along with an invitation to see the full version.
The bicycle tree was not universally loved. Some people would disparagingly tell Benavente that the tree was a pile of junk.
“And I’d say, ‘Well, yeah, it was a pile of junk. But it was the energy that people put into it that made it art.’”
The last bicycle tree was in 2018, in part because Benavente had become too busy and too exhausted to build a tree every year, but also partly because another group of Beacon residents started holding a tree lighting with an actual tree. BeaconArts felt competing trees would feed into the damaging Old Beacon versus New Beacon narrative, pulling people apart instead of bringing them together.
Other events fell by the wayside, victims of burnout and development. The Electric Windows were turned into the city’s first million-dollar condos. The artist-made “Welcome to Beacon” sign near the train station was removed to make way for other condos. Rents started rising, and suddenly it was much more difficult to maintain a gallery on Main Street by selling a few paintings per month. Artists began moving west or north, and the pandemic put an end to openings and Second Saturday. To the casual viewer, it may have seemed as if Beacon’s art scene was retreating.
Passing the torch
“That’s the ironic, sad thing,” said Scott Lerman. “The arts are such a force for economic development and success, because it attracts people. But often, those same people in those places are pushed out when they can’t afford to stay in the main thrust of a community.”
Lerman and his partner, Susan Keiser, showed their art in Beacon galleries before they moved here. But once they had relocated, the galleries they had shown in were gone.
That led them to wonder how art can thrive in a post-gentrification environment. Part of the answer was the 24-by-30-foot garage that came with their house, half a block from Main Street. Sure, they could park cars in it. But artists think differently, and sometimes that means showing up at City Council meetings.
At one meeting, the council voted to change the zoning in the blocks adjacent to Main Street to a Transition Zone. “Part of that was to encourage people not to tear down older structures by giving them additional uses that would help them economically to survive, as opposed to ‘Let’s put up a big building here,’ ” says Lerman. “And one of the changes in use is that you can have a gallery in that zone and it does not require a permit.”
Garage Gallery opened in 2021. The couple then created Beacon Art Walk, a website with a map that visitors can use to make sure they don’t overlook galleries or cultural destinations. The map may only become more important in the years to come, as Lerman thinks that many galleries will be, like Garage Gallery, off the beaten path, or even behind the scenes.
Walk to the back of 484 Main St. and, behind a door, you’ll find Super Secret Projects, which is run by an artists’ collection that sublets the space from Hyperbole.
“It’s not so much based on profits; that’s not the point,” says Allegra Jordan, a member of the collective who has a show opening this month. “This is a space for us to collaborate and be creative.”
For Jordan, Super Secret Projects gives her a chance to contribute to an art scene that she might not have had access to. “I have the opportunity to share with my community and the community has the opportunity to come and see what kind of fresh ideas are being introduced by otherwise underrepresented people in their own spaces,” she says.
The current show at Super Secret Projects features works by Darya Golubina, who now runs Beacon Open Studios. The torch is being passed in other ways as well: This November, the second annual Beacon Bonfire arts festival will take place, after the first brought a blast of post-pandemic energy. The affordable housing built next to City Hall in 2019 has allowed some artists to stay in Beacon; Ellenwood says that one former BeaconArts member who moved to Newburgh plans to return.
Instead of Beacon’s art scene being in decline, maybe it’s just entering a new phase. “I have a passion for Beacon’s art scene and I want to contribute to it, but it’s not based on nostalgia,” says Jordan, who moved to Beacon in 2019. “And I think as the scene grows again and brings in new people, they’ll have that same experience. Because I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Agoglia, the president of BeaconArts, believes the city’s art scene has a solid foundation. “I hear a lot of sob stories: ‘Oh, it’s all going downhill. I can’t do XYZ,’ ” he said. “Are you kidding me? Look around. It’s different people doing different things with different resources. You can get on board or you can stay home and mope.”
Maybe, as Benavente suggests, it wasn’t the art that changed Beacon.
“The arts don’t cause change,” he says. “They’re a reflection of the change, of the culture and the people who are part of it. Art just represents what’s already there, good, bad or otherwise. It’s up to individuals to make something out of it.”
Why This Series
In the past quarter-century, Beacon has transformed itself from a city of boarded-up windows and crime to a vanguard of culture and environmental sustainability. But many residents feel the resurgence has come at a steep price, criticizing the pace and scale of development and arguing that housing prices are robbing Beacon of its diversity and working-class character.
Who has benefited most from this transformation? Who has been left behind? For this series, we’re talking to people who live and work in the city as we attempt to address these questions, as well as document changes in housing and demographics, the arts, politics and activism.
This series was made possible by contributions to our Special Projects Fund.