The Arts Society of Kingston started as an organization representing visual artists, but in recent years, following its acquisition and renovation of the handsome, former Jewish community center building on Lower Broadway, it’s greatly expanded its reach. In any given month, ASK is hosting readings of new plays in development, showing films, and offering improv and youth acting classes, poetry jams, and concerts. At these events and especially, during the First Saturday gallery opening, ASK brings hundreds of people to the Rondout, filling local restaurants and bars. (It’s a symbiotic relationship: Ship to Shore often donates the food for the opening.)
The group’s activities aren’t limited to the building. It shows large reproductions of a few member artists’ watercolors in the Hudson Valley Mall and hosts the Kingston Sculpture Biennial (this year, it will be curated by Robert Johnson, a graphic designer who teachers at SUNY-Ulster; the sculptures will be placed on the median of lower Broadway and along the Rondout waterfront). The organization serves not just the city but the entire region, drawing in artists from as far away as Newburgh and Red Hook.
President of the board Lewis Gardner, who resides in Woodstock, said his initial attraction to the organization was its accessibility. “There’s no automatic nay-saying. Anyone with a good proposal can get an open hearing.” Gardner added the limited amount of space—consisting of two galleries, one quite large—is the main barrier to doing more.
There is room to expand, with a large, open space on the second floor. Gardner noted that the raw space should be available on a limited basis this summer, given that the funds have been raised to replace the not-to-code fire escape with an external staircase. Eventually, ASK hopes to renovate the former social hall, transforming the small stage into a sound and light booth and erecting terraced platforms for audience seating, which would face a designated performance area on the floor, Gardner said.
Once the building can offer this bona fide professional performance space, the sky’s the limit in terms of programming. In the meantime, ASK offers an impressive cultural menu, particularly in the drama department. The Playwrights Lab that Gardner started at SUNY-Ulster moved to ASK three years ago, providing playwrights, actors and directors with a workshop in which they can assess and get feedback on new work. “It’s a chance for a writer to hear his work,” Gardner said, noting that both experienced playwrights and novices can participate. “ASK serves the entire community of artists, both skilled professionals and people just starting out.”
Yet it also strives to offer quality art to the public. For that reason, in the summer months the staged readings are of selected work by more seasoned playwrights. The performing arts committee also can host a production, as is the case with With or Without, a play by an Emmy-nominated playwright that’s currently being presented. “This is a writer who wanted to become part of the Hudson Valley community,” Gardner said, noting the contact was made through the suggestion of a local actor.
Gardner said ASK also has partnered with other organizations to better serve the community. For example, in April it’ll be showing works by 20 or so artists at the Hudson Valley Mall, each of whom will have a table. The mall already displays and sells banners based on watercolors by local artists. ASK planned to have the artists set up in the corridor where the banners are displayed, but “the owners said why don’t we use the whole mall,” so the tables will be located throughout the facility. ASK will also be hosting a history day on April 9, with presentations, music and children’s activities.
Of course, ASK continues its commitment to the visual arts, with 24 exhibits on the roster each year. Currently there’s also life-drawing sessions, a class on the Sedona method, which is a way of fostering creativity, and Photoshop classes.
Executive director Vindora Wixom noted that yet another appeal of ASK is its health insurance program, which is open to freelancers. Wixom added that the ASK monthly gallery openings are always a big smash. Last month’s opening—featuring a show of Chronogram covers and a member’s exhibition linked to Valentine’s Day—attracted 600 people, despite a snowstorm. ASK has approximately 450 members. The annual membership is $60 for individuals and $100 for couples. —Lynn Woods