In the early 1900s, when manufacturing in the U.S. was in its heyday, Kingston had two shirt factories employing 265 women and 30 men. While the city’s garment industry has long disappeared, the brick factory buildings, located at 77 Cornell Street, in Midtown, are still bustling with activity, occupied by painters, sculptors, photographers, clothing designers, musicians and new media developers. The Creative Industry, as it’s called, is an essential part of the city’s economy, taking root in old industrial buildings that are getting a new lease on life as exciting venues for making and exhibiting art.
The growth of this industry has been organic. When Mike Piazza bought the former Shirt Factory in 2002, some eight or nine artists had studios in the building. Piazza rented space out to several other artists, with the first building-wide exhibition held in 2003. “The event was a birthing,” he says. “The building began to take on a direction. The ambiance of the wood and brick was inspirational, and the open space was ideal for gallery openings and other events, including movie shoots. Most recently, it was featured in a German production about a woman who owns a knitting factory, moves north, falls in love with an old loft building and ends up buying it and renting space out to artists.” (Truly, art follows life.)
Piazza said while several tenants have occupied their studios for more than a decade, the base has been expanding, thanks to the softening real estate market and a pro active approach to marketing (while many tenants still find out about the building through word of mouth, Piazza said he advertises in the Art Times, posts signs in the city and maintains a website, artistworkspace.com). “Our tenant base has grown and is alive with talented, creative, like-minded people,” he said.
Piazza said the creative industry is a natural partner to tourism, another sector that has the potential to transform the city’s economy. “I believe that Kingston will grow in the coming years, based on its appeal to artists,” he said. “We continue to draw interest from places like Woodstock, where it is expensive to live. Many of our tenants have relocated from New York City.”
One newcomer is Allen Stamper, who relocated to Kingston from Hawaii, establishing a studio and residence on the fourth floor of the Shirt Factory. The son of artist Willson Stamper and celebrated children’s book illustrator and writer Martha Stamper, Stamper is an accomplished artist in his own right. His paintings have been shown in many galleries, museums and cultural centers in Hawaii.
Why did he choose Kingston? “I found Kingston to have great potential and a good network of other artists,” he said. “Plus, it is close to New York City, where I can show.” Stamper said the friendliness and “human grace” he discovered on a visit to the city last May were also key to his decision. Such qualities are missing from most of America, he said. “It was this factor that cemented it for me,” he said.
One of the high-profile tenants at the Shirt Factory is the Deep Listening Institute and Pauline Oliveros, who has received international acclaim for her musical compositions. Recently she was awarded the William Schuman Award from Columbia University School of the Arts. (According to the school’s dean, Carol Becker, Oliveros is “a truly adventurous artist, who has contributed so much to redefining the boundaries and potentialities of contemporary music.”)
Piazza said the Shirt Factory attracts many visitors during its high-profile events. These include this Saturday’s Artmageddon—see “This Week in Kingston” for more info—and an art fair in July, held in the adjacent parking lot, which will be contiguous to the open studios and gallery spaces inside the building. A flea market is also planned. And joining the artists in the First Saturday gallery openings in February and April will be videographers and authors, who will present readings prior to the openings.
In addition to the creative fermentation happening at the Shirt Factory, there are other former industrial or commercial buildings that have become art venues, including the gallery at R&F Handmade Paints, which manufactures encaustic paints and oil stocks; Cornell Street Studios at Darmstadt Overhead Doors, also a Midtown-based business; the capacious exhibition space at Seven 21 Media Center, on upper Broadway; and the galleries at the Arts Society of Kingston, housed in a handsome 1920s brick building that once functioned as a community center.