Arts Society of Kingston seeks Harmony amid glory

The theater at the Arts Society of Kingston.

The Arts Society of Kingston (ASK) is something of a local treasure. For the past 28 years, professional and amateur artists could join ASK and exhibit their work up to eight times a year. There was no jury; no one was turned down.

Friends and fellow artists are welcomed to monthly members’ exhibitions in a spacious gallery in the fashionable Rondout district. Art classes and “visual artist feedback sessions” help new artists blossom. Sculptor Richard Baronio says ASK is a place where “you can show your work without judgement. That’s what makes it special…Some Astonishing work gets made.”

There are two smaller galleries for individual and group shows and a performance space upstairs. Membership is $100 a year but there’s a sliding scale. Some 350 Hudson Valley artists belong.

But today, competing visions of ASK’s mission are pitting members against each other. Many long-term members want ASK to keep its original focus — promoting Hudson Valley arts and artists. But the current president, 30-year old Jamie Sanin, sees ASK as a resource for underserved communities. She’s created a food pantry and mandated that racism should be discussed at every meeting.

79-year-old Baronio is sympathetic to Jamie and others who want ASK to welcome the marginalized. He says Jamie “has ideas important to her generation. She’s concerned with People’s rights and treating people fairly.” But several members feel that injecting politics into ASK is distracting from its core purpose.

In March, the entire board, except Sanin, resigned after a contentious meeting. In a follow-up email, Sanin antagonized some members when she announced her plans to repopulate the board: “We will prioritize including people who are typically not represented on non-profit Boards — including people who are not homeowners, are under the age of 35, are currently working, and/or are of a lower-income demographic…including people of varied abilities, gender identities, skill sets, etc.”

This past summer, at a delayed annual meeting, Sanin put forth a slate of eight new board members. An opposing group calling itself Concerned ASK Members, or CAM, nominated six members from the floor. Both slates were elected. But tensions are still high. Baronio, now vice president of the board, says “both sides are hitting each other with baseball bats.” Meetings often deteriorate into squabbles. “What’s missing is empathy.”

The gallery at the Arts Society of Kingston.

Richard Wixom, a CAM leader, says “It’s difficult enough to run a not-for-profit like ASK with a limited focus on supporting art and artists in the area. Political and social concerns would dilute the focus.”

Wixom and his wife Vindora, who was ASK’s executive director for about 15 years, helped build ASK, literally renovating the building and raising a $50,000 state grant to buy ASK’s premises. They are concerned that ASK has not kept pace with state rules making masks optional. ASK is still insisting that visitors wear masks, out of respect for volunteers. Wixom says the organization’s finances are hurt when people can’t see and buy members’ artwork.

Board member Daniel Venture worries that there is only one paid staff member; the gallery coordinator and the executive director have resigned.

Venture believes people will get along better when the board can meet in person again. He, Baronio and StaatsFasoldt are organizing a series of benefits to pay off a loan ASK took out during the Pandemic and to hire full time staff.

The Exterior of the Arts Society of Kingston.

Their first event is The Roaring Twenties Casino Night at 7 pm on Saturday, December 10 at 97 Broadway. There will be music, food, an art auction and real gambling, albeit with fake money. Masks are optional.

What seems clear is that everyone wants ASK to succeed and prosper. The entire board voted for this event. They hope members from both camps will come and party together. And that ASK will roar back to the happy, supportive place it was always meant to be.

Online tickets are available here, or by calling 845-338-0333, or by email at [email protected]

They cost $75 for ASK members and their guests, $95 for non-members. You’ll get a gambling stake of $200 in funny money in return. You can use your winnings to buy real art and contribute to a unique Kingston institution.

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