“Transforming Our Notions of Space” may sound like a juried multimedia exhibition in a somewhat hip modern art gallery, but it’s actually happening all around us as social and cultural institutions adapt to unprecedented conditions, under duress and without evidence. playbook. Theaters, galleries, clubs and multi-purpose community spaces are gloomy across the country, with a winter of deep uncertainty descending even as the apples ripen and the latest summer offers the best weather for the year.
With their facilities indefinitely unavailable, or available on such reduced terms as to be almost impractical, arts organizations like New Paltz’s venerable Unison Arts Center are asking and answering the toughest questions about survival — economic and creative. Where is the soul of an art center? Is it in the actual physical space, with the high ceilings, wooden beams, track lighting and acoustic treatment? Or does it live in the curatorial and community impulse?
A modest outdoor scene may not seem like a major cultural development, but at Unison it’s a stab at cynicism and desperation, and an optimistic wish for this community. Nestled in the trees and surrounded by Unison’s enchanted sculpture garden, the new outdoor performance space last weekend welcomed an audience of 40, hungry for music and company. The inaugural performer was Sweet Megg, the elegant and versatile performer of jazz, cabaret, blues and western swing standards and hidden gems.
“She’s exactly what Unison tends to love,” says Alex Baer, Executive Director of Unison. “We had little lights, squirrels running around, crickets in the background and people loved it. They were so happy to be out.
Baer, her husband Guy Barroilhet, and Unison music booking specialist Rob Leitner built the stage in two days, with help from Art Riffenberry. As Covid redefines personal space and ubiquitous signage educates us on the new circulation patterns of social life, compliance and extreme ingenuity become the concern of every venue. Unison’s first question was about the location of the stage on its sprawling grounds.
“We waited for Cuomo to give us the green light to reopen, which is why we didn’t build this in June. We weren’t allowed. Originally we wanted to do it in the big backfield. We ran into logistical issues with neighbors so we decided to build it in the sculpture garden itself, which turned out great – nestled in the woods, surrounded by art, listening to music. It’s a very Unison thing.
“We are very careful,” Baer says. “There are 40 spots that we marked off with black mulch and non-toxic chalk spray paint numbers. You choose a number. We’ve made sure that every spot has a good view of the stage. People bought tickets in advance and came with chairs and snacks. We offer Prosecco and wine as a donation.
Like every other organization that has taken action outdoors, Unison faces questions about the season: how long is it, what’s possible and when their indoor facilities might be back in service. “My father was an immunologist,” Baer explains. “He worked for the CDC. I am very cautious about improving all this before spring.
“But my dad was also German,” Baer says, “so if it was up to me, the outdoor season would be forever. I used to do winter gigs. I could see that happening if the musicians were willing to play for 45 minutes or half an hour – upbeat music, dancing. Especially kids shows. We have a fire pit for ‘smores. I see a full season, if people are ready. You’re stuck in the house. It’s a Sunday afternoon at noon. It’s going to be dark at four. I think we’d have a lot of people at come in. People just need to be tough.
“They do it in Europe,” she explains. “They have outdoor markets. The children play outside until dark with their coats and runny noses. It will be that kind of winter. I refuse to back down the arts. We’ll see what we can do to keep our community happy. We could do a winter tracking course. We show ingenuity. What can we do?”
Like all arts organizations that are hurting now, Unison needs revenue. Luckily, a number of musicians have either asked for a low fee or volunteered to do it for free, as they realize that Unison too is to find difficult to.
On Saturday, September 19 at 6 p.m., Unison welcomes folk jazz artist and regional favorite KJ Denhert in a stripped-down performance. The Grenadian-American artist has won four independent music awards, including Best Social Action Song for “Choose Your Weapon” in 2015. She was named one of the best singers of 2009 by Jazz.com.
On Saturday, October 3, the Unison stage makes way for the Hudson Valley String Quartet, a Unison regular. While the quartet’s program for the evening has not yet been specified, other HVSQ concerts in 2020 — before the Covid put an end to it all — focused on Beethoven’s seminal quartets on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of his birth.
“The beauty of Unison,” Baer says, “has always been in its intimacy, an intimate, local space where musicians can come and relate to 80 people in a way they can’t when it’s happening.” is in the hundreds or thousands.” And it’s still the style of the house, even if it’s 40 or 50 people, not 80, and it’s not in the house anymore.
Unison Arts is located at 68 Mountain Rest Road in New Paltz. For tickets and information, visit www.unisonarts.org or call 255-1559.