The Kingston Arts Society seeks harmony amid upheaval

The Theater at the Kingston Society of Arts.

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

Friends and fellow artists are welcome to monthly member exhibitions in a spacious gallery in the trendy Rondout district. Art classes and “visual artist feedback sessions” help new artists flourish. Sculptor Richard Baronio says ASK is a place where “you can show your work without judgment. That’s what makes it special… Amazing works are produced.”

There are two smaller galleries for individual and group exhibitions and a performance space upstairs. Membership is $100 per year but has a sliding scale. About 350 Hudson Valley artists belong.

But today, competing visions of ASK’s mission pit members against each other. Many longtime members want ASK to maintain its original focus of promoting Hudson Valley art and artists. But the current president, Jamie Sannin, 30, sees ASK as a resource for underserved communities. She has created a food pantry and mandated that racism be discussed at every meeting.

Baronio, 79, sympathizes with Jamie and others who want ASK to welcome the marginalized. He says Jamie “has ideas that are important to her generation. She is concerned about people’s rights and their fair treatment. But several members feel that injecting politics into ASK distracts from its main purpose.

In March, the entire board, except for Sanin, resigned after a contentious meeting. In a follow-up email, Sannin antagonized some members when he announced his plans to restock the board: “We will prioritize the inclusion of people who are not typically represented on nonprofit boards — including people who are not homeowners, are under age 35, currently working and/or in a lower income demographic… including people of different abilities, gender identities, skill sets, etc.”

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

The Gallery at the Kingston Society of Arts.

Richard Wixom, leader of CAM, says: “It’s hard enough running a not-for-profit organization like ASK with a limited focus on supporting the arts and artists in the area. Political and social concerns would reduce the focus.”

Wixom and his wife, Vindora, who was ASK’s executive director for about 15 years, helped build ASK by literally renovating the building and raising a $50,000 state grant to purchase the ASK premises. They are concerned that ASK is out of step with state rules that make masks optional. ASK still insists that visitors wear masks, out of respect for the 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 employee; the gallery coordinator and executive director have resigned.

Venture believes that people will understand each other better when the board can meet in person again. He, Baronio and the StaatsFasoldt organized a series of benefits to repay a loan taken out by ASK during the pandemic and to hire full-time staff.

The exterior of the Kingston Society of Arts.

Their first event is The Roaring Twenties Casino Night at 7pm 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 go back to the happy, supportive place it was always meant to be.

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

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