‘State of the Arts’ is strong and growing

On Tuesday night, Saranac Lake ArtWorks held a “State of the Arts” event at BluSeed Studios. Leaders of various arts-related organizations spoke, and then photographer Mark Kurtz summarized where the village is at in its ongoing arts renaissance.

The bottom line is that the state of the arts in this village is strong and growing, along with its well-earned reputation for such – and that it’s now at a turning point where ArtsWorks wants to hire a full-time staff member and take things to another level.

The village has gotten this far mostly through the work of the artists themselves, who organize events and promotions and steadily add to the village’s reputation. That’s the mandate with which these people formed ArtWorks five years ago. For a loosely organized, bootstrap organization, it’s done well.

There’s a limit, however, to what these folks can do on their own without cutting into the work they must do to make a living. Longtime driving forces like Tim Fortune, Mark Kurtz and Sandra Hildreth feel like, while they see further goals in the distance, their capability to push it forward has flatlined.

ArtWorks’ next step, if it can come up with the money, is to hire a full-time employee. Amy Catania of Historic Saranac Lake and Katy Van Anden of the Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce are good current examples of how a single, dynamic, capable staff member can drive a local organization forward.

Meanwhile, things are moving along quite well even without such a director. Based on Tuesday’s presentations and our own knowledge, Pendragon Theatre, the Plein Air Festival, Hobofest and the Artist at Work Studio Tour have a strong sense of what they are and where they need to go, plus the drive to get there. The Third Thursday Art Walks are holding strong. The Adirondack Carousel and Paul Smith’s College VIC are throwing their doors open to the arts as they seek to realize the full potential of their excellent facilities. The Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, recently hired to market the Saranac Lake area, sent several staffers to Tuesday’s meeting and has been meeting with local artists as it develops its campaign to boost Saranac Lake’s brand as “The Adirondacks’ Coolest Place.”

The arts thrived during this village’s early decades as North America’s first tuberculosis cure center. The people drawn here were disproportionately young and urban, and they were cosmopolitan, diverse and energetic – like actress Rosalind Russell and writers Walker Percy and Sylvia Plath. Older creative people drawn here included Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Al Jolson and Bela Bartok.

As TB faded thanks to improved medication, so did Saranac Lake’s economy and its arts scene. When Bob Pettee and Susan Neal founded Pendragon Theatre here in 1980, people thought they were crazy at first. What they did, however, helped spark what became a full-fledged arts revival in the 1990s and beyond.

Now Saranac Lake has seven art galleries with regular daily hours – not counting businesses or institutions that regularly hang local art on their walls – various performing opportunities for local musicians, writers’ and artists’ support organizations based here, and some of the best theater in upstate New York.

Mr. Kurtz, who until Tuesday was ArtWorks’ president, pointed out that just a few years ago, when there was an event of almost any kind around here, everyone went because they didn’t know when the next event would be. Now people are forced to choose between various delights because the local calendar is bursting with events – just look at the Enterprise calendar, even during this slow time of year.

Cris Winters, ArtWorks’ new president, said when she attended a recent artist studio tour in St. Lawrence County, artists reacted with envy when they heard she was from Saranac Lake. They see our town as doing it right.

As cool as this may sound, it doesn’t feel that way when you’re here. Saranac Lake doesn’t feel hip or artsy; rather, it feels real. It’s a typical struggling upstate village with a bunch of empty storefronts and a bunch of friendly people who know the value of a dollar. It’s hard to make money here, as any local business owner can tell you, but thousands of people choose to stay anyway because it’s a good place to live and raise a family.

The arts scene isn’t likely to fade anytime soon; it’ll only grow because the Tri-Lakes area has developed such amazing arts education and opportunities for young people. Youth theater, art and music programs here are excellent, both in schools and through institutions like the Lake Placid Center for the Arts. Many of those students – and others from all over – will want to live in a place where they can make a living doing the creative work they love, and Saranac Lake, increasingly, is a place where people do that.

We at the Enterprise are proud and grateful to have so much of this wonderful stuff to tell you about, and we’re excited to see where it goes.