Art Takes a Village
A creative cure for Saranac Lake's downtown
by Mary Thill
Four years ago Georgeanne Gaffney came to the Adirondacks on a Fourth of July camping trip. One rainy day, rather than cook around a soggy campﬁre, she and her husband, Peter Hewes, drove to Saranac Lake to get dinner.
As they approached the village from the west, a panorama unfolded of a Main Street lined with century-old buildings against a backdrop of the McKenzie Range and Lake Flower. The couple was living in California but had been thinking of moving back East, where they both grew up. “As soon as we came down the hill we knew this was the place,” Gaffney recalls. “We said, ‘We’ll ﬁgure out a way to make it work.’”
They walked around town, talking with members of the Adirondack Artists’ Guild, a cooperative retail gallery with 14 members showcasing watercolors, oils, photographs, jewelry, ceramics and weavings. They stopped at Nori’s, the whole-foods store, and took note that there was a theater company, lots of music on the events calendar and several other arts-related storefronts downtown. “The people were so friendly and open. And the area was just so gorgeous,” she says. Five months later they moved to Saranac Lake.
Hewes is a carpenter and Gaffney is a painter. She had done primarily decorative work in California, creating trompe l’oeil murals, wall patterns and faux ﬁnishings, often with a botanical theme. After she came to the Adirondacks she continued to do commissioned projects, sometimes getting leads from her husband as he worked on second-home renovation and construction. But the move also stirred her creativity. Gaffney returned to ﬁne-art ﬁgurative oil painting, which she had studied at Towson State University, in her home state of Maryland. Inspired by the Adirondack scenery, the 38-year-old also began painting landscapes for the ﬁrst time in her life. “I hadn’t done my own artwork in a long time,” she says.
She joined the Adirondack Artists’ Guild and soon branched off to open her own gallery, a closet-size studio on Main Street (it’s seven feet wide by 30 feet long). She has also shown work at 511 Gallery, a New York City–based contemporary art gallery with a branch in Lake Placid, and she had an exhibit of new paintings this summer at Bluseed Studios, in Saranac Lake.
Gaffney is one of several artists and creative professionals drawn to Saranac Lake in recent years, and her renaissance has some parallels to a creative awakening in her new town. The largest village in the Adirondacks, with a population of 5,000, Saranac Lake has lagged as the tourism economy of its neighbor Lake Placid boomed, even though both communities are equally well situated among beautiful lakes, mountains and vast forests. Lately Saranac Lake’s lack of polish, its slightly shabby downtown and comparatively affordable ﬁxer-upper real estate are attracting young people ready to buy their ﬁrst homes as well as creative types, not unlike how Brooklyn became a magnet for artists priced out of Manhattan in the 1980s and ’90s.
And the artists are having an impact. In the past few years several events have converged to generate a buzz in Saranac Lake. Among the marquee developments:
Bluseed Studios, a former warehouse, has been transformed into a beehive of visiting artists, exhibitions, ceramics and printmaking studios, classes, poetry readings and concerts.
Music impresario Les Hershhorn moved to town, bringing with him a full schedule of concerts including big names such as Doc Watson and Martin Sexton.
A town-wide “First Night” New Year’s Eve party of music, dance and theater will have its third celebration December 31.
7444 Gallery opened in a defunct 1924 Railway Express Agency building, showing more conceptual work than the usual piney Adirondack fare.
Borealis Color, an arts-supply store, opened on Main Street.
A $1.2-million carousel with hand-carved native animals (including ﬁsh and a blackfly) is being built for a play park near 7444 Gallery.
All of these things are happening on their own. There is no central organizing force—no government ofﬁce or nonproﬁt organization—dedicated to promoting the arts in Saranac Lake. Yet there are threads that connect them all to each other, to longstanding local institutions and to the village’s heritage, says Tim Fortune, the person everyone credits for planting the seeds of the blossoming creative landscape.
Fortune was born in Saranac Lake when the community was nearing the end of its era as a tuberculosis-curing haven. Old houses here still have “cure porches” where the stricken would lie to breathe the clean, cold air. Since the 1950s, when antibiotics were successfully employed against TB, this former one-industry town has struggled to ﬁnd a new economic formula.
Two large tuberculosis sanatoriums were converted into state prisons, and a federal prison opened on the outskirts of town in 1981. Research into tuberculosis and other infectious diseases continues at the Trudeau Institute, successor to the Trudeau Sanatorium. But Fortune says a less-obvious legacy of the TB days can be found in the arts. Writers, composers, musicians and actors from cosmopolitan places convalesced here. They started their own craft guild (see “Crafting a Cure,” December 2001), continued to write and compose, and provided entertainment for each other and townspeople.
The arts won’t replace TB as an economic engine, but they have become an important part of the community’s business sector, Fortune says. “Artists are businesspeople. A lot of people think the arts are a nice diversion created by people who have the time to do so and don’t understand that we are running a business and have to make money.”
While it’s nearly impossible to measure how large their economic impact is, Fortune says you can look at subjective things other than dollars. “Everyone realizes you have to draw people here to affect the economy, and one of the things that draws them is quality of life.” The arts make up more than 60 percent of the local events calendar, he estimates.
Ten years ago Fortune helped establish the Adirondack Artists’ Guild. His own studio is just down the block on Main Street, and other artists have moved into empty storefronts. But Fortune likes to see a variety of businesses downtown, and he says the arts can draw them; cafés and bookstores are often the ﬁrst wave.
Saranac Lake narrowly avoided having one of its prisons closed because of state budget cuts this year, and the village has been waiting decades to be discovered by a magical environmentally responsible high-tech employer. But for now anyhow, the artists are certainly attracting other artists.
“Artists, generally I’ve found, they don’t need a lot,” Fortune says. “They need a nurturing environment to create art. The Adirondacks, certainly, are the ﬁrst draw—the natural environment. The second draw is Saranac Lake becoming kind of a magnet for creative people.… Art is about communication and expression, and if you have other artists there in the community, that can form an environment where they can feel comfortable. Another thing that the arts can do is create diversity. We don’t have racial diversity yet, but artists tend to be open to new ideas.”
While Lake Placid’s tourism/service economy is going strong, Saranac Lake may be building toward what Richard Florida calls a “creative economy.” A University of Toronto economist and author of several books, including The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life, Florida counts scientists, engineers, architects, educators, writers and entertainers with artists as the foundation of a lively and durable economy. To thrive, a community or a region needs talent, technology and tolerance, Florida writes. His work is quoted widely by politicians and urban planners seeking to revive deteriorating cities.
Creative people seek out authenticity—places that aren’t like everywhere else, Florida argues. As a remote north-woods town that still leans more woodchuck than bohemian, Saranac Lake is plenty authentic, but it’s still struggling. After painful debates about Walmart, the village recently rejected the homogenizing megastore and enacted a temporary 60,000-square-foot size cap on retailers. Many residents in the arts and environmental professions joined downtown shopkeepers in a ﬁght to keep Walmart out. Now some of them are organizing to open a community-owned department store.
Jeremy Evans, who moved here a year ago to ﬁll the town’s director of community development job, says Saranac Lake’s intact downtown, lakeside setting and arts sector are all important pieces of the place’s appeal and economic potential. It’s well positioned to attract desirable new businesses, he says.
The village has waffled over how to market itself because, unlike Lake Placid with its strong Olympic heritage, it doesn’t have an easily deﬁned identity. Some people think Saranac Lake should promote its history as a healing destination. Some think its proximity to hiking, canoeing and skiing is most important, and the village occasionally makes national magazine “Where to Live and Play” lists. Others say the arts should be in the forefront. “Having a diversiﬁed village is a great thing. I’ll take it,” Evans says, but he would like to increase awareness of the arts. “That’s one thing we need to work on: marketing this budding community. It’s here to stay and it’s only growing. We just have to keep the momentum.”
He says, “Look at Paducah. It’s working.” Paducah, Kentucky, is a national model of art as a tool for economic development. In 2000 the city of 25,000 started an artists’ relocation program that has so far attracted 70 painters, sculptors and other visual artists from around the country. Other communities have their own incentives: Pittsﬁeld, Massachusetts, established a new Ofﬁce of Cultural Development and a downtown tax-free district for works of art created by artists who live there. Peekskill, New York, grants property tax breaks to landlords who rent to artists in the empty upper floors of commercial buildings.
For now, Evans says, his ofﬁce and the village board are so busy dealing with multimillion-dollar water-ﬁltration mandates, housing rehabilitation grants, energy-efﬁciency upgrades and other physical infrastructure projects that arts incentives are not on the agenda. “We do everything under the sun. If you wait for the village board to do it, it’s not going to happen,” he says. That may change some day, he adds. “At some point, to really make it big, the village would have to have a stake in it.”
But there’s something healthy about an arts boomlet that’s grassroots and not manufactured or subsidized to lure potential employers. Which is not to say the grass is springing from bare rock. In the years between the TB days and now, the ground was prepped in many ways: Pendragon Theatre, a year-round repertory company, put on its ﬁrst shows almost three decades ago. In the 1990s the local bar Waterhole No. 3 renovated its second floor to host concerts, and the Blue Moon Café offered its walls as an informal gallery. Local poet Maurice Kenny briefly ran an improvised gallery/reading/performance space above a Main Street liquor store. Ten years ago Fortune initiated an art walk on the third Thursday of every summer month with multiple gallery shows and outdoor music. Adult and youth art clubs have a long and deep history. And the Arts Council for the Northern Adirondacks, based in Westport, aided several projects, including an eight-year effort to improve the acoustics of the Harrietstown Town Hall’s 750-seat auditorium, where concerts are now held.
While state grants have dwindled, wealthy summer residents have been solid patrons and have made substantial private investment in area cultural institutions. Still, Saranac Lake’s economy is modest. You have to wonder how artists survive.
As Tim Fortune pointed out, artists are businessmen. There must be a market or support that doesn’t meet the eye. Many have partners who hold nine-to-ﬁve jobs and health insurance, and many have day jobs themselves. The advent of the Internet has expanded the ability of the lone artist in a cabin to sell work, and such people are sprinkled throughout the Adirondack woods. Saranac Lake is unusual in that so many of them have come into town and put out shingles downtown.
Fortune’s story is a window into how Saranac Lake has provided a living for at least one painter. He got married and moved to Florida in 1972 after studying ﬁne art at Temple University, New York University and during two summers in Venice, Italy. In West Palm Beach he taught in a private school and maintained his own studio/gallery, focusing on sculptural wall constructions. In 1988 quality of life drew him and his wife, Diana, back home. Here he began painting the trees, rocks, streams, mists, clouds and landscapes that hang salon-style throughout his Main Street studio. “It was an artistic decision,” he says. “Artists should live their work. I had a desire to literally go back to nature and less desire to make a statement in the art world.”
Turning away from the abstract work was probably also a good economic decision. Fortune’s paintings, which run from $90 for a small watercolor to $16,000 for large, complex pieces, are collected by people who come here to surround themselves with the beauty of nature—he estimates about half of the buyers of his work are tourists—and he had the distinction in 2003 of having three large landscapes stolen from the local hospital and the Hotel Saranac. He says his gallery was successful from the moment he opened it in 1994, and he rarely shows work elsewhere.
So landscape paintings are in demand in a place famous for landscapes since the mid-19th century. But some artists and arts impresarios are in less-charted territory. “A lot of the art I’ve shown is modern-progressive and a little bit dark, even,” says Todd Smith, owner of 7444 Gallery (74 is Saranac Lake’s longitude, 44 its latitude). Smith, an architect and graphic designer from Rutland, Vermont, moved to Saranac Lake seven years ago. He opened the gallery last year as the most public of his creative ventures.
“I’m looking for artists who bring a different culture and a different perspective here,” says Smith. “I don’t want ‘Adirondack’ art but I can’t afford to bring an artist up from New York City … so you reach out to the local people who are doing progressive contemporary art, and a lot of it just happens to be a bit dark.”
Smith’s gallery is open by appointment, and so far it has hosted 10 well-attended opening parties. Smith says he is interested in the emotions and discussions the work provokes, but he is also tracking the enterprise as a business.
“I have a three-year plan to evaluate the types of artists I bring in and the types of people who show up,” he says, though he admits it’s hard to judge the gallery’s success by sales alone. People rarely purchase art at an opening. They might think about a photograph they saw for years before pursuing it. “You can’t quantify arts and the economy—it’s almost like trying to quantify advertising, where unless you bring a coupon in for a 10 percent discount, you never know where a person heard about you,” he says. “You’re going to run in circles trying to ﬁnd out how much the art’s worth to a community.”
It’s a little easier to quantify the success of a music event; either the house is full or it’s not. Concert promoter Les Hershhorn moved from Hawaii to Saranac Lake two years ago. Through his company, Lazar Bear Productions, he has brought on average a show a month to town. Music-hungry residents are grateful for and amazed by the variety and caliber of the musicians he has booked at the Waterhole, the Harrietstown Town Hall and other venues. Acts such as the Wailin’ Jennys and Johnny Winter used to come no closer than Burlington, Vermont. But sometimes attendance is thin. In the off-season there are only so many people around, and the off-season is long. Hershhorn says live entertainment is considered discretionary spending, and with rising heating costs many locals are feeling a pinch.
For Hershhorn and his partner, Rita Leonard, a musician and composer, the move to Saranac Lake was more of an intellectual and emotional decision than a business tactic. The two are Robert Louis Stevenson fanatics, and Saranac Lake is their mecca as headquarters of the Stevenson Society of America. The cottage above the Saranac River where the tubercular author spent the winter of 1887–1888 is preserved as a museum. Passion brought Hershhorn and Leonard to the Adirondacks, but other things keep them here. “We like the proximity to the lakes, we like that there are still some signiﬁcant historical buildings. There’s a consciousness of preservation. And the people are great,” Hershhorn says. “There’s a lot more aloha in Saranac Lake than in Hawaii.”
As for trying to build a music-promotion business off the beaten track, “It’s rough,” he admits. With the help of the Internet, he still promotes shows in Hawaii and other places. But Saranac Lake is a big drive from population centers, and gas is expensive. He hangs posters as far north as Ottawa and sells tickets as far south as New York City.
Linda Fahey is also a music promoter, but most of her work is elsewhere. Formerly a professor of botany and ecology at Paul Smith’s College, north of Saranac Lake, Fahey left eight years ago to pursue a longtime interest in music and book talent for Garrison Keillor’s radio show, A Prairie Home Companion. The 42-year-old moved back to the Adirondacks this year.
“Even when I left Paul Smith’s College to do the Keillor thing I said to myself, I’ll be back when it’s over,” she explains. “I went off and did that more as an adventure than anything and just always wanted to move back here. All my closest friends are here and I just loved the area so much.”
Now she telecommutes as programming director for Folk Alley, a 24-hour online public-radio music service based at Kent State University, in Ohio. Her connections are enriching the local music scene. She volunteers at Bluseed Studios, booking nationally recognized musicians. “I really do think this area is perfect for people like me, where the economy is what it is, but through the Internet there are more opportunities,” Fahey says. “My boyfriend and I just bought a house out in Rainbow Lake. When we were house-hunting, my number-one criterion was that I needed high-speed Internet and I could work anywhere.”
Hershhorn is philosophical about the potential of Saranac Lake. “The people that come here are romantic people, they’re not dot-commers,” the 62-year-old says. “It’s a beautiful place. It has hard winters, short summers, but there’s a certain magic people identify with. If you want to get rich, you could move to China where the quality of life sucks. Is it important to be rich or is it important to do something to contribute, to help people enjoy being alive and feel good about themselves?” he asks.
“My dream is this community will keep developing and flourishing to a place where people can come to have good food, good music, good theater.”
Maybe creative people are driven to work as much for love as money, but “each venture has to have its own way of surviving,” Todd Smith says. And if artists ever take on a role as a force for community change or economic development, he sees a need for a central agency to carry the mission forward.
In 1996 Tim Fortune led an ad-hoc arts committee that would gather once a month and discuss a civic-minded “Art Works” campaign to raise public awareness of local cultural events. The gatherings also functioned as a salon, where painters, sculptors, photographers, musicians, writers and performers could debut and discuss work at each other’s homes. Fortune gradually pulled back to focus more on his own art, and like any committee with no staff the group faded away by 2004. Artists are now looking to Smith to revive it.
Smith says he feels a responsibility to build upon the foundation that his Saranac Lake predecessors laid and that he beneﬁts from. Counting 30 names on a local studio-tour roster in September, he says that core group alone “stands to be one of the largest and most powerful groups in terms of who can be a presence both politically and socially in the area.”
But like everyone else, Smith is preoccupied with work. “The problem is there isn’t the time and the resources for someone who is an artist or a venue owner to lead an Art Works group.… All I can do right now is provide the passionate inspiration of why I’m here and continue to suggest meetings and projects, but without somebody to run them and/or fund them, they are not going to happen.”
Meanwhile, creative people continue to come out of the woods. Whether they feel part of a community, whether they get involved in local planning initiatives or hang out at the Blue Moon, they seem to congregate in Saranac Lake. And to some, that in itself is encouraging.
“Artists do not come here to inspire. They come here to be inspired,” says Andrew Chary, an architect with ofﬁces in Lake Placid and Bedford, New York. Earlier this year he bought a home in Saranac Lake. He works in Lake Placid but likes “retreating” in the evening to Saranac Lake, which he calls “an oasis of hopefulness and peace.… A lot of the artisans who work on my jobs live in Saranac Lake or around Saranac Lake. It has been a treasure hunt to ﬁnd out who is where.”
Chary adds that “there are a bunch of very energetic folks who don’t feel there is an economy that can keep them in town,” but he takes a long view. The power of place should not be underestimated.