Why you should care
Because beauty springs up in surprising places.
Growing up outside the Empire State, I found it easy to believe that New York is nothing but New York City. Yet now, driving past architectural treasures and fascinating antique shops in no-stoplight towns, I feel cheated.
Sure, it’s far from the hip urban sprawl of the megacity beneath it, a fact that Robin Schwartz, a decentralization coordinator for the state arts council, freely admits: “New York City thinks all of upstate is cows, nothing but cows,” she laughs (the thought tickles her so much that she insists I take a photo of the painting hanging in the gallery above, depicting, fittingly, a herd of bovine). But she’s right: There’s much more to discover — a reality only underscored by the fact that the National Center for Arts Research recently named four upstate cities to its annual arts vibrancy index. And in these places, the arts are not just good-to-haves, but good for driving economic growth, too.
So what kind of art can you expect north of the Big Apple?
The home to Cornell University just feels like an arts hub. It’s the small things: the painted daisies crawling up a wall alongside actual vines; stainless-steel sculptures next to wild dinosaurs and volcanoes spewing lava; the marching mural of diverse block figures traversing the snow. It’s felt in the Community Arts Center, located off the downtown’s outdoor walking mall, where director John Spence playfully gripes about the place he calls home. “Part of Ithaca’s success is its challenge,” he says, because with so many theaters, galleries and arts scenes to see, it’s hard for all of them to get a paying audience. Success stories include the rock band X Ambassadors and a number of authors, dating back to Vladimir Nabokov of Lolita fame. “The world eventually comes to us,” says Spence, whether it’s through shows at the Opera Ithaca or Kitchen Theatre, a spring literary festival or simply another performance from the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra.
A far-eastern town that’s much closer to Burlington, Vermont — and even Boston — than to Rochester, Hudson is the closest city to NYC on this list, at just a two-hour drive. Those who make the trip will be treated to a small Victorian- and Federalist-styled town that packs far above its weight, with 19 art galleries, two museums and 45 antique shops — no wonder its marketing folks call it “upstate’s downtown.” Local attractions span everything from the Ancram Opera House to the Pleshakov Piano Museum and the FASNY Fire Museum of Firefighting.
Like Hudson, this mid-state option made the vibrancy index for the first time, though baseball fans have long been trekking to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in nearby Cooperstown. Other joys of culture are on offer, with museums dedicated to everything from art to farmers to petrified creatures. You can feel good about both your economic and energy footprint here: The Foothills Performing Arts and Civic Center has been dubbed the “greenest” building ever created through the New York State Energy Research & Development program, and the area ranked 18th in compensation for its staff and artists.
Options abound in the state’s third-largest city, from the contemporary Art Center to the Flower City Arts Center, which gets locals involved through classes on book arts, ceramics and photography. More than two dozen theatrical companies have set up shop. The pièce de résistance? The Memorial Art Gallery, which looks boringly normal but is in fact quite bizarre. The first room is portraits, but they are slightly off — a face fragmented into three shifting pieces (“reality combined with movement,” a placard reads) next to a Warhol portrait in blue silkscreen ink. An immersive mural from Rochester native Nate Hodge seeps across the ceiling, leaking at the edges and dripping down to the floor. And just when you think this is some nouveau art millennial museum, the upstairs shifts you into another sphere — where a cellist and an organist play live music on a Wednesday afternoon, beautifully and barely attended.
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