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N.Y. Town Re-creating Itself

Binghamton: Blight turns old industrial properties into just the right places for visual artists to gather and ignite energy.

By Marego Athans
Originally published Aug 20, 2002 in:

BINGHAMTON,  N.Y. - For years, people looked at the blighted block of State Street lined with abandoned factories and warehouses and saw the worst: the Hell's Angels hangout, the drug bars, the raucous fraternity parties, the reminders that the once-thriving manufacturing hub has been bleeding jobs for decades.

But the artists saw something else: huge 19th-century industrial buildings with large windows, high ceilings, the chance to own 9,000 square feet for something like $75,000.

And so they came - just a few so far but enough to spark queries from New York, Miami, Toronto and elsewhere, leading to talk of an emerging "mini-SoHo" in this aging, conservative town 180 miles northwest of New York.

"There's a certain ethos, an energy in the area right now," said Hall Groat II, director of the Avenue Art Gallery, which opened in April in nearby Endicott. "Politicians are sold on the idea that culture brings in a qualified work force."

A tall order, of course, but then again this is precisely how Manhattan's SoHo got started 30 years ago, followed by enclaves in other cities around the country where artists seized on cheap real estate, and in the process made the neighborhoods beautiful (and pricey).

"Artists tend to be the shock troops for dying cities," said Peg Johnston, who started a cooperative gallery on State Street two years ago. "They're always poor and starving, and they can get a lot of space they can mess up. But they're also risk-takers, willing to go somewhere no one else wants to be. It's almost a blank slate. They'd rather take a chance and create something rather than move in someplace that's already done."

It's a particularly sweet turn of events for the arts community here, which has long bemoaned the void in visual arts despite thriving opera, symphony and theater companies and the presence of a state university.

Now political leaders are hoping that visual art - for a long time relegated to bank and hospital lobbies - might provide a long-sought lifeline to a company town that has lost its companies- first Endicott Johnson, with its 22,000 shoe-manufacturing jobs, and then IBM, which was founded here, but whose local work force has dwindled from 14,000 to 2,000.

"The question is: 'Who are we going to be now?'" said Donna Lupardo, a former county legislator and candidate for state assembly. "How do we make this an interesting place for young people to stay? Enter the arts. It's not going to be our salvation, but it's a critically important component."

In other parts of the city and surrounding area - set in a picturesque region at the confluence of the Susquehanna and Chenango rivers - galleries and art spaces have recently opened up, creating more opportunities for local artists to show their work, as well as drawing talent from outside the region.

There was no meeting, no plan to create an artists colony in the tri-city region of Binghamton (hometown of Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling), Endicott and Johnson City. Rather, there were simply a handful of people - a painter here, a dealer there - each in his own world, all with converging ideas.

It hasn't hurt that some of the artists are well-known names, including one with serious star power: photo-realist Anthony Brunelli, a Binghamton native who made a niche painting urban landscapes of his hometown and has been represented for the past decade by New York dealer and SoHo gallery owner Louis K. Meisel.

The 33-year-old charismatic redhead could settle anywhere - his paintings sell for $40,000 to $120,000 - but he bought a four-story, brick, turn-of-the-(last)-century former food warehouse on State Street that he has turned into loft living space for his family and a top-floor studio. He also has plans for an art school on the second floor.

Brunelli wants to lure others into downtown loft living and develop an arts district in the spirit of the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Va., a World War II weapons plant that is now home to artists and craftsmen.

"I'm not really a developer, and I don't want to be," he said. "It just grabbed me, and I can't let go, even though I should. This is the only thing that can save an area like this in upstate New York."

Now, Meisel, his dealer - who is among a small group of people who helped create SoHo - is providing financial backing for Brunelli to buy, renovate and sell lofts in another building in the neighborhood.

"We looked at loft and commercial buildings, and it turns out for not too many millions of dollars you can buy all of downtown Binghamton. Everything is for sale," Meisel said. "I told him to start with one building."

Down the street, Johnston has turned a former candy factory into a thriving cooperative gallery. She bought the building in 1984 for a women's club that needed space. It was only $25,000 - after all, the Hell's Angels had camped out next door in the 1960s and 1970s. Subsequent years brought a parade of nightmarish tenants, including an Irish pub whose patrons used it as a drug bar and kids who threw all-night "rave" parties and didn't pay rent.

Everything changed in November 1999. "I was on my knees, chipping chewing gum off the floor, and I had this epiphany - I have to do something I believe in or sell this at any cost and get out," said Johnston, who directs an area abortion clinic. She consulted a couple of artists, and they decided it was the time for a cooperative gallery.

Now, about 25 members show their work and rotate shifts staffing the gallery, with another 25 or so participating in group shows. "We've created a community," she said. "When you have an opening, everyone goes."

A few blocks away, on a small historic strip of Washington Street, Maggie Martin runs the Art Mission, a nonprofit exhibition space whose goal is to advance the careers of artists, educate the community and raise the level of art produced locally.

"We're getting a lot of help from foundations and corporate sponsorships; the same people who have said 'no' for years are saying 'yes' now," Martin said.

A few miles away, in downtown Endicott - a village also pockmarked with empty storefronts - the Avenue Art Gallery surprised everyone by drawing 1,000 visitors to its opening exhibit in April. "It was probably the biggest thing that's happened in Broome County in 25 years," said Brunelli, whose work was in the exhibit.

And in the third leg of the triad, Johnson City, a pair of established artists who also teach at the university are turning a former spool and bobbin factory in a rundown neighborhood into a 13,000-square-foot art space they hope will include painting, sculpture, film, dance and an artist-in-residence program, drawing talent from beyond the region as well as local artists.

"In one way, the space is a manifesto," said Don DeMauro, who bought the white stucco building two years ago - and is working with well-known local artist Ron Gonzalez to develop the space. The cheap real estate allows artists to pursue their ideals, said DeMauro, who hopes to run the exhibits with the help of grants.

"It's not a marketplace," DeMauro said. "It's who we are in the deepest sense. The area is a little bit forgiving as far as being able to live and work here.

"This is almost a Third World area, which provides an interesting energy and dynamic. We're part of that. That's part of the reason we're here."

Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun