Wallkill River School: Transforming Art and Agriculture in Montgomery, NY

NEA683This is the first of a series of Innovation Stories about the National Endowment for the Arts’s Our Town program. These inspiring stories highlight communities strengthening their neighborhoods through the arts and design across the United States.

To learn more about ArtsFwd’s partnership with the NEA, read the introductory post from Jason Schupbach (NEA’s Director of Design Programs).

How can artists and farmers work together to expand the local rural economy?

Montgomery, New York has a longstanding agricultural tradition, with families that have farmed in the area for generations. At the same time, the area has strong roots in the history of American art, and is now becoming a magnet for a growing population of contemporary artists. The Wallkill River School, a nonprofit artists’ cooperative based in Montgomery, has been working on an initiative to develop programs that would mutually benefit farmers and artists. Its plan involved a series of public charrettes to identify potential strategies for economic development, a study of the economic impact of the arts, workshops to bring together the town’s diverse population, and a strategic plan to integrate agriculture and art.

Place

Nestled in the Hudson River Valley, the town has long defined itself based on the waterway. Rich alluvial soils have allowed for abundant agricultural activities, while the scenic land formations that surround it have long inspired artists. Because of the scenic fall foliage, the views of the Hudson, and its proximity to New York City, The Hudson River School of Art took hold throughout the region in the mid-19th century, and artists have been based in Montgomery ever since. Just shy of 4,000 people, the town is about 60 miles to the north of New York City, making it an easy travel distance from the city for those who come to visit the local farms and orchards, and stay overnight at the local bed and breakfasts. The Wallkill River School, which led the NEA Our Town grant project, was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 2008. Its aim is to support the local arts community while helping to create connections between artists and the local agricultural community.

Image: Wallkill River School
All images courtesy: Wallkill River School

Community

Though the Montgomery community can be generally broken down into two main groups—agriculture and art—the reality is much more nuanced. The farming community, consists of small “mom and pop” farms, but also agricultural enterprises on a larger scale. In Orange County, there are 642 farms, with some open to the public and others kept completely private. The artist community is similarly diverse, ranging from those who have small, local clientele, to artists who are actively engaged in public events and who have regional and international audiences. Previous studies have indicated that arts in Orange County generate $16.13 million in local economic activity, and that it supports nearly 350 full-time jobs.

Local Needs

Montgomery has seen its share of tension stemming from the fact that the community is comprised of these two very different constituencies. To further complicate matters, the town has registered unprecedented population growth over the past decade, with an increase of new residents who may not fully appreciate Montgomery’s complex history. Following the 9/11 tragedy, in particular, the town saw an influx of New York City-based artists moving north. That increase in real estate demand caused economic pressures for some community members who had lived there for many years.

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