Art Centro occupies a small brick townhouse on Poughkeepsie’s Main Street with inviting colored trim. Stepping inside, we find ourselves in a brightly lit ceramics studio. Potter’s wheels are arrayed throughout the room; ceramic works in progress are displayed on shelves. A friendly staffer greets us and shows us into an adjacent gallery space where we find the works of Chinese artist Lu Wenyan. These are not ceramics, but delicately-wrought ink landscapes on rice paper that seem to have alighted on the walls like rare birds, carrying uplifting messages from a far-off land.
Exotic visitations have in fact become an increasingly regular occurrence on this stretch of Main Street. For the past three years Art Centro has been home to an arts residency program that attracts artists from all over China, including young students, mid-career professionals and established masters. To date, approximately 100 Chinese artists have come to live in Poughkeepsie for two to twelve weeks. Several have become repeat visitors. “When locals see someone Chinese on the street nowadays, they come up and ask ‘are you an artist?’” smiles Zheng Xuewu, the program’s founder and director.
Zheng greets visitors with a cup of fragrant green tea in his top floor studio, where he divides his time between managing the residency program, called the Hudson Center for Contemporary Arts, and pursuing his own painting. Zheng’s mild manner belies an international career indicative of strong personal drive.
Zheng grew up in the northeast China city of Harbin, studied printmaking at a university, and moved to Beijing to pursue his career. In 2006, with his partner he started a residency program in Beijing’s Songzhuang art area, hosting artists from outside of China, including students from Korean and Australian art schools. Through this work he became affiliated to ResArtis, a worldwide association of artist residencies. He was appointed to lead a team from art academies across China to the London 2012 “Cultural Olympics”. At a ResArtis conference in Amsterdam he met Linda Marston-Reid, manager of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio arts residency at the time, and now Executive Director of Arts Mid-Hudson formerly Dutchess Arts Council.
By 2012 Zheng had held visiting professorships at university arts programs in Georgia and North Carolina, had an established gallery relationship in New York City, and was staying in the US for longer periods. On a trip to New York, Marston-Reid invited him to Poughkeepsie, and proposed the idea of an arts residency.
“From an artists’ point of view the conditions were favorable. With the encouragement of the Dutchess County Arts Council (now the tri-county Arts Mid-Hudson), we had an opportunity to ‘make tea’ together,” Zheng says, using a Chinese expression for creative alchemy.
Marston-Reid introduced Zheng to Roy Budnik, founder of the Mid-Hudson Heritage Center and longtime champion of the economic revitalization of downtown Poughkeepsie. In short order, Budnik purchased the current Art Centro building and leased the upper floors to Zheng for use as artist studios for the residency.
The Chinese artists that come to Poughkeepsie have different backgrounds, but all are motivated to learn about America and broaden their experience of human culture. “In a small city like Poughkeepsie you have the chance to really engage with local people and community organizations, and discover different perspectives,” says Zheng. Zheng organizes visits to local art centers (Olana, Bard, SUNY New Paltz, Storm King), as well as to attractions in New York City. Weekly artist talks and community meetings give the visitors further interaction. The focus is on providing an environment for a productive arts practice, which demands a balance between stimulating experiences and studio time. “Sometimes people get carried away with all the things to do and see, and I have to tease them back into making art.”
Visiting artists are given solo shows at the Art Centro gallery (typically six to ten shows are held during the residency’s April through October season), and participate in group shows in the region. For three years running Zheng has curated a summer exhibition of contemporary Asian art at the Mid-Hudson Heritage Center. This year he invited 22 artists to show their work.
Typically six artists are in residence at any one time at Art Centro. They are mostly from China, with a handful from Korea, Australia and other countries. Zheng explains, “the status of the arts in China is complicated: people are not willing to sincerely discuss art and thereby understand the world. Not many Chinese artists have opportunities like this, and so within the Chinese art world this is especially meaningful.”
While small in scale, the program has had an impact on downtown Poughkeepsie’s cultural life. “The residencies have been a real boost to the arts scene,” says Budnik. “The community has benefited from meeting and talking with the artists, seeing their work, learning about life and the arts in China, and bringing the local arts community together at their shows.”
George Kaye resides in Shanghai where he is involved in art and arts programs. He visits his family in Millbrook periodically.