Six Art-World Cool Kids Take Over Abandoned High School in Upstate NY

CLAVERACK, New York — It is no secret that the art world can be a lonely place. There is something distinctly isolating about competing with your peers for one of the few, underpaid curatorial positions or a spot in a coveted residency, or silently begrudging the sold-out booth next to yours at an art fair. Just a few miles southeast of Hudson, The Campus, an abandoned high school-turned-art exhibition space shared by six New York City galleries, proposes something of a salve: camaraderie, with shared profits to boot.

Several hundred people — over 2,500, by some estimates — poured into the 78,000-square-foot building this past Saturday, June 29, for an overcast opening event marking the first and untitled show, curated by Timo Kappeller. Continuing the spirit of cooperation, a section of the space was given over to NXTHVN, the Connecticut nonprofit founded by artists Titus Kaphar, Jason Price, and Jonathan Brand, to display works by seven of its Studio Fellows selected by Curatorial Fellows Marquita Flowers and Clare Patrick.

“I think this culture can be very one-against-the other,” Chiara Repetto, co-owner of Kaufmann Repetto gallery in Tribeca, told Hyperallergic at the opening. “It’s mors tua vita mea in a way — I get in, but you don’t get in.”

“We noticed that the more we work together, it’s just a win-win,” Repetto said. “There’s no loss in the fact that we can share inventory.”

Along with Kaufmann Repetto, fellow galleries Bortolami, James Cohan, Anton Kern, Andrew Kreps, and Kurimanzutto initially acquired the property as an alternative to ever-pricier storage options in the city. They were later approached by HBO, which rented out the building temporarily to film parts of the slasher teen drama Pretty Little Liars (2010–17). But it quickly became clear that the most fitting second act for the former Ockawamick School, and the nearly two dozen acres of grass it sits on, was a venue for art.

Along hallways and on the walls of classrooms painted in a wide palette of colors, a science lab, a library, and a cavernous gymnasium so remarkably untouched that it still buzzes with the energy of a pep rally, pairings of works by over 80 artists yield unexpected dialogues. The girlish canvases of Rebecca Morris mingle with the architectonic Formica-and-particleboard sculptures of Manfred Pernice, and Talia Chetrit’s photographic snippets of urban life coexist with Francesca DiMattio’s tantalizing ceramic caryatids. A spherical sculpture by Haegue Yang protrudes improbably from a chalkboard; Miguel Calderón’s “Best-seller” (2009), a 30-minute video that juxtaposes audiobook excerpts with footage of tourists covering their faces with the same novels while tanning, lures us into a locker-room shower.

Outside, sculptures by the likes of Maren Hassinger, Virginia Overton, and Tal R punctuate the vast lawns. Some of them can be seen through the classroom windows, glimpses as sweet as the taste of recess.

The initiative is in line with other collaborative endeavors in the New York City art world in recent years, such as the alternative art fairs Esther and That ’70s Show and the joint space shared by Instituto de Visión and Revolver Galería. In addition to pushing back against the profound individualism of the industry, these projects take a tip from growing movements for mutual aid and sustainability. The Campus’s partners, for instance, aim to reduce waste by reusing packing materials, crates, and pedestals among themselves.

“It’s inherently a statement against monopolistic thinking,” said artist Josiah McElheny, whose geometric glass sculptures are on view in the show, adding that he welcomed a shift away from “purpose-built” museums and galleries and toward repurposing spaces.

“The show having no theme is a pluralistic idea,” McElheny said. “Each gallery does not have to have one single, unique position, they can just be in relationship to each other.”

Beyond the warm, fuzzy feelings, the numbers speak for themselves. Dealer Stefania Bortolami observed in a no-nonsense manner that “putting the six galleries together, we have a sales force of about 37 people” — in a similar league to some blue-chip ventures. “The old way of true, 100 percent representation by a gallery, of ‘owning’ an artist and being very protective, that’s slowly changing,” Bortolami told Hyperallergic.

Constructed in 1952 and remodeled in the ’60s, the school had been unoccupied since the 1990s and changed hands, and prices, several times since then. The Columbia County Board of Supervisors paid $1.5 million for it in 2008, envisioning a new home for the Department of Social Services, a plan scrapped after it was met with protests. Six years later, the late interior designer and art collector Eleanor Ambos bought it for $502,500. In September 2020, a real estate listing for the property described it as “ideally suited to be a fantastic arts center or museums” or, alternatively, a nursing home or adult care facility. The galleries acquired it from Ambos’s estate for a reported $1.2 million in July 2021. In the comments section of a recent post about The Campus in the local blog The Gossips of Rivertown, one critic feared “the march of money and local displacement” while others welcomed the investment in arts and culture.

Unlike Jack Shainman Gallery’s The School in nearby Kinderhook, also housed in a converted former high school but whitewashed like a more traditional exhibition space, The Campus retains the aesthetics of its former life, and even the kitschiest elements take on a newfound charm. The sinuous curves of a vintage drinking fountain, a melancholic row of lockers, and other vestiges of the building’s past invite visitors to play a game tentatively titled: Contemporary Art, or American High School Fixture From the Olden Days?

In the works on view, too, there are nods and winks to that romanticized setting of teenage dreams and disillusionment, but they are nuanced and sometimes subversive. On a performance stage in the gym, Andrea Bowers’s epic neon installation “Fight for the Living, Mourn for the Dead” (2024) reminds viewers that “climate change is real” in pretty, bright-green cursive letters that appear taken directly from the popular girl’s composition notebook. What appears to be a supply closet is entirely overtaken by Eugene Macki’s “Noumena” (2023–24), an absurdist installation consisting of a pile of wood and cardboard squares.

At around 5pm, the opening’s official closing time, crowds of curators, friends, puppies, dealers, artists, and toddlers hanging on to red helium balloons lingered in the entrance and hallways, chattering away.

“We’re at school on a Saturday,” remarked painter John Guzman, a NXTHVN fellow featured in the show. “Saturday school is for bad kids.”

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