The Albany Barn is a community arts center and incubator in Albany’s Arbor Hill neighborhood. However, thanks to its low-income housing for emerging artists, it’s more than just an arts organization.
Kristen Holler is Executive Director of the Albany Barn, and has been with the organization for about 13 years. In the mid-2000s, grassroots organization Rock2Rebuild threw multiple charity concerts in the Capital Region – big fundraisers and concerts featuring local artists – and in the process learned how the region’s cost of living hindered emerging artists. Holler says artists wanted to contribute their time and work for a larger cause, but couldn’t always afford to.
“So the idea became to create the Barn, which would put a roof over this Rock2Rebuild concept — which is that, if we can support local artists, and make living and working here in the Capital Region affordable, that they then have more flexibility and opportunity to give back to the larger community using their creative skills.”
The organization partnered with the Albany Housing Authority to refurbish Arbor Hill’s abandoned St. Joseph’s Academy in 2007, and officially opened its doors with 22 studio and one-bedroom apartments in 2014. To qualify, residents must make less than half the area’s average income – about $28,000 – and be approved by an artist selection committee.
“Two things that we’re really looking for are, first, that the artist has an interest, and is willing to put the work in, to try to translate whatever their creative medium is into a sustainable career for themselves," says Holler. "And the other portion is that community engagement piece.”
Emily Dorr was one of the first artists to apply in 2013. The 31-year-old picked out her apartment before construction even finished, which she now shares with her two cats. It’s a bright space with an open floor plan, and like the rest of the building, you can see evidence of the former St. Joseph’s Academy. There are high ceilings, tall windows, and a chalkboard on the back wall of Dorr’s apartment. The space doubles as her studio, with work desks, art supplies, and books waiting to be repurposed.
Dorr says after getting her BFA at SUNY New Paltz, the Albany Barn was crucial to establishing her independence:
“Once you leave college’s it’s like ‘What do you do?’ and financially it’s a little bit crippling sometimes. So the Barn was just this incredible spot in my mind, and I immediately applied, was just like ‘I’m on it,’ and pretty much just pile-drived into their inbox.”
Dorr's work ranges from oil paintings and collages, to comics and ink illustrations, most of which is under the moniker Fuzzy Gray Lines. Her paintings and collages are often wrought with emotional, sometimes heavy depictions of nature: animals bloodied, in pain, or transformed, while exhibiting a certain innocence. She credits her love of nature to her childhood. Dorr was homeschooled in nearby Averill Park, and spent a lot of her free time exploring the surrounding woods and watching nature videos with her family.
“My favorites were always like the predator versus prey dynamic," says Dorr. "And that is seriously so obvious in my current artwork and past artwork: the dark, kind of savagery of nature, but also these beautiful, quiet moments.”
Personal fulfillment and wellness seem to be a recurring theme in Dorr’s recent work. While she has a housecleaning job to make ends meet, and teaches comics classes at local schools, the Albany Barn has given Dorr the ability to step back and work on ideas as they come to her.
“A lot of artists are like ‘Oh, we burn the midnight oil, we’re all about that nighttime’ – I try to draw anything after 7 o’clock and it’s just garbage," Dorr laughs.
Oliver Peters is also a long-time resident of the Albany Barn, and seems to move at lightning speed.
“For this last commission that I did, I didn’t sleep for three days," says Peters. "I mean, I slept on the couch for a couple hours at a time, and I just pushed it because I was on a very tight deadline. It needed to go to California, and I had the opportunity to avoid shipping costs to send a 12-foot piece to California.”
The 38-year-old got his start with his father’s camera, and holds a BFA in photography from the Cleveland Institute of Art. He is fascinated with artistic theory and the interaction of materials. Partially due to his lack of a dark room, Peters switched from photography to drawing, but continues to apply photographic theory, such as rephotography, to his work. He recently finished a commission based on the meter of polonaise, a dance and classical music notation based in Poland. At times, his art can sound more like science.
Peters’ apartment is overflowing with books. A drum kit stands in the center of the room. And the chalkboards on his wall are filled with project ideas: a parody screenplay of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” an installation piece based in genealogy, monumental photographic prints derived from lint roller sheets…the list goes on.
“I was talking to someone the other day, and I was saying ‘Unfortunately I’m not going to live to be 250-years-old,'" Peters laughs.
Peters was born in Saratoga Springs, and moved to New York City after college. There, he worked for the likes of Condé Nast and exhibited work in the Flat Files of Brooklyn’s Pierogi gallery. He moved back to the Capital Region when his mother fell ill, and applied to the Albany Barn soon after. He says he appreciates living alongside other artists, but admits staying in upstate New York can make becoming a big-name artist, rather than a local one, difficult.
“To drive people to your website, you need to give out business cards," says Peters. "Which means you have to go and physically talk to someone, and that’s very hard to do if the large shows are only happening quarterly, if there’s three galleries, and the same 50 people are coming to the shows every month. You run out of people to talk to.”
Lately, Peters has been working on a number of commissions, and considers himself lucky he’s never had to leave the art realm for day jobs. But with the costly price of materials, Peters is always trying to sell or show his work — and says he is considering putting down the pen, to make the switch to canvas.
“Collectability was the way that it was put to me. Collectability," he says. "You’d much rather have a Michelangelo painting, than a Michelangelo sketch.”
Beyond its residents, the Albany Barn has a lot in the works. The organization recently opened an extension, the Electric City Barn, in Schenectady. Unlike the rentable studios and housing at the Albany Barn, the Electric City Barn is a “maker’s space,” featuring open studios for woodworking, fiber arts, and more for paying members. Membership fees are partially subsidized according to one’s income, and Executive Director Kristen Holler says it’s all part of extending the organization’s reach. The Albany Barn is at capacity.
“There still continues to be a need," says Holler. "Our housing waitlist is over 125 people, our demand on studios is roughly three to one, in terms of studios to applicants. So, we just decided to fill that need.”
As for the Albany Barn’s current residents, they can continue their housing contracts as long as they fulfill the organization’s requirements, or until they’ve outgrown the space.
Jesse King is a senior at SUNY Oneonta, majoring in Music Industry and Mass Communication.