Artists must have vision, but sometimes the vision isn’t the art. At least that’s true for Stef Halmos, the creator, curator, and developer of the 85,000 sq. ft. “art campus” she established in a trio of 19th-century brick mill buildings along Catskill Creek.
She named the compound Foreland, which expresses both its stature and its pioneering nature: a space for artists, by artists. Most large development projects are driven by finance, she says, “but for me, it’s more emotional: I wanted to root myself and my art practice in a way that also supported art.”
It’s an audacious goal, but Halmos has an audacious spirit, readily embracing the idea that being an artist means you’re also an entrepreneur, and she firmly believes in “gut as guide.” (Example: on her first OK Cupid date, in 2014, she met Mckenzie Raley, and knew instantly she was the one. Friends insisted she go on dates with other people, but she told Raley on date No. 3 that she would marry her. Which she did, in 2016.)
Although she was a successful working artist, whose tactile sculptures and mixed-media pieces were well-received, “I never really had that ‘Aha, I’ve made it!’ moment,” she says. “There was never time for that kind of celebration, no room for levity or curiosity.” The cost of city life and maintaining her basement studio in her Greenpoint, Brooklyn, home meant she was “always hustling.” The relentlessness of that hustle left her looking for a better solution, and a better life, for herself and for her fellow artists. “I loved grad school,” says Halmos, “being part of a community and watching other people succeed. That was good for my own work,” she says. “And I wanted to create that, for myself and for others.”
Halmos began what would become a “grueling” two-year search for the ideal building to turn into artists’ studios in 2015. She started in New York City and the outlying areas, seeing building after building and trying to figure out how to make the economics work. “And in the meantime, I was still working,” she says. “I was grinding pretty hard.” But she was also learning to be “selective and cautious,” and perhaps even slightly enjoying some of the culture clash of being herself in the real estate development world: “Not many of the men in that world knew what to do with a brassy, gay broad,” she laughs.
At one point, after a year or so, she was seriously considering a building in Sunset Park. “I was constantly driving back and forth to meet the brokers and do structural assessments and see it and study it and negotiate and photograph it and all this stuff and I just I hated the commute,” says Halmos. “I was not a nice person when I got home.” She was pretty far along with the building, but Halmos says her girlfriend stepped in: “Kenz said to me, ‘Stef, this has to be a labor of love for you,’” Halmos remembers. “She reminded me I needed to think about what role this thing would play in my life for years to come. And once I opened my mind up and started looking north and spending time in the Hudson Valley—well, you know, this is all of our stories… you just fall in love.”
She looked at “everything,” she says, ticking off the names of towns and cities up and down the Hudson. When she came to Catskill, she instantly loved it. She and her wife moved into a 1790 stone farmhouse and prepared for the idyll that was waiting for them. “We got served,” says Halmos. “That house was a nightmare.” She says she and her wife never fought before or after, “but the way we fought in that stone house… There were mice, it was freezing, the floorboards creaked, there was no natural light. Summertime? Very magical. Wintertime? Truly the defeat of my soul.” Nearly a year later, they bought a fully renovated house across the river in Hudson that met Halmos’ single requirement: no construction needed. She could come home from 14-hour days and land on her sofa and “just be done,” says Halmos.
Fortunately, finding Foreland turned out to be the easy part. As simple as buying an ice cream cone.
I wanted to root myself and my art practice in a way that also supported art.
In 2017, a real estate agent was a little late for an appointment to show Halmos a brick building in Catskill, and Halmos idled her time with a cone from the charming yellow ice cream stand Cone-E Island, on Catskill Creek. Halmos sat down to eat her ice cream and looked across the creek to see “this huge brick building.” When the agent arrived, Halmos said, “I don’t want this building. I want that building.” She pointed to the brick factory towering over the creek from the opposite bank, 111 Water Street, the first of the three buildings she would ultimately purchase.
The fact that it wasn’t for sale didn’t deter her. The person who owned it—an artist, it turns out—was ready to let it go and Halmos dove in. She financed the purchase with private equity investors and received $1.5 million in funds from the Empire Development Group, which invests in projects that sustain and support local economies, and “place-making and revitalization.” Halmos, as an artist, often referred to herself as a maker of objects; many of her pieces are constructions with real heft and presence. With Foreland she has leveled up, making a place that is equal parts sculpture and community, and preserving remarkable, aging buildings that had been sagging into their foundations for years.
Halmos needed help and support in shoring up what was still standing. “Saving the old things is harder,” says Halmos. “It takes way more equity and sweat to keep these buildings—it’s easier to knock ‘em down and start over.” (Originally, she thought Foreland would open in 2019; it took two additional years, during which time she carried and gave birth to her and Raley’s first child, Addison, now 2.) But she revels in the history and the ghosts of what used to be in the buildings (it was originally used to produce uniforms for Union soldiers during the Civil War), which required 18 months of structural remediation—a nice way of saying lots of architectural work to make sure the building wouldn’t collapse.
As she walks through the main building, Halmos points out the careful way she saved as much as possible: original three-inch thick wood floors, matched in places with new lumber from British Columbia, Canada, and most of the brick edifice. Some things had to be sacrificed, like the original, narrow staircase that used to wind up the six floors in the main building’s tower. “It was a total death trap,” she says. In its place is a muted almond metal floating staircase, which manages to be both industrial and light. She wanted the new to cleanly juxtapose the old, and neither to pretend to be the other. History and progress visible, side by side.
On the ground floor is the event space, a perfect home for the Hudson Valley weddings that have become so popular of late—and a key part of Foreland’s business plan. “It’s literally the foundation of what we’re doing here. The business model boils down to not putting all of our eggs in one basket,” she says. “I think it’s great people can come here and have one of the best days of their life, with the added bonus of being an art benefactor.” She ended up acquiring two additional adjacent buildings and folded them into the campus, one of which is a second events venue (the Book House, at 125 Water Street, which is scheduled to open on June 1, at press time); the other contains studios and offices. Another event space is at the top of the main building, with dramatic exposed I-beam architecture, enormous extended A-frame windows, and Hudson Valley views for miles.
But the lion’s share of the space—about 40,000 sq. ft. of it—belongs to artists, the people for whom she built the space, and who give Foreland its singular mission. The 31 studios are all rented out, to artists hand-picked by Halmos. “They’re savvy, they’re businesspeople of course, with a high level of craft. They’re prolific makers, but they’re cool individuals. I’ve had the experience of touring people around, and I just know immediately when they’re not the right fit for the ecosystem,” she says. “And that matters!”
“The artists are part of the business model,” she says. “They pay rent, and for the region it is a significant rent, but I think what they get, what comes with it, makes it worth it.” What they get are soaring ceilings, full-height windows with Hudson Valley light streaming in—and a lot more square footage than they’d ever dream of having in Brooklyn or the other cities (including Boston and Philadelphia) that about 60 percent of the Foreland artists decamped from. “Word of mouth and Covid” are the two factors Halmos cites for how quickly the studios were rented.
The artists—who include Laleh Khourami, Lyle Ashton Harris, Clair Catillaz, and filmmaker Theo Anthony—also get a landlord who understands the nature of their work and supports it, a community of fellow artists and makers, two enormous gallery spaces, and all the connective work Halmos is doing to bring galleries and art shows to the space.
Foreland’s official opening in August 2021 coincided and was part of Upstate Art Weekend, and Halmos partnered with NADA (New Art Dealers Alliance) to create the Foreland X NADA exhibition, filling the Foreland campus with more than 100 works that highlighted New York artists—and invited the public in for its first look inside what Halmos had been working on so long to bring to life.
But there is still much to do: get the wedding business up and running (soon), finish the Book House (slated for June), and bring on the new arts administrator (hired) who will run programming for Foreland, including the public events Halmos intends to hold to make Foreland a part of the larger Catskill community.
She is also founding a program called the Foreland Gallery Coalition, with the goal of disrupting art galleries’ brick-and-mortar model and inviting select galleries from cities around the U.S. (as well as Mexico City) to have exhibitions in Foreland that will “cross-pollinate” with other exhibitions by the resident artists and other galleries, to help galleries “increase their collector base and increase their viewership,” says Halmos. “I just want to bring all of these people under one roof with complementary programming and let them take the galleries and run with it.”
Running with it is apparently what Halmos herself does best. “I am a fine artist,” she says. “And I will always be an artist, but I am a great developer. I was born to do this.”
When she first found what would become Foreland’s flagship building and told her father it was what would become her first development, he simply said, “Stef, learning how to spearhead a development in this building is like learning to drive a stick shift in the Indy 500.” Halmos says that’s the best possible metaphor for everything she aims to do with Foreland.
And there’s one more item on her checklist for this year, the matter of finding the perfect restaurant to inhabit 316 Main Street, the somewhat incongruous “front door” of this giant waterfront project: it’s a storefront on Catskill’s Main Street, that connects to the old brick buildings on the waterfront one block behind it via a stunning glass and steel walkway.
I am a fine artist, and I will always be an artist, but I am a great developer. I was born to do this.
“I am staunchly committed to food and beverage for that space,” she says. “All these tenants work their butts off, and for them I want a martini that is beautiful and elegant and well-made—and I want to sit right there and enjoy it,” she says, her hand already poised to take the glass from the bartender as she imagines it. “I won’t give that up,” she says, before noting that she thinks that Catskill generally would benefit from more types of food and beverage, and that there’s room for more business for everyone on Main Street.
“I have to make that sale,” she says, as if the restaurant is the only piece of the project on her plate, all pieces of it earning equal attention and intensity. “That’s a hard sale, but I want everyone who joins Foreland—café, gallery, whatever—to feel that they are getting the best possible maintenance, the best possible service, the best communication, PR, everything, that they’re getting more than four white walls, always.” She pauses. “So, you know, whoever takes that space is going to be someone very special and someone I work really hard for, so they succeed like everybody else. And I’m going to drink martinis.”
She might be due a cocktail or two after these years of effort. She has joked that “growing a human” was easier than this project. But regardless of the work, she remains clear about her goals. “My responsibility as a developer is, at the end of the day, do I feel good about what I’m doing here, with what I’m creating? And the answer is Yeah. Yeah, I do.”
Related: LEGOLAND New York Is a Fun-Filled Family Getaway in Goshen