A Lesson in Creative Transformation

Jack Shainman (above) has featured artistic giants such as Basquiat and Warhol. The spring exhibition opens next month.
© Meleko Mokgosi. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

The term “art school” takes on new meaning at a groundbreaking gallery in the Columbia County village of Kinderhook.

Internationally known gallerist and art collector Jack Shainman, who owns a farm in nearby Stuyvesant, transformed Kinderhook’s former Martin Van Buren elementary/high school into a spacious, unique exhibition space — aptly named The School.

“It’s a dream come true,” says Shainman of the 30,000 sq ft gallery that now occupies the stately brick 1929 Federal Revival-style structure.

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Shainman, who runs a flagship gallery in Manhattan, bought the school for $550,000 in 2013. “I saw the For Sale sign while driving past the building one day, screeched on the brakes, and decided to take a look, mostly out of curiosity. I pinch myself that it ever really happened!”

Renovation plans were designed by renowned Spanish architect Antonio Jimenez Torrecillas. The initial revamp, largely done by local contractors, took about a year, and The School opened in 2014. Renovations included expanding the former gym and cafeteria area to create a central 5,000 sq ft exhibition space with 24-foot ceilings that’s perfect for displaying large-scale artwork.

Upstairs, some smaller gallery spaces occupy the ghosts of classrooms, with works hung in non-renovated areas where the outlines of former blackboards and other school-time paraphernalia is still visible.   

“We also added geothermal heating and cooling, which required drilling 15 wells in the backyard,” Shainman says. The property also contains five acres for outdoor sculptures.

Shainman says his initial plan was to open The School only in the summer, then shift the artwork to his West 20th Street gallery in Manhattan and its West 24th Street satellite space for the autumn art season.

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But the Kinderhook location turned out to be such a hit — “Last summer, it averaged about 600 to 800 people per weekend. And we were getting as many as 125 on Saturdays in the winter,” Shainman says — that he decided to keep the gallery open, free of charge, year-round.

Visitors to The School include weekend-home owners, art aficionados and day-trippers from New York City and elsewhere, plus lots of local folks. “People sometimes will say, as they walk through the building, ‘Oh, my goodness, this was my homeroom!’ or ‘I was a teacher here a long time ago.’”

Shainman focuses on work by contemporary artists from North America, Cuba, Europe, Africa, and East Asia, often dealing with edgy, socially relevant political and cultural topics.

Photo by Ogata

Last summer, The School held an acclaimed show of collaborative paintings done by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol in the 1980s, along with individual works by the two renowned artists. “The School was an ideal showcase, since many of the pieces were so large,” he says.

Shainman says he was drawn to the Kinderhook area because it’s both rural and steeped in history (the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site is just minutes from the gallery). “I remember that, the first year of The School, about 1,200 people came to the spring opening. Someone mentioned that it was probably a bigger crowd than had attended Martin Van Buren’s inauguration,” Shainman laughs.

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