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Hudson River School

Dia is not alone in sensing Beacon's potential. Since the early 1990's, the nonprofit environmental group Scenic Hudson has been buying up land on the city's forlorn waterfront and historic Mount Beacon, where in the 1920's crowds ascended by railcar to the summit to dance and dine at the Casino. Commissioned by Scenic Hudson, Dia, and Minetta Brook, artist George Trakas has set about restoring public access to Beacon Landing, a long-neglected peninsula owned by Scenic Hudson, whose broader plans for its riverside property include a hotel and conference center, three restaurants, and a "green harbor" (for non-motorized watercraft). Restoration of the trails and tramway leading up Mount Beacon is also under way.

Shortly after Dia's deal was made public, real estate developer and noted arts patron Bil Ehrlich began acquiring buildings all over town for an ambitious venture, the Beacon Cultural Project. "We're aiming to create an economic engine for this community, which has lost its manufacturing base, by replacing it with culture," Ehrlich told me, following the time-honored logic that where Dia goes, the art world soon follows (Dia opened in Chelsea before most of New York's SoHo galleries relocated there). Ehrlich, who speaks with an almost messianic fervor of promoting a "new Hudson River school," has enlisted architect Richard Gluckman to transform a dilapidated 150,000-square-foot factory complex near Fishkill Creek into the Beacon Arts Society—an inn, a Kunsthalle (a space for temporary exhibitions), and a state-of-the-art warehouse to serve major collectors. Among Ehrlich's many other purchases are an old vaudeville theater; the former Beacon High School (which he envisions transforming into an institute of decorative arts and design, DADI); and three adjacent storefronts on Main Street, which opened in October as the project's headquarters and include a small but glistening nonprofit exhibition space.

Not all Beaconites are fans of contemporary art. "I don't much care for Warhol's stuff," Joan Van Voorhis, the city's 76-year-old historian, tells me in her office at the Howland Cultural Center, a Victorian pile—designed by Richard Morris Hunt—where exhibitions and chamber music concerts are held. "But we'll never go back to being an industrial base. And this is better than serving as a bedroom community."

On a recent Saturday evening, a mostly young crowd shuttled between openings at a half-dozen galleries on Main Street. The throng was thickest at Collaborative Concepts, a nonprofit space directed by painter Richard Bruce, where about 250 people—artists, dancers, carpenters, graphic designers, feng shui experts—were toasting an exhibition devoted mostly to abstract paintings. In the back, sculptor Ken Landauer and I sat on one of his pieces—an immense, red, upholstered sofa, over which my legs dangled like Goldilocks'.

Landauer was pushed out of his storefront Williamsburg studio by gentrification. Though he now lives and works in the rural community of Stone Ridge, across the Hudson River from Beacon, he's up-to-date on the latest art-world developments. Beacon, he said, was a bit too high-pressured for him. I wondered if he was referring to all the warm and well-meaning people who kept asking me whether I intended to buy a house there.

While the planners of Dia:Beacon took a piece of America's industrial past and modernized it, Frank Gehry faced a different challenge: how to integrate his ultracontemporary, undulating behemoth into the pastoral landscape of Bard College's rural campus. The Richard B. Fisher Center has two stages: an intimate 900-seat opera house, which will also be used for dance and theater, and a much smaller space, a black box, for more-experimental work. Acoustic requirements demanded a massive structure, a challenge Gehry solved by backing the building into a grove of trees.

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