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December 08, 2016
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The Catskills: Centuries of artistic expression ...and still going strong

Thousands of original concert attendees flock to the original site of the Woodstock Music Festival. This pair, known as “Grandma and Grandpa Woodstock” hold court every August, regaling visitors with their stories from the summer of ‘69.
TRR photo by Jonathan Fox

During the summer of ‘69, I stuck out my thumb and hitched a ride from the Finger Lakes to Bethel, NY, in search of a music festival that like-minded hippies were flocking to—Woodstock. Little did we know that history was in the making, but by the time I arrived, the story had already begun to unfold and at this point, that tale has been told in books, films and songs that echo the sound of a generation and still inspire musicians and artists around the world.

The teenage me had no idea that I would return one day and make the Catskills my home, nor that my life would center on the arts and the rich history that has drawn creativity to the region for decades, long before Yasgur’s Farm became a muddy host to 400,000, clad in tie-dye and dedicating their lives to peace, love and happiness.

The landscape has changed since Jimi Hendrix left the stage, but visitors still arrive in droves to relive their youth, honor the past and soak up the vibes that haunt the land. The property, now known as the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts (BWCA), reveres the history, but is determined to build on its foundation and carry the torch into the future, celebrating music, the arts, and the creativity that was spawned as the skies opened and the rains came down during those well documented days.

Bethel Woods is new. As recently as 1996, Alan Gerry, a Liberty, NY cable television pioneer, purchased the original festival field and 1,700 acres surrounding it, with plans for the arts center. The $100 million project was launched by the Gerry Foundation in 2004. Despite many obstacles, Gerry’s vision came to fruition and once again, thousands flock.

It’s probably fair to say that most of the hippies had no idea that this locale was no stranger to the arts. In fact, there were well known, established artists’ colonies nearby in the early 1900s. One of these complexes, Byrdcliffe, was actually in the town of Woodstock, NY and was founded in 1902 by Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, Hervey White and Bolton Brown. Before long, some of the founders came to a parting of the ways and another colony emerged—The Maverick. Potters, jewelers, painters, weavers and photographers quickly discovered that the bucolic atmosphere was conducive to creativity and word spread rapidly, attracting hundreds to the area, seeking a refuge in which to express themselves.

To this day, Byrdcliffe and the surrounding region’s history maintains a reputation as a haven for inspiration, and the grounds are now home to residencies that cater to world-class artists and composers, culminating with yearly exhibitions that still draw visitors from around the world.

While Woodstock, NY and the music festival that bore its name are not one and the same, it’s possible that the confusion enhances both sectors. The fresh mountain air, scenic vistas and spectacular waterways continue to attract those seeking an escape from city life, be it for a day, a month, or a lifetime. Folks from all walks of life can be found throughout the region, but the arts community has never flagged. Not unlike the hippies, many of the farms have gone, but new ones—smaller, specialized, artisanal farms—have begun to spring up, and while many of the artists have never left, new ones arrive daily and now call the Catskills home. Music fills the air, art galleries abound and writers write, expanding on the rich history that laid the groundwork for a future that is bright and beautiful.

Bethel Woods continues to grow, building on what was, with a keen eye on the future. The Museum at Bethel Woods, which has a permanent exhibit celebrating the story of the sixties and the Woodstock experience, also showcases a film and speaker series and rotating outdoor sculpture collections. The adjoining Event Gallery presents intimate concerts and family-friendly events coupled with educational programs. The Pavilion Stage, which overlooks the original concert site, features world class acts that perform outdoors, and seats 15,000 music lovers, whether under the Pavillion or sprawled on the expansive lawns. Major artists in the world of rock, classical, country and jazz have graced the stage, including Bob Dylan, Tim McGraw, Elton John and the New York Philharmonic. In addition to music, the arts center presents a month-long Harvest Festival on the grounds showcasing the work of every type of creative genius and exemplifies the ongoing tradition of a flourishing artists’ retreat—the Catskills.