woman jumping in office

In the Catskills, Foreland Is a New Oasis for Artists

Kat Herriman: Where did the idea for Foreland come from?

Stef Halmos: In 2012, I’d just finished my master’s degree in San Francisco and was coming back to Manhattan. My U-Haul box was supposed to be stored in Harlem for a couple of weeks while I got settled and then Hurricane Sandy hit. A couple of weeks later, I learned everything I ever made was lost. When I was finally ready to spend money on a studio again what I found were slapdash and unsafe spaces. I knew I could do better.

KH: What was the first draft like? My idea was, maybe I’d buy a brownstone or a warehouse and have five or six studios, and we’d all chip in. But the more I studied New York real estate, the more I understood that we treat our dirt with more value than our buildings because those can always be knocked down.

SH: I knew I was never going to be a big swinging dick Manhattan developer. And I understood that my story was only an example of everything else that was going to be happening to all of us creatives over the next 20 to 50 years. I started to look outside the boroughs. I went to get an ice cream cone across the creek from what now is our flagship building, thinking, That’s my building. That’s it.

KH: And how about the name?

SH: Rich, straight, white men have owned these buildings before me. They always promise to do something amazing, and then they don't. All those men called it The Mill-something, like Catskill Mill, or Waterfront Milll. I didn't want to follow in their footsteps but if it’s not a mill, then what is it? I realized that the thing I liked most about the building was that it looked like a cliff of bricks over the river. It made me feel like I was about to push myself over the edge and do something great, and I liked that. A foreland is a geographic term meaning a cliff over water.

KH: In the renovation process, did you enjoy stepping into the role of architect and planner?

SH: I really loved it. This project has been about learning. Learning about different species of wood, about why certain people build with certain materials. The interesting thing about design is that you have to lean into pragmatism. You have to think about the end when you’re at the very beginning.

That backward problem-solving was interesting to practice. You have to learn everything in order to be able to remove limits from yourself. Architecture forced me to do that.

KH: What are you learning right now?

SH: We have one small building left. There are three buildings that comprise the Foreland campus and the smallest one, called the Book House, will be done within the next few weeks. I’m still in construction mode, but also running the development. All of our studios are leased. So now it's about answering a lot of artists' questions.

I’m also working with the State of New York to get a $1 million grant in my pocket which I’ve been awarded. I gave them everything they needed in order to write me a check and that’s been a lot of work.

Woman floats in air beside large statue
Stef Halmos at Foreland in Upstate New York.

KH: And how about programming?

SH: We brought in an incredible cultural and curatorial strategist. We’re going to be doing all sorts of super fun, conceptual, far-reaching, public engagement.

KH: Sometimes you're an ambassador. Sometimes you a curator. Sometimes you're an architect.

SH: Yes, it is a little bit of everything. Sometimes, my job feels like sales. Sometimes, it feels like financial management. Sometimes it feels like I’m an artist in here trying to figure out what to put in these buildings to make them feel alive and bring beauty to the town and to our tenants.

KH: How do you draw a rural community to a centralized location like Foreland?

SH: It’s about striking a balance between being conceptually rigorous and maybe even academically thoughtful while remaining unpretentious and accessible so that people feel welcome and can experience these cultural happenings without being alienated.

In the city, because everyone’s on top of each other, you know that your audience is baked in. But there’s a lot of pressure to succeed. Here, that pressure is alleviated and you can take more risks because, for the most part, people are hungry for cultural events.  At least that's what I think, we're still nascent in this and trying to figure it out.

KH: How will Foreland’s programming fit into the day-to-day life of the campus?

SH: When the buildings were empty, I wanted one weekend where all the empty stairwells and giant open floors had different people playing or performing. Performance helps us with our spacial understanding. I remember in 2008 David Byrne did this installation called Playing the Building, a Creative Time project down at the point of Manhattan, where big old shipyards lie. There was a piano in the middle of the room with all these strings coming out tied to unseeable niches within the building. You’d go and hit a key and then somewhere up in a rafter, a nail would ding against a steel beam, making you see the space clearly.

KH: It sounds like you’ve created an instrument you are excited for others to play.

SH: The biggest change with being a studio practitioner versus building a studio for other people is just that. My ego isn’t so big that I can’t say with full confidence—and joyfully—that the things other people are going to make here will far exceed what I could.

KH: How are you ensuring you get the right players for Foreland?

SH: The very first thing that happened was word of mouth. A year or so before we were even finished, I started talking about it a lot to friends. A lot of people said, “I’ve been wanting to leave the city, but I’ve been really worried about losing my community. I want my art dealer to feel good about coming up here. I want to be surrounded by people that are punching my weight career-wise.”

And then there were some folks whose work I love, and I solicited them. I said, “I love what you’re doing. I want to see you every day.” [laughs]

KH: Flattery will get you everywhere, my mother said.

SH: Yes, totally. It's the stalker approach. But really all it takes is 10 minutes walking around because the buildings sing. People need to experience it firsthand, and when they do, they fall in love. It feels a little like a movie set in a good way.

KH: You need tenants with imaginations as big as yours.

SH: No, it’s about meeting people where they are. Artists have come to expect a lack of architectural thoughtfulness, safety and design in the spaces they rent from faceless landlords that sit on big commercial buildings waiting for them to grow in value. They’re complacent around things like. I couldn’t tolerate it anymore.