The Arts

Old Town Arts Guild celebrates diamond anniversary, looks to grow

For the Old Town Arts and Crafts Guild, a 75-year-old nonprofit working from a 19th-century house, adapting is a struggle — but not impossible.

The collective of artists occupies the house at 28265 Main Road in Cutchogue, which serves as a gallery, shop and education center. The organization celebrated its diamond anniversary this year.

“Not only have I met a lot of other artists that are local, but we share and learn from each other,” said Kip Bedell, 64, who reunited with his love of painting and joined the guild after retiring from Bedell Cellars in 2017. “And it’s been a great venue to sell my paintings.”

Since New Suffolk resident Bob Kuhne, now 73, took over as its president in 2000, the guild has undergone many changes, including the decision to host art classes for children and adults. The nonprofit offers lessons in drawing, photography, painting and other media , and hosts lecture-style presentations with artistic components, such as a discussion on plastic pollution paired with a gallery display of totem poles schoolchildren fashioned using plastics recovered from local beaches.

But like the guild itself and the house it calls home, its members are not getting any younger, a common challenge facing nonprofits and other organizations across the North Fork. Mr. Kuhne said about a half-dozen of the guild’s approximately 40 members are in their sixties, while the majority are over70.

“The problem is we’re not getting any younger people in,” Mr. Kuhne said. “I guess nobody wanted to take on [the role of president] so I just continued to do it. It seemed like a good thing for me, I was energetic, I was still relatively young. But the problem is we’re not getting new people to actually do some of the work.”

Like any modern-day nonprofit, the guild needs people to handle financial matters, organize and promote events and maintain its online presence. It currently relies on its members as well as volunteers of any age looking to help their community, such as Sharon Kelly. 

“I always appreciated the arts, so I thought that would be a good way to get to know some people and lend a hand,” said Ms. Kelly. “The benefit to the community is that there’s access to local art and gifts … Instead of just going on a website, they can walk downtown, and it’s nice to have a gallery right in town. I think it brings people together; it’s a sense of community.”

The guild, which owns the Cutchogue property, could also use younger members to help with odd jobs around the house and grounds, from changing light bulbs to opening up a chimney and installing a new fireplace, a job Mr. Kuhne performed alongside guild vice president Ginger Mahoney’s husband, Dan. 

Taking a Suffolk Times reporter on a tour of the 19th-century building last week, Mr. Kuhne explained the various changes the art space has undergone throughout its history, from elimination of a porch, to construction of an extension where the guild now displays paintings and photographs. In the portion of the house fronting Main Road, the guild displays works by various local craftspeople — from quilts and crocheted blankets to felt creatures and jewelry — all of which are for sale.

The next project on the guild’s to-do list is opening up their headquarters’ second story to the public. For the guild to thrive in the future, Mr Kuhne said, it needs more space, either on the property it has owned for decades or at a new, larger location. The group eyed the North Fork United Methodist Church on Main Road in Cutchogue when it was for sale a few years back, but after that fell through, the priority shifted to renovating the building’s second story.

“We had new windows put in by the spouse of one of the members,” Mr. Kuhne said. “Of course, we purchased the windows … [but] it would have been a small fortune if we had to have a contractor come and do that.”

The upper floor remains closed to the public due to the state of the small, worn-down steps that lead up to it. The guild currently uses that space to store some of the older works created by its members throughout the decades. A few hundred paintings — some stacked in massive frames, others just thin canvases standing upright in totes, ready to be flipped through like records in a milk crate — are stuffed in a closet and block access to a sparsely used attic.

Given its limited finances, the guild applied for a grant from the Robert D.L. Gardiner Foundation Inc. to build a new staircase, but was not selected for funding. Mr Kuhne hopes some of his members can assist in applying for other grants in the near future.

With a second-story gallery open to the public, the guild could not only display its historic works in storage, but relocate of the paintings and photographs that currently hang downstairs. With more real estate available on the first floor, Mr. Kuhne explained, the guild could exhibit larger artworks.

“A lot of artists complain because we can’t have huge pieces,” he said. “And some of our new customers, they’re coming in with these big houses now. They have tremendous wall space and they’re asking for large pieces.”

Although space is limited, the guild has welcomed the new artistic styles and crafts that have crossed its path in recent years, from the work of Ulli Stachl, who gathers and paints driftwood to create three-dimensional works several-feet long, to that of Yesim Ozen, whose handmade soaps depict natural scenery.

Touring the gallery, it’s clear the North Fork’s environment and character also inspire various photographers and painters, Mr. Kuhne included. His most popular painting is a collage representing the area’s wineries, circa 2010. He followed up on that piece the next year with a painting collage celebrating local farms.

The guild also offers books on the rich history of art on the North Fork. Mr. Kuhne said he believes the area’s unique environment has inspired artists since long before the guild was founded in 1948.

“[Artists] came out here because the light was so great and the scenes were so nice,” he said. “I think the light has to do with having the Sound on the north side and the bay on the other side.”

Anyone wishing to volunteer or become a guild member can visit, call 631-734-6382 or email [email protected].