An on-site artist’s studio | All photos courtesy of KinoSaito
In the KinoSaito nonprofit arts center, Verplanck welcomes a vibrant, cultural nexus complete with a classroom, offices, café, and more.
A former Catholic school in Verplanck has been given a new lease on life with the opening of KinoSaito, a nonprofit arts center that offers abundant culture, plus coffee. Comprising two galleries, a classroom, offices, a café, performing-arts spaces, and two 900-square-foot live/work studios, KinoSaito is a veritable paradise for art lovers. According to the center’s executive director, Beth Venn, KinoSaito is also a tribute to its founder, abstract artist Kikuo Saito.“The interdisciplinary work of KinoSaito really comes from Kikuo Saito himself, who was very much an interdisciplinary artist,” explains Venn. “He was a painter; he did drawings and was involved in the the-ater, especially La MaMa Theatre, with whom he started working in the ’60s.”
It all started in 2010, when Saito and his wife, Mikiko Ino, had been living and working in SoHo, “and Kikuo had been painting big canvases for 50 years,” says Venn. “They were then beginning to think about finding a place outside the city, where Kikuo would have more space to work and to store the decades’ worth of art he had created. They looked for a number of years and finally came across a former Catholic school in Verplanck.”
Saito and Ino purchased the 7th Street property in 2013, but after Saito died, just three years later, the project took on an entirely new purpose. “[Saito’s] widow decided she was going to take some of the proceeds of Kiko’s estate and start a nonprofit and turn the place into what they had casually always thought they would, by turning this great building into a place for art and artists,” says Venn. “It would have artists working on-site — hence the residency studios that we have — and would have artists who work between the visual and performing arts.”
For Ino, it was important not only to preserve the historically significant space but also to engage the ideal candidate to help her design and build the center: Saito’s former student, Sarah Strauss of XS Architecture. “[Ino and Strauss] made a concerted effort to keep alive what was in the school already,” shares Venn. “So, the original maple floors, which are so beautiful, are still there. A lot of the original tin ceilings from the school are still in place, and beautiful midcentury-modern pendant light fixtures are still there as well. So, the beauty of this space is that it retains the history of the building.”
According to Venn, the center’s first gallery will always display work by Saito to some degree. “It might be all of his work or mixed in with work by some of his peers,” she notes. “Then, the second gallery will always be exhibitions of contemporary artists.” Even the top-tier café, Banana Deng, is connected to Saito and his wife, who met the café’s owners on a trip to Puerto Rico and later invited them to expand to Verplanck. Further, the performance space has already welcomed a reimagining of Saito’s dance performance, Toy Garden.
The center officially opened on September 9, 2021 but closed over the winter months. At press time, they were set to reopen on March 4, Friday through Saturday, with new exhibitions, an immersive installation by Christina McPhee, and resident artists Jessica Segall and Kambui Olujimi. Additionally, KinoSaito will be offering art classes in Sumi-e ink drawing, watercolor painting, and solar printmaking. “We have also made the decision for admission to be free,” says Venn, “so that there is no barrier to people coming in and enjoying the space, no matter who they are or where they come from. That was an important decision for us, because this is a place where we want everyone to feel welcome.”
“We have had so many visitors from the town of Cortlandt and beyond who say, ‘Wow, we never thought anything like this would happen here.’”
—Beth Venn, executive director
Above all, the center is a boon to a community that has had few cultural venues of this magnitude. “We have had so many visitors from the town of Cortlandt and beyond who say, ‘Wow, we never thought anything like this would happen here,’” says Venn. “There has just been such a void in terms of arts and culture. I can’t overemphasize how positive the reception has been to what we are doing, because people have literally been starving for this kind of thing. And, as of this spring, we will be working with the school district and Town of Cortlandt to offer arts programing for both children and adults.”