Below the surface with Albert Shahinian in Rhinebeck

Albert Shahinian in his Rhinebeck gallery (photo by Dion Ogust)

Galleries come and go, but gallery-owner Albert Shahinian has hung in there for 16 years, making him one of the rare survivors in the fast-changing mid Hudson Valley arts scene. Partly his success is due to his flexibility – the gallery has moved several times – and partly to his background as a jack-of-all-trades. Besides art dealer, he has been a freelance curator, conductor and musical director, tall-ship sailor, cook and booking agent and managing director of the Pauline Oliveros Foundation.

That gives him a unique perspective on the cultural scene and its shifts over nearly 30 years, dating back to the snowy day in 1986 when he showed up at the Clearwater at its former winter quarters in Saugerties, eager to help out and wearing shorts. Shahinian has been here through thick and thin, through cultural renaissances and abrupt, grueling downturns. Through it all, he has held on. He knows a few things.

Originally from Los Angeles, he studied conducting and music at Occidental College in California, earning a Master’s. When his wife got accepted at Union Theological Seminary, in New York City, he came east with her in 1982, teaching school, conducting his own musical groups and working as a music director. He discovered the sloop Clearwater through a friend and was immediately enthralled, having grown up in the coastal neighborhood of Mar Vista, in the shadow of tall ships.

He got divorced and worked a bunch of different jobs, eventually ending up in Saugerties, working for the Clearwater and as a music director for a Presbyterian Church. He became the cook for the Clearwater and subsequently worked on seven different ships after getting his Merchant Marine and captain’s licenses. One particularly memorable sail was from St. Petersburg to the US on the schooner Te Vega, a glasnost-era trip launched by citizens. For several years after, he oversaw the education program at Clearwater. Meanwhile, he got involved with the Barrett Art Center in Poughkeepsie, joining the board in the early 1990s.

In the late 1990s, he worked at the Pauline Oliveros Foundation, which enabled him to reconnect with his musical interests and sparked his engagement with the visual arts. He ran the gallery in downtown Poughkeepsie owned by Lorraine Kessler when she took a medical leave-of-absence for a year and soon took over the vacant space next door as well. In addition, he opened the Poughkeepsie Art Museum in 2003. It was located in a former Salvation Army building. Shahinian organized numerous exhibitions, of which the high points were the Fred Franck retrospective (Franck wrote Zen of Seeing and worked in many media) and a show of posters and other memorabilia connected with Christo and Jean Claude’s Gates installation in Central Park.

In 2005 Shahinian held his first “Luminous Landscape show,” which has since become an annual event (the latest installment is on view at his gallery; see below), and sold nothing. “By the end of that year, I knew something big was coming down the pike,” he said. The Poughkeepsie Renaissance was fading. His gallery space regularly flooded due to a garbage-clogged sewer main, and his wife, Joanna Hess, whom he had married in 1993, was ill.

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