Vision quest: Ariel Shanberg marks 10 years as CPW director

Ariel Shanberg, executive director of the Center for Photography at Woodstock (photo by Dion Ogust)

Ariel Shanberg first came to the Center for Photography at Woodstock (CPW) as an intern in his early 20s. He had graduated his undergraduate Art studies at Rutgers, and his family had bought a second home outside of Woodstock. Then Shanberg’s father passed away from cancer and the young graduate headed to San Francisco, only to return and try his hand at CPW, which he’d heard about in college.

“I knew I wanted to work in the arts, and thought this would be an amazing place to get that going,” he said while explaining how he went from helping out with administration at the organization before eventually being named associate program director and then interim director in the summer of 2003, a little over four years after coming in the Center’s front door looking to help out. “I was 27 – the same age Howard Greenberg was when he started this organization in 1977.”

We are talking to commemorate Shanberg’s tenth anniversary as executive director at one of the region’s leading arts organizations, and to discuss a pair of great new exhibitions set to open this weekend. As we speak, Shanberg manages the front desk of CPW and catches up on laser printing and other tasks. Our conversation is buffeted by sounds from a short video piece about family on one side of the space and the noise of a kid repeatedly breaking dinner plates on the other. We agree that there’s something perfect about the setup.

“Yes, it has been a decade,” Shanberg says as something crashes in the background. “This is my graduate school.”

He’s an affable man, bright, full of enthusiasm and keenly organized: the same attributes that made him the perfect choice for this position in 2003, despite his young age. He’s equally comfortable discussing CPW’s beautiful new website and the way in which he has shifted the venue’s primary funding from government and foundations to a private basis, thus freeing CPW’s programs and exhibitions from the sorts of things designed to match grants to something more integral to its mission of nurturing a vital arts community in the Hudson Valley.

“The thing I love about photography is that we’ve all been photographed and photographed,” Shanberg says. “Photography’s place within the arts has definitely elevated, as its means have grown more accessible and more sophisticated. It’s able to be many things at once, from the experimental to what it started off as: documenting the world around us.”

He points to CPW shows that he has curated as examples of the art form’s versatility, helping push the regional arts scene forward with daring commissions through the organization’s Artist-in-Residence program and increasing collaborative projects with the likes of SUNY-New Paltz’s Dorsky Museum and the Woodstock Writers’ Festival. Shanberg says he learned, very quickly, that running an arts organization is all about teamwork and partnerships and “the community you work with.”

“I used to think it had to do with the championing of certain ideas and people, but now I realize it’s more about asking questions and less about making statements,” he explains. “And it’s about nurturing. The art market changed, and galleries started showing more and more work by new artists just out of their studies. It became clear that we could offer artists not just an exhibition, but an opportunity to take creative chances.”

“Our success is not defined on sales any more, but on ways in which we feed our community and help the artists who come to us develop,” Shanberg adds. “As for myself, I no longer need to paint; this is my practice. I’ve learned that as long as my aspirations and interests are compatible with that of the Center, I’m healthy… and I don’t have to worry that I’m holding onto the director’s chair too tightly.”

As we talk, people come and go, asking about the art, or where there’s a rest room at CPW. Shanberg is uniformly sunny, engaged, ready to converse on that heightened level that we look to art to inspire. Shanberg speaks about CPW’s popular workshops and lectures, its aid for artists, its increasingly complex and influential exhibitions. The future holds more of the same, and emerging plans to make the organization’s newly paid-off building – once the Café Expresso, where Bob Dylan sang and composed songs – better reflect what CPW does and is.

Shanberg discusses the ways in which his quiet work, alongside his dedicated staff and board, has helped push Woodstock back to the forefront of the region’s arts scene. That, in turn, allows him to explain what it is that he has loves about the Hudson Valley: its grand mix of natural beauty and high artistic achievement, be it in the “arts” as we know them, or just general lifestyle. “We have a very serious responsibility to Woodstock and the Hudson Valley’s health and identity,” he says. “We have kept our mission simple, so people can understand and support us. CPW was created for ‘supporting artists working in photography and related media and engaging audiences through opportunities in which creation, discovery and learning are made possible.’ But it’s also what’s ahead that excites me most.”

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