Finger Lakes arts scene is gripping; long-known for its vineyards and lakes, this region in upstate New York is now recognized for its artists, galleries, museums and special events

Finger Lakes arts scene is gripping; long-known for its vineyards and lakes, this region in upstate New York is now recognized for its artists, galleries, museums and special events

Vanessa Silberman

With its wondrous glacier-carved lakes, rolling hills and quaint villages, the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York has long attracted visitors in search of pristine beauty and pleasant diversions. In addition to alluring scenery, this natural wonderland boasts a burgeoning wine industry praised especially for its Rieslings, myriad historic attractions and thriving university communities, which include Cornell University and Ithaca College. In recent years, the region also has been attracting attention as an arts destination. Already home to several important art museums such as the Corning Museum of Glass and the Herbert E Johnson Museum of Art, the Finger Lakes region also plays host to dozens of galleries and hundreds of artists and crafters.

It is easy to understand the region’s appeal for artists, who cite the area’s natural beauty, affordable cost of living, and multiple cultural offerings as reasons to call the Finger Lakes region home. Named one of the Top 10 “Great Escapes in the World” by Travel and Leisure magazine, the Finger Lakes region also attracts a sizeable tourist population, with more than one million visitors per year, which benefits artists aiming to increase their exposure by reaching new audiences. Located about four-and-a-half hours from New York, Cleveland and Toronto, the Finger Lakes region is far enough away from major metropolitan areas to keep its bucolic charm, yet dose enough to attract urban dwellers in search of a weekend getaway. With the recent adoption of the fast ferry from Toronto to Rochester, the area also is attracting more Canadians.

The Finger Lakes region owes its name to its long and narrow shape, which reminded early map makers of the fingers of a hand. There are 11 lakes in total, but the primary cluster includes the Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga and Owasco Lakes, which also happen to be at the heart of the wine region featuring 90 wineries. Surrounding these lakes and lining the streets of many villages and small cities throughout the area are shops and galleries featuring the work of local artists.

The two largest arts communities are found in the attractive towns of Corning and Ithaca. Located at the southern end of the Finger Lakes region, Corning was recently recognized as one of the “Top 25 Art Destinations in the United States” (among communities with populations of less than 100,000), by American Style magazine. With a population of about 12,000, Corning is world-renowned for its love affair with glass, which began during the late 19th century when the manufacturer Corning Glass Works (now the Fortune 500 company, Coming, Inc.) was established. In 1918, Corning Glass Works acquired Steuben Glass, one of the finest makers of handmade art glass and crystal in the world. Steuben glass continues to be crafted in Coming, and visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of the company’s artists at work may do so at the Coming Museum of Glass. There, a section of the museum overlooks the Steuben factory floor, affording visitors a fascinating view.

The opportunity to observe artisans fashioning crystal is not the only reason to visit the Corning Museum of Glass. Indeed, any visit to the Finger Lakes region would be incomplete without a visit to this wonderful

gem, which is the world’s largest and most comprehensive glass museum. Founded in 1951, the museum houses more than 40,000 objects spanning 3,500 years of glassmaking history, including such treasures as an ancient Egyptian glass portrait of a Pharaoh dating back to 1450 B.C., Roman vessels dating back to the 3rd century A.D., signature pieces by Louis Comfort Tiffany and contemporary art glass by Dale Chihuly. The museum also offers live glassblowing demonstrations and walk-in workshops, where for a small fee, visitors can create a handmade glass souvenir.

While the museum boasts an extensive permanent collection, it also plays host to well-executed traveling shows. Currently on view is a trio of touring exhibitions that together showcase the largest showing of Czech Glass in the United States. The chief show, entitled “Czech Glass, 1945-1980: Design in an Age of Adversity” on view through Nov. 27, features more than 350 objects that illustrate the astonishing experimentation made in glass by artists living under Communist rule. “The Tradition of the Avant-Garde,” on view through Oct. 30, traces the development of Modernism in Czech glass, while “Czech Glass Now,” on view through Dec. 31, highlights large-scale contemporary sculptural and installation works from the 1970s to the present day.

Many glass artists have moved to the area because of the internationally recognized museum, its teaching facilities at the studio and its library. As a result, several hot-glass studios and galleries have sprung up over town, located primarily across the Chemung River on Historic Market Street, also known as the Gaffer District (“gaffer” refers to a master glassblower). Registered as a National Historic District, Market Street also features an array of boutiques, restaurants, and jewelry design shops housed in charming 19th-century buildings.

At glass studios like Lost Angel Glass, Vitrix and Noslo, the public is invited to observe resident artists blow glass and can purchase work for sale. At Vitrix, visitors may observe Thomas P. Kelly at work, a glass artist whose pieces are in the collections of the Coming Museum of Glass, the Victoria & Albert Museum and the High Museum of Art, among others. Over at Lost Angel Glass, visitors can relish watching artist Joel O’Dorisio create his inventive log vessels, in which hollowed out trees are used as a mold to create glass pieces that resemble the tree’s texture.

In addition to displaying O’Dorisio’s work, Lost Angel Glass mounts regular rotating exhibitions featuring artists from around the country. According to Gallery Manager Meghan D. Bunnell, most of the collectors who purchase work are tourists. “We have strong local support for the arts, but with the recent efforts to grow our community as an arts center, we see that most of our collectors are from out of town,” she says.

Like any community that experiences an influx of tourists during the warm summer months, the onset of winter can pose a stark contrast. High season runs generally from May to December, and galleries note that the winter is usually a slow time for their businesses. As Bunnell notes, “We have a brutal winter, and yet during this time we still mount exhibitions at the gallery. Although we enjoy community support, it is challenging to attract [visitors] during these months.”

Of course, once spring arrives, the area comes alive with tourists visiting the area and pumping dollars into the region’s cultural economy.

While glass art figures prominently in the town’s history and character, Corning today welcomes other kinds of visual media as well. According to Lynn Rhoda, the community arts director of the local arts council, there are many “talented writers, musicians, dancers, poets, painters, sculptors, ceramicists, drum makers and photographers who live throughout the region.”

The Rockwell Museum of Western Art, housed in a lovely 1893 Romanesque revival-style red brick structure formerly used as Corning’s City Hall, specializes in Western American art from the 19th and 20th centuries and Native American art. Founded in 1976, the museum has the largest collection of Western American art found in the eastern United States, with more than 10,000 pieces of art. Adding a modern touch to the facade of the historic building is a steel and fiberglass bison crashing through the front wall at the museum’s entrance. Other highlights include work by Frederic Remmington, Albert Bierstadt, N.C. Wyeth, Deborah Butterfield and more. On view through Oct. 23 was an exhibition of landscapes by the painter Clyde Aspevig.

At the West End Gallery, located just down the street from the hot-glass studios, more than 50 emerging and established local artists are represented, working in various media such as oil, watercolor, monoprints and handcrafted furniture. Prices range from $12 to $12,000, and the gallery attracts a diverse client base, with more than half the sales going to clients in other parts of the country. Currently on view through Nov. 26 is a one-man exhibition of new paintings by Thomas S. Buechner, the gallery’s premier artist who also happens to be the former president of the Coming Museum of Glass.

According to Gallery Director Linda Gardner, the art scene in Corning has developed over the past several years and has “finally gained Coming the national recognition that it deserves.” She notes that efforts are being made to attract other arts-related businesses to the area. The Corning Art Walk, held on the second Saturday of each month, was founded last year as a way to promote the artistic community. Each Art Walk features artist demonstrations, receptions at galleries and special performances along Market Street. Although it is still in its infancy stage, Gardner notes that the Art Walk is growing in popularity and has brought in new clients. Collaborations between the local wine industry and arts groups, such as the annual Summer Bouquet event held at the Corning Museum of Glass each summer, have also helped build new audiences and attract wider attention. As Beth Harvey of the Rockwell Museum suggests, “The strong collaborative efforts in this community, and the way in which everyone seems to be a part of the same mission, really allows the art world to grow, even in a smaller community.

Ithaca, the other major arts center in the Finger Lakes region, is located about 45 miles northeast of Corning. Situated at the southern tail of the longest of the Finger Lakes, Cayuga Lake, Ithaca has the feel of a university town (both Cornell University and Ithaca College have campuses here) with its small-town atmosphere. Yet it also possesses qualities of a larger urban area. The I.M. Pei-designed Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, located on Cornell’s campus and offering stunning views of Cayuga Lake, is recognized as one of the most important university museums in the country. Known especially for its strong Asian art collection, the museum hosted two exhibits on Japanese art–“Japanese Folk Ceramics” the first exhibit outside Japan to explore this range of ceramic production, and “Japanese Paintings from the Henricksen collection.”

A number of restaurants, cafes, galleries and theaters are to be found on the Ithaca Commons, a pedestrian mall located in the city’s downtown. Ithaca hosts a Gallery Night every month, and among the galleries who participate are the Upstairs Gallery, a not-for-profit space showing established and emerging artists from the Finger Lakes region; Sola Gallery, which represents contemporary artists from around the world and also sells prints and graphics; The Ink Shop Printmaking Center & Olive Branch Press, a not-for-profit printmakers’ center, fine art press and gallery; and State of the Art Gallery, a cooperative gallery featuring the works of locals. Currently on view at State of the Art is a show featuring the work of artists who live along the Ithaca Art Trail, a collection of 47 artist studios located in the area. In conjunction with the show, the Ithaca Art Trail hosted two Open Studio Weekends in September, during which visitors were able to visit the studios without an appointment. The artists living along the Art Trail work in a variety of media, including sculpture, painting, photography, woodcarving, printmaking and fiber art.

While Corning and Ithaca are recognized as the region’s main centers for the arts, smaller villages and towns are also staking their claim as arts destinations. Over in Elmira, a town noted for its historical association with Mark Twain, The Arnot Art Museum is one of the last remaining private collections housed in its original setting. The permanent collection includes paintings by Thomas Sully, Robert Henri, Gerome and Ian Brueghel the Elder, among others. Every other year, the museum mounts “Re-presenting Representation,” a nationally recognized exhibit featuring contemporary representational art.

Perhaps the smallest village to register on the arts radar is Groton. Although this village has a population of only 2,500 inhabitants, its proximity to Cornell and the cultural offerings of the Finger Lakes region prompted Adrienne Bee Smith, along with her husband Roger, to open the Main Street Gallery in 2003. The gallery was the first of its kind in the village, and the community has embraced its presence. Though relatively new, Main Street Gallery has already made its mark on the region as the venue of choice for high-quality exhibits. The gallery focuses on contemporary art by emerging artists in the $100 to $5,000 range, with about half of the exhibited artists living in the local region. A solo exhibition of oil paintings by Tracy Helgeson, an artist who creates abstract expressive color field landscapes of the region, was shown in September.

Since opening the gallery, Smith reports that the arts community in Groton has begun to emerge. “There are more arts festivals, and new businesses have opened, selling arts, antiques and crafts,” she says. “A church was bought by a ceramicist and restored to become an Arts Center. The existing businesses are sprucing up their image with new paint and awnings. Property values are going up.” She also notes a ripple effect on neighboring communities that are rapidly developing into strong arts centers.

Thus, whether it’s a visit to a world famous museum, an artist’s studio or a contemporary gallery in a rural setting, the Finger Lakes region offers an abundant variety of arts activities from which to choose. Add in its idyllic scenery and popular wine trails, and one can understand why the Finger Lakes region has become an arts destination that is difficult to resist.

For reprints of this article, call 800-867-9285, ext. 503.


* Arnot Art Museum, 607-734-3697,

* Ithaca Art Trail, 607-273-5072, ext. 2,

* Corning Museum of Glass, 800-732-6845,

* Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, 607-255-6464,

* Lost Angel Glass, 877-937-3S78,

* Main Street Gallery, 60Y-898-9010,

* Rockwell Museum of Western Art, 607-937-5386,

* State of the Art Gallery, 607-277-1626,

* West End Gallery, 607-936-2011,


ABN Contributing Editor

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