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Using layers of memory to tell Arbor Hill’s history

Using layers of memory to tell Arbor Hill’s history

A project by executive director of the Albany County Historical Association and the Ten Broeck Mansion
Using layers of memory to tell Arbor Hill’s history
Mixed media works “Needle/Woman,” left, and “Laundry List (detail)" by Kathryn Kosto.
Photographer: photos provided

As an artist, Kathryn Kosto has always had a knack for visually telling stories, using mixed media to layer memory and history.

As the executive director of the Albany County Historical Association and the Ten Broeck Mansion, she’s using that skill, along with her extensive background with historical artifacts, to bring to light pieces of Arbor Hill’s history that have long gone unexplored.

During the 1820s and 30s, “Free Persons of Color,” a historic term referring to people of African, European and Native American descent who were not enslaved, lived next to the Ten Broeck Mansion. 

“The communities of African and African Americans who were highly skilled tradespersons, they were guilders, they were furniture makers, they were silversmiths, and they lived all along the Ten Broeck Mansion,” Kosto said, “This is a whole era that there’s not as much history about as probably needs to be out there and many of the families who still live in Arbor Hill still have connections to those people.”   

She started working on this project about six months ago when she first stepped into the role of executive director. 

Growing up in the Niagara Falls area, Kosto’s interest in history began with her grandmother.  

“She was born in 1900 and she lived through World War I in Poland in Europe. She was in a slave labor camp. It’s not as well known [that there were] these labor camps in World War I, not just World War II. . . She was one of the last groups to come over before they changed the immigration laws in 1921, which many people from Eastern Europe were then blocked from coming,” Kosto said. 

“Hearing the devastation that happened to her village, the loss of so many of her family members, that was a huge part of growing up.”

When she was a teenager, she started volunteering with Old Fort Niagara and got a job as a curatorial assistant. 

“I’ve always loved layers of memory and it’s really taken a visual form for me. I was one of those kids that was always reading novels of the past, histories of the past, but also making art. ... .The majority of people are visual learners. Often when we use our hands or draw something out it’s a deeper way of engaging with or knowing something,” Kosto said. 

At Yale University, she studied both history and art and worked for four years at the University’s conservation lab, learning how to conserve maps. After graduating, she continued her conservation training at the Library of Congress National Archives and worked as a museum curator for the National Park Service. She went on to receive her master’s degree from Cornell University. 

Throughout her career, she has continued to entwine art and history. She worked as the executive director of the Art School of Columbia County, as well as a grant writer and a visual artist, exhibiting mixed media works around the Capital Region. It’s perhaps why the Albany County Historical Association, which is known for its cultural programming, including theater, concerts, and exhibits, as well as its sweeping gardens, is the perfect place for Kosto. 

“I often say ‘Why do we study history?’ We certainly value the past, but history is about the present and the future. There’s that famous axiom, ‘Those who don’t study history are condemned to repeat it.’ . . . We certainly need that, but if we don’t relate it to our lives today and find a connection with our own family history, find a connection with our communities, then it becomes preserved in glass and not meaningful. So the exciting aspect of being a visual artist and someone who is deeply engaged with history is I think it makes it easier to make a museum space relatable to the community,” Kosto said. 

In her first few months at the Ten Broeck Mansion, which was built in 1798, she has expanded the visual arts galleries and plans to place historical portraits with contemporary art. 

The exhibition and the Association’s theme of 2020 is “Portraits: Memory and Identity.”

“We’re exploring the idea of how one person’s image [tells] us something about their identity and why that image [was] created,” Kosto said. 

The centerpiece of the exhibition is a portrait of Anna Ten Broeck painted by Ammi Phillips, a well-known folk artist of the 1800s.

“We’re also including daguerreotypes, photographs, and then we’re including artifacts from populations that otherwise don’t have a history. In the case of Irish servants who worked at the mansion, it might just be a scrap with a receipt mentioning them. In the case of African Americans who labored on this land, we’re coordinating to have some archaeological artifacts such as a button that may have come from a shirt that they wore. . . .There [are] some painted portraits and the photographs but there’s also just these fragments that give us a sense of who existed in the past,” Kosto said. 

Along with the exhibition, Kosto hopes to expand the number of hands-on programs the Association offers. In the coming months, there will be a series of free art workshops for children and families. From May through October, the gardens will also hold a kiosk with art supplies that people can check out and use to create art inspired by the nearly four-acre site. 

“The idea is that our gardens, which are open from dawn to dusk, are a learning space. . . We know a lot of families work multiple jobs and they can’t always make a set museum program so this will give them flexibility,” Kosto said. 

In hopes of making the collection more accessible, Kosto has applied for a grant to help the Association digitize its collection. 

“We also need to relate to scholars because if they don’t have access to material, they can’t include those stories in the ‘official histories.’ The ground-up approach of everyone sharing their stories is important but also we are a museum,” Kosto said. 

She noted that not only would professional historians benefit from digitization but community members who wanted to look into their family history.

“That would allow access to our family bible collection. Families wrote [their] histories in them. You often see them between the old testament and the new testament or inside the front cover, they would write personal histories. Baptisms, deaths, prayers, marriage information, their most precious information was often written inside these bibles. They’re very fragile so by digitizing this handwritten information we would be getting this information to everyone from a historian to a family researcher,” Kosto said. 

Kosto has also applied for a grant to digitize the Ten Broeck and Olcott family papers, both very important families in Albany’s history. 

While the Association will be ramping up programming, Kosto also anticipates a few challenges, including recruiting more volunteers. 

“We have garden paths, we have beautiful gardens and we are very grateful for the volunteer help of the Cornell Cooperative Extension Master Gardener program. About 20 volunteers come every week but it’s a lot of work for them. . . Now we’re seeing people who are already working long hours and we’re trying to be flexible. We’re trying to recruit and find ways that they can volunteer around their schedule,” Kosto said. 

In the coming weeks, the Association is looking for people who can volunteer to give tours or to greet people or assist with programs. 

On Saturday, the Association will host “Romantics to Ragtime: A Celebration of Song, Poetry and Art” from 1:30-2:30 p.m. The concert explores the culture of the 1820s-1920s under the direction of Mimi O’Neill. It will feature music from Stephen Foster, Amy Beach, Scott Joplin and spirituals. Poet John O’Neill will share poems from George Lord Byron, Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Lanston Hughes and others. The program also kicks off an exploration of portraiture in the Ten Broeck Mansion.  

The concert is $5 for adults and free for ages 10-21 and ACHA members. For more information and to reserve tickets visit www.tenbroeckmansion.org

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