King returns to Westchester arts

George G. King, former director of the Katonah Museum of Art, is now deputy director of ArtsWestchester.

In addition to welcoming Skinner Auctioneers and Appraisers to Westchester County in this issue, we’re also welcoming back a longtime supporter and shaper of the arts here — George G. King, the new deputy director of ArtsWestchester.

Arts lovers will remember King as the first professional director of the Katonah Museum of Art during a time when the museum moved to its Edward Larrabee Barnes-designed home (1988-98).

“It was a great opportunity, a great period of growth and I had a great run there,” King says.

But another great run was to follow at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he also served as the first professional director (1998-2009), overseeing a tenfold increase in the collection and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center, the only one of its kind devoted to American modernism.

From 2009 to 2012, he was executive director of the American Federation of Arts, which creates traveling exhibits for museums around the world, and did independent curating and consulting.

“And then this came along,” he says, this being the opportunity to assist CEO Janet T. Langsam in running ArtsWestchester, the largest private arts council in New York state.

Time has not altered King’s courtliness — a quality no doubt honed by being the son of a diplomat. Over coffee in his freshly painted office at the Arts Exchange, the council’s headquarters in downtown White Plains, King says that he has not had much time for decorating yet. There are other priorities.

“I came back knowing Westchester well and admiring what Janet and the council have done, which is to help people understand the arts on a daily basis,” he says.

Among the ways the 54-year-old council has always done this is through arts education and reaching out to underserved communities. These goals dovetail in Teen Tuesdays and Thursdays, a program that offers arts workshops to 12- to 16-year-olds, who then take what they have created to The Coachman Family Center in White Plains, St. Christopher’s Inc. in Dobbs Ferry for children with emotional and behavioral challenges, the Boys & Girls Club of Mount Vernon, the Boys & Girls Club of Northern Westchester, the City of White Plains Youth Bureau and various Westchester school districts. The new Artsmobile, a partnership with White Plains Hospital and Con Ed, is a van that will be outfitted with art supplies to visit communities with limited access to the arts, beginning this summer.

Among the other ways in which ArtsWestchester serves the county is with its public art program. The council is working with the Arts Council of Rockland and the New York State Thruway Authority to place sculptures on both ends of the new Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge. And the Arts Exchange itself will become a Christo-like project later this year when Amanda Browder envelops it in a quilt made of pieces sewn by members of the Westchester community.

Like most arts councils, ArtsWestchester is not only a granting organization, channeling money from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts to its affiliates; it’s also a presenting organization, mounting exhibits and hosting lectures and performances in its 2-story, ground-floor Grand Banking Room.

The council accomplishes all this with an operating budget of $4.1 million to $4.5 million, King says, and a staff of more than 20. The largest portion of its budget, $1.5 million, comes from the county, which he says, has been “very generous.” In addition to NEA and NYSCA money, there’s earned income from tenants and the annual gala, golf outing and Arts Awards, as well as the Arts Bash event that includes tours of the artists’ studios in the Arts Exchange. Individual contributions and some corporate and foundation support round out the pie chart.

But there is always the need for more money, particularly with a vintage building. King says the Exchange’s 216 windows — not counting the Grand Banking Room — need to be replaced, no small project. You sense, though, that if ever there was a man up to the tasks of helping to guide an arts council through the challenges of infrastructure and the 21st century, it is King, whose fluid background has not been without its own challenges.

The son of an officer in the United States Foreign Service and an Australian mother, King was born in Mexico City and grew up in Africa and France. The family lived in Algiers, Algeria, during the days of the Algerian War (1954-62), in which the country sought its independence from France.

“I saw death on a daily basis,” he says. “I was young enough not to understand the severity of what was going on. Our apartment building had windows broken by bombs. It was something you got used to, if indeed you ever got used to it.”

As the country was coming apart, so was King’s family. With his parents divorcing, King and his older sister were sent off for their own safety to an austere boarding school in the south of France, where they learned to be self-sufficient. Art was an early influence. His father, who was subsequently stationed in Mali, would be an early contributor to what is now the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.

Coming to America at age 12, King attended the Fay School in Southborough, Massachusetts, and then the Wooster School in Danbury before going on to Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont, and the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. He became a painter. But he also wanted to eat, he says, so in 1982 he took an entry-level job at what is now Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in Manhattan. Lisa Taylor, its first director under the new Smithsonian banner, would become King’s mentor.

“I stayed there seven years,” he says. “It was like the equivalent of a master’s degree in museum administration. I was off and running.”

And he’s been doing so ever since.

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