Art in Context: A museum at the crossroads

There’s an old joke.

You’re driving by a cemetery and in your best deadpan didactic voice you say, “People are just dying to get in there.” Kids especially find this amusing; its fun to watch their expressions as they process the gag’s double meaning. Recently I was driving by the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC) and I found myself wondering if in the future people would point to the building’s expansive Elmwood Avenue edifice and sardonically say, “Western New York artists are just dying to get in there.” This takes some explanation.

The BPAC—as its mission statement affirms—is a museum dedicated to the art and vision of Charles E. Burchfield and distinguished artists of Buffalo, Niagara, and Western New York. Initially, the institution was created exclusively to collect and exhibit the work of renowned watercolorist and longtime Western New York resident, Charles Burchfield. Burchfield realized it didn’t make sense to have a whole museum for just one person, and it was his wish that the museum serve other Western New York artists—so the mission was expanded. By stretching the definition of “Western New York artists” to essentially include anyone living in the region long enough to have a mailing address, the museum could add to its fold such heavy hitters as Cindy Sherman, Robert Mangold, Susan Rothenberg, Robert Longo, and many other art world luminaries who passed through town, along with the work of regional artists of the past and present.

When the BPAC opened the doors of its new $30 million building over four years ago, it seemed like a culture palace built to recognize the region’s rich artistic achievement. In this capacity, the museum would, it was hoped, play a significant role in nurturing living breathing area artists. However, many of those artists are still waiting, as the museum has struggled to solidify its mission and its financial viability.

Thirty-million-dollar museums with full support staffs aren’t cheap to operate. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz recently proclaimed that in order to continue minimal county funding ($5.57 million) of not-for-profit arts and cultural organizations, property taxes must go up, but he demanded no such earmarked taxpayer sacrifice to purchase a $41 million promise from the for-profit Buffalo Bills to hang around seven more years. It is in this climate that operational funding must be secured in a region that also supports the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (AKAG) and numerous other arts organizations; museums must look to national sources of support as well as local dollars. There is a simple formula for securing such funding: national attention equals national money. But the devil is in the details when it comes to attracting that attention.

Enter Anthony Bannon. After a year and a half search, the board of the BPAC crowned Bannon—who had served in the same position from 1985 to 1996—its once and future director. (During the intervening sixteen years, the former director led the George Eastman House in Rochester.) In a January story in the Buffalo News, Bannon announced his vision for future BPAC expansion intended to place the museum in the “international spotlight.”

There were encouraging aspects to Bannon’s announcement, including a proposed launch of the long-awaited Arts Legacy Project—a publicly accessible database of information about Western New York artists and organizations—and an overdue plan to have the various museum departments work more closely together. A statement that the museum would avoid publishing its own exhibition catalogs raised questions—as of this writing, email attempts to pose these and other questions went unanswered.
But it’s what wasn’t mentioned in Bannon’s announcement that is unsettling. There was no talk of bolstering the museum’s core mission to collect, preserve, and exhibit the art of this region, no clarification of the niche the institution will occupy alongside the area’s two other collecting museums. In the past, the museum’s collecting methodology has been reactive rather than proactive, dependent largely on donations and artist gifts. Ironically, in the past decade, the AKAG has aggressively collected the work of more regional artists than the BPAC. Nationally exhibited Joan Linder and up-and-comer Kyle Butler, for instance, are in the AKAG collection and were among several area artists included in a recent show there. Hallwalls has also exhibited Joan Linder, and Nina Freudenheim represents Butler. Neither is in the BPAC collection and Linder has never exhibited there.

Bannon’s announcement did not include any mention of Beyond/In Western New York, which had provided Butler with a singular BPAC exhibition opportunity. The popular regionwide biennial was beginning to achieve national attention under the guidance of former AKAG director Louis Grachos. Unlike the BPAC, the AKAG is decidedly not a regional museum, yet Grachos considered nurturing the local art scene an important part of its mission. It’s yet to be determined what the status of Beyond/In will be under the incoming AK director, but it would seem to be a natural opportunity for the BPAC to take a lead role. The omission of any mention of it by Bannon is disappointing.
Which brings up another concern: for a museum dedicated to Western New York art, the BPAC has done little to promote the work of emerging local artists. Instead, it’s the Castellani Museum on the campus of Niagara University whose TopSpin exhibition series provides promising area artists with major exposure, and whose Western New York Collects series showcases the art of veteran artists with regional connections. In recent years, John Massier of Hallwalls and Cori Wolff of Buffalo Arts Studios have done more academic documentation of contemporary regional artists than the BPAC. It was the University at Buffalo Gallery that produced an extensively researched Artpark exhibition and catalog, which one might have expected to see in a regional museum. The Albright-Knox staged the nationally significant Wish You Were Here: The Buffalo Avant-garde in the 1970s.

In a tight-knit community where everyone is interconnected, area artists and art professionals are understandably reluctant to speak on record, but off-the-record buzz echoes these concerns. “There certainly is a need for a collecting institution that presents historic exhibitions of Western New York artists,” says a highly involved longtime area artist. “The BPAC has the largest collection of [the late area artist] Walter Prochownik. That’s their strength. That’s something that they do have that they could show in concert with exhibitions at the AKAG. The gap in [Bannon’s] plan is that he doesn’t address how they will utilize their historical collection. A section of the museum should be permanently dedicated to a rotating selection of Western New York art. Every day you walk in, you should be able to take a walk through regional art history.”

Much of Bannon’s announced plans focus on artists who have the slimmest of connections to our region. A twice-yearly artist residency program will bring in internationally known artists, the first being Janelle Lynch, a photographer who was born nearby but spent her entire career elsewhere. There are upcoming exhibits by Ann Hamilton and Chinese artist Xu Bing, whose only connection to the area consists of artist residencies at Alfred University. A longtime art advocate, who also asked to be anonymous, asks: “Do you really have to stretch it that far to find decent artists to look at in depth?” She goes on to list nationally known artists who are still living in the region: “John Pfahl, Joseph Piccillo, Les Krims, Harvey Breverman, Wendell Castle, Albert Paley,” and adds that the momentum at BPAC is shifting toward “outsiders,” which she considers an end run around local art in order to go after the big national grants. “It’s becoming more about the stature of the institution than the particular essential role it plays in the constellation of area collecting institutions.”

Bannon also announced plans for an international watercolor center at the BPAC to capitalize on the fame of Charles Burchfield and draw artists from around the world. “To create a pillar of your mission based on the art medium of the artist you’re dedicated to seems tangential,” says the area artist quoted earlier. He wonders rhetorically if there is a demand for such media centers: “Where is the national center for pastel? Watercolor was groundbreaking and meaningful in the last century, but today, even regionally, this is not a hotbed of watercolor activity.”

As the BPAC approaches the half-century mark, a recurring sentiment among area artists and art professionals is one of disenfranchisement. The long gap without a director and a key curatorial position that remained open even longer—and then was quietly eliminated—suggests that a dearth of qualified staff might contribute to the problem.

Will the museum become the home of dead artists and visiting out-of-town art stars? Will contemporary regional artists be marginalized or play a vital role? Anthony Bannon has an opportunity to turn things around, as the Burchfield Penney Arts Center enters its third incarnation.

Bruce Adams is an artist and art critic who teaches in the art education department of Buffalo State College.