BEYOND/IN: Local Artists Kick Butt

by Bruce Adams

Carin Mincemoyer’s installation in the University at
Buffalo Art Gallery’s Lightwell Gallery could be
viewed from several vantage points.
Photo by Biff Henrich.

Beyond/In Western New York, the recently concluded multi-site exhibition of regional art organized by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, did more than provide a showcase for the abundance of artistic activity within a half day’s drive of Buffalo; it pumped vitality into the art community it represents.

For years, local artists lamented that the Albright-Knox did little to spotlight regional art. Previous versions of the Western New York exhibition seemed to be reluctant concessions to the art community intended primarily to fend off criticism. Rumors circulated that the staff felt there were too few undiscovered worthy artists “out there,” as if the sole satisfaction in mounting an annual exhibition is derived from unearthing up-and-comers and—like the art world equivalent of a fairy godmother—granting them public exposure.

Artists, who presumably would be among the museum’s staunchest supporters, were often disenfranchised by what they perceived as the Albright-Knox’s indifference toward the community that supports them. The Albright-Knox’s 2001 strategic plan, which proposed cutting regional art exposure from a yearly occurrence to a biennial effort, seemed to confirm the feeling of exclusion.

It is well documented that a vibrant art scene contributes to the success of a region. As such, it’s smart for local institutions to support and nurture their artistic communities. Recent efforts by several local charitable foundations to assist arts organizations that lost Erie County funding demonstrated the foundations’ awareness of the important role the arts play within a community. As an institution with an international reputation, the Albright-Knox is uniquely positioned to play a role in cultivating art activity in the region.

With Beyond/In Western New York the Albright-Knox rose to the occasion. Under the leadership of museum director Louis Grachos, the scope and profile of the inaugural biennial effort represented an expansion from previous versions, due in part to the unprecedented collaboration of twelve regional arts institutions. Considerable time and effort was committed by the Albright-Knox and participating curators to dramatically improve the quality and profile of the event.

One unexpected benefit of this effort was that the expanded exhibition helped define the art community. For a while in late April and May, opening receptions, performances, and artist talks came at a feverish pace—as often as three a day on weekends. It was exhilarating to see so many individuals within the art community migrating from venue to venue, mingling with a different batch of less familiar faces at every site. Due to the expansiveness of the event, and the amalgamation of arts institutions, a good deal of cultural cross-pollination occurred on all levels. All the hustle and bustle not only engendered audience excitement, but more than a little art networking as well. To anyone paying attention, the event helped to define our collective identity.

Despite the collaborative approach, each participating cultural venue retained its unique identity. The Carnegie Art Center and Big Orbit focused on media and installation, CEPA featured photography-based work, Langston Hughes and El Museo exhibited artists from their targeted ethnic communities, Squeaky Wheel presented media, Hallwalls leaned strongly toward conceptual art, and so on.

With works ranging from funky found objects to monumental sculpture to traditional painting to eccentric, interactive art to sound pieces, even the most ardent critic had to concede that the exhibition reflected wide diversity and an adventurous spirit. Compare this to, for instance, our neighbor to the south, Pittsburgh, whose 2001 Associated Artists of Pittsburgh Exhibition (their equivalent to Beyond/In) at the Carnegie Museum prompted these comments from juror and art writer David Carrier:

“On the whole the Pittsburgh art community is conservative. Relatively few videos and installations were submitted, and there was very little openly political art. … either Warhol nor the impressive displays of the Carnegie International have much affected local artists.”

In a May 7 article, Peter Goddard of the Toronto Star commented that “‘Beyond’ is giving every indication of positioning itself to morph into the major art biennial north of the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh,” after travelling south to see a portion of the show.

Clearly, Beyond/In Western New York kicked artistic butt.

Was Beyond/In perfect? Despite its success, certain aspects could be improved. For starters, the Albright-Knox could more effectively promote the event, such as including a complete list of participating artists and related activities at every venue on their website and newsletter, and perhaps producing other print and email outreach. Too many in the community were unaware of this unprecedented extravaganza of local art. More effort could be made to persuade the Albright-Knox audience that all locations are equal parts of the exhibition; many AKAG patrons attended the museum’s reception and avoided others. A creatively handled marketing and P.R. blitz would have helped bring out more than just the usual supects.

Media attention is another area that needs work. Although Artvoice, the Buffalo News, and this publication dedicated substantial ink to the events, TV and radio coverage was deserved, and should have happened. (Unfortunately, this is consistent with the usual sad state of art coverage by local broadcast media.)

Notwithstanding, Beyond/In Western New York has the potential to grow in stature in the coming years, underscoring the vitality of this region’s art community. It’s worth continued effort.

Bruce Adams is an artist and educator living in Buffalo.