Gallery hunt: Tracking the wild art scene

 

Iam on a mission.

The interior of Nobodys Art Center.The interior of Nobodys Art Center.

My goal: to visit as many Buffalo art galleries as possible in one afternoon.

A Matthew J. Myers painting at Staples II.A Matthew J. Myers painting at Staples II.

Not big-name

B West Studios.B West Studios.

flagship institutions

Art at Starlight Studio and Art Gallery.Art at Starlight Studio and Art Gallery.

like the Albright-Knox or Burchfield-Penney. Not nationally known art centers like Hallwalls and CEPA. Not even established spaces like Art Dialogue and Nina Freudenheim. American Style magazine proclaimed Buffalo the number one mid-sized city art destination in the country partly because we are seething with cultural activity that flies just below the general public’s radar. This is the art world I will explore: the familiar, the unfamiliar, and that spoken of only in hushed tones; microgalleries that pop up like mushrooms after a thunderstorm, and often disappear just as quickly. Camera in hand, and trusty bottle of Diet Coke by my side, I set off.

My first destination: Grant Street Gallery, located next to Sweet_ness 7 Café at Grant and Lafayette. This boxy off-the-beaten-path storefront space is essentially a rental gallery. Lease it for a month; install your own show; arrange for your own gallery sitters. Anything can happen. But as I arrive I find myself peering into an empty gallery. It’s in-between shows, the first of many closed venues I will face. Word to the wise: as noted in the sidebars for this story, call first for hours before visiting many of these galleries, or, better yet, look for news of exhibition openings and other events.

On to Amherst Street, a struggling business district witnessing what might be the beginnings of a revival, where I visit a gallery known simply as 464. Large display windows showcase attractively arranged books, framed prints, assorted curios, and a smattering of art. It’s open. Inside, artwork hangs on walls above wooden wainscoting next to shelving lined with art books and related merchandise. The décor is retro-sixties thrift store. There’s a lounge in the rear and further back an outdoor patio. “The interior is from the 1920s, so we haven’t changed anything,” gallery owner Marcus L. Wise explains. The art on display reflects his “buy local” pride: “All the artwork is made by local artists, for the most part emerging artists. I know all of them personally; everyone lives probably within a ten mile radius.” It’s a mixed bag of styles and media by members of Wise’s online artist gallery site, www.mindweb.us.
“We also deal with local authors and musicians,” says Wise; he recently partnered with Tangent Literary Arts Magazine, hosting monthly open-mike poetry and prose nights. So, I ask, is this is a gallery, a performance venue, or a store? “I bill it as a gallery, retail space, and resource center,” replies Wise. This sort of multiarts approach turns out to be a common strategy among galleries struggling to make ends meet in a difficult market. In fact, the well-attended music performances and other events are what pay the bills, according to Wise. “People come for the events, and they buy art. If they can’t buy a large painting, they can take home a magnet to put on their fridge, or a small print.” Wise would like more walk-in traffic and he’s working with the Grant/Amherst Business Association to boost the neighborhood’s profile.

Then, I’m off to the corner of Elmwood and Forest where purportedly there exists a gallery called Nobodys Art Center (no apostrophe). The building there looks creepy, with peeling paint and blankets covering the windows. There’s no business sign, no hint of anything art-like. A ceramic sun-face hangs on a blank signboard out front. Rusted steel stairs lead up to two adjacent doors, each labeled with the address 1121. Nobodys is the stuff of legends. When people mention it they tend to say intriguing things like, “Nobodys is crazy.” The only hint that I am at the right place comes in the form of an inconspicuous strip of wrinkled masking tape on the mail slot faintly labeled in marker “NOBODYS.” I knock several times, and no one answers. My curiosity is aroused. I will stop back.

Next stop is Gateway Gallery, so named because of its Elmwood Avenue location on the border of the mother lode of art galleries: Allentown. The converted house is dark, and there are no posted hours of operation. Several knocks on the door summon owner/director/curator Steve Myers. I explain my mission and he invites me in to the nearly empty space, which consists of two relatively large galleries, a music production room, and an artist studio he rents out. Only a few paintings hang on the otherwise blank walls. The gallery is between shows, and it’s not clear if there is a fixed exhibition schedule, but Myers also stages sporadic performance, music, dance, and theater events. Gateway is also headquarters for the Buffalo Infringement Festival, an annual multivenue multidiscipline performance event. “I kind-of want the gallery to have different genres: theater, music, art, all happening here,” Myers explains. Again, the multiarts approach; so does this mix help turn a profit? “I’m paying the bills, put it that way. I do custom framing. I do video work. I do other things.”

From here I drive to Indigo Art Gallery at 74 Allen Street and dash in. When I come out to put money in the meter I already have a parking ticket, or—as I prefer to think of it—a thirty-dollar all-day parking pass. Indigo is the latest incarnation of what was formerly Insight Gallery on Elmwood, and before that Bryant Street Studio. It’s a small but elegant storefront space with high ceilings, a second-floor loft, and little else but art. Unlike what you’ll see in many small galleries, the work here is not crowded. With Indigo, owner Elizabeth Samuels continues her efforts to develop a market for quality local art, a goal that she admits is often daunting. Samuels believes art should play a central role in our lives, and her goal is to “encourage, support, and promote art in Western New York.” No easy task. On view are remarkably complex abstract graphite drawings—some enormous, others tiny—by a young artist named Jeffrey Vincent.

Across the street, Studio Hart showcases the handmade jewelry of proprietor Barbara Hart, as well as exhibiting the work of other artists. Framed photographs by Ed Healy strikingly document the Buffalo River from the perspective of the artist’s kayak. This year Hart plans to launch new exhibitions monthly, with opening receptions held on “First Fridays,” a day when galleries within walking distance of Allen Street collectively remain open for evening hours. Buffalo Big Print is just west on Allen. The full-service custom printing shop run by Dale Schwalenberg also serves as a fashionable gallery. On display are a couple of large figurative paintings, some framed reproductions, drawings by Adele Cohen from the 1970s, and, somewhat incongruously, a handmade guitar. There’s also an eye-catching sculpture by Ben Perrone constructed from a sliced-up Frank Gehry chair. “It’s a challenge in the Buffalo market,” says Schwalenberg referring to selling art; “it’s tough on artists. I mean the low prices artists try to sell their work for here would be unheard of anywhere else. There’s so much talent here. It just blows me away all the time.”

Next I pass Gallery 164, closed; El Museo, a gallery dedicated to Latin/Caribbean art and other artists of color, closed; and College Street Gallery, closed, but posted hours say it opens at five p.m. I make a note to stop back. Staples is a bar near the west end of Allen that exhibits art under deplorable viewing conditions. I stop in anyway and discover some of the best work of the day. Matthew Myers’ lavish oil paintings feel right at home in Staples. His lurid pub scenes are populated with cartoonish night clubbers and barflies awash in garish colored light.

Around the corner on Wadsworth is Sugar City Gallery. A humorous hand-lettered statement spans the two front door windows and ends with instructions to try the side door. I do, and find the gallery closed, but I knock anyway, and a pleasant young woman named Lindsey Grate lets me in. Grate is working on a multimedia wall installation. I ask if she’s an artist. “I only put art in the Infringement Festival and this is like the second thing I’m doing publicly. I’m in a band, and I barely work, and then I do art; that’s what I do.” Okay. “Sugar City is so welcoming,” reports Grate. “I got to experience this place as an artist and as a band, and they’re awesome.” I later learn from the Sugar City website that their programming includes “music, films, a zine library, meeting space, local craft corner, art gallery, workshops, and workspaces.” Your basic multiarts approach.

Next a brisk walk to 340 Delaware Avenue brings Starlight Studio and Art Gallery where adults with learning disabilities or neurological impairments learn to make art under the tutelage of professional artists. Administrative assistant Brenda Frazier explains that it’s not art therapy they’re doing, but art for art’s sake. Then I arrive at the corner of Franklin and Virginia. Dana Tillou Fine Arts is not really an art gallery, but an antique store featuring “150 years of American and European Art.” This is traditional stuff: landscapes and portraits—many from historic WNY artists. “A lot of people come in and just look at the art,” says Tillou, but “not enough do. That’s the trouble. They’re afraid to come in.” Nearby the C. G. Jung Center exhibits art in an attractive house-like setting.

Before leaving Allentown, I hit Betty’s on Virginia Street. This is one of many restaurants in town that exhibit art, but Betty’s is distinguished by exceptional quality, and because it holds opening receptions on Mondays when the restaurant is closed. I check out the fabulous “dog saint” paintings of Jacqueline Welch.

The day is winding down and there are still many places to see. KEPA3 Gallery on Barker Street is primarily a showcase for the paintings of Peter Fowler and the ceramics and jewelry of Kathi Roussel. It’s closed, but business hours are posted. Looking in, it reminds me of a New York City Soho gallery. Lots of space.

My next stop is Unity Church at 1243 Delaware Avenue, maybe the only house of worship with an active art gallery in its sanctuary. Reverend Mary Masters, the church’s minister, explains that exhibitions are scheduled a year in advance. Does she ever notice people staring at the art during services? “Sometimes, especially the first week when it’s a new show.” Today’s art is pretty flower paintings and photographs.

In a mad dash, I just make Atlas Antiques & Art at 1495 Hertel Avenue before closing time. Proprietor Daryl Taberski operates a gallery in the back featuring vintage art of Western New York. He just finished a show by painter and former Buffalo State professor, Hugh Neil. Today there is a mix of paintings from the forties and fifties. I ask if there is a market for vintage art, and a patron who chooses not to identify herself answers enthusiastically, “Yes! I buy vintage Western New York art, and it’s great stuff.”

Finally, back to College Street Gallery. The owner, photographer Michael Mulley, also owns and operates Queen City Gallery in the historic Market Arcade building downtown. How does one manage two galleries? “Um, I’m a glutton for punishment,” Mulley explains, adding that this gallery became a cooperative last November “and we’ve been selling stuff. I had this long speech about how you’re not going to make any money, and then people start selling stuff just to make me look bad.” A mash-up of drawings, prints, photography, and paintings are stacked salon style. After twelve years and three landlords, Mulley might hold the record for endurance by a Buffalo storefront gallery.

The day is over, mission completed, but there are still so many unvisited galleries: all the smaller college galleries; Artspace, which has been staging regular exhibitions; and Impact Gallery, located near the better known Buffalo Arts Studios in the Tri-Main Building on Main Street. I’m sure there are others. So much art, so little time.

This story has a coda. Over the next few days I return several more times to Nobodys. I’ve heard that a woman named Melissa Campbell runs it. One evening I drive by and see a man enter the building. I follow him into a dark sparsely appointed room where a band called Anal Pudding is rehearsing. They’re really good, but Melissa Campbell is nowhere in sight. Not much art either. A couple days later I spot someone else going in. This time I’m greeted at the door by three mean looking-dogs … and Melissa Campbell, who turns out to be a young, sociable, highly committed artist with a spirit of adventure. Her story is like many other gallery operators that began with visual art, but had to adopt a multiarts approach to scrape by. Nobodys’ dark atmosphere, unmarked presence, and vaguely sinister reputation remind me of New York City’s East Village underground art scene of the 1960s. Melissa tells me a new art show will go up later today. It will be viewed by visitors in the know during another unspecified event. Promoted by word of mouth. No posted hours.

Everything you need to know about attending art openings
Galleries and museums of all types and sizes have art openings, sometimes called “artist receptions” or “opening receptions,” essentially social gatherings celebrating the start of an art exhibition. They usually, but not always, take place on the first day of the exhibition. They can get crowded, making them perhaps the worst time to view the art, but a scheduled opening is one time you can be sure a gallery will be open. Some people avoid openings out of the erroneous assumption that they’re not welcome. Hollywood has created a popular image of pretentious events crammed with eccentrics and socialites spouting intellectual babble while looking down their noses at those who encroach on their social clique. Not so, at least not in Buffalo. An opening is basically a party and you’re invited.

Still not sure? Here’s all you’ll ever need to know to attend an art opening:

• You don’t need an invitation; everyone is welcome. Walk in.
• Art openings are free and galleries want you there. Attendance is one measure of success for a gallery; your presence helps make them look good. • Casual attire is the norm.
• You can arrive and leave any time.
• If you see food, eat it.
• Beverages of various kinds are usually provided. Many galleries charge for drinks; some don’t. Tips are welcome if there’s a tip jar.
• You aren’t expected to buy anything. Openings are receptions in honor of the artists, not timeshare promotions. There are basically two kinds of galleries: commercial and not-for profit (NFP). In general, NFP galleries don’t sell. At commercial galleries there is never pressure to buy (though sales are always welcome).
• You don’t have to know anything about art to attend an opening; the unacquainted are enthusiastically welcomed. In fact, curators and artists are generally glad to answer questions. It’s one way they build audiences. For starters, try, “Can you tell me something about this work?”
There are very rare exceptions to the rules listed above, but don’t sweat it. You are the audience; it’s the responsibility of galleries and museums to make you feel welcome.

—B. A.

Where to
find out about gallery exhibitions
You may be wondering how anyone can keep abreast of all the upcoming exhibitions, art performances, and openings that occur in our fair city and region. First, many museums and galleries have paid memberships. By joining a gallery as a member, you’ll be notified about events, plus your membership fees help arts organizations thrive. Galleries often have guest books which are used to obtain new names and addresses for mailing lists. Stop in once, sign up, and you will usually receive announcement card notices for exhibitions and openings, which may also list gallery hours. Seasoned gallery goers often receive several of these each week. You can also check the art listings in newspapers like Artvoice and the Buffalo News (in Friday’s Gusto), both newsstand and on-line versions. Websites like buffalorising.com include art event listings. A new development in the notification game is Facebook. Become a “fan” of a gallery, and you will begin receiving event notifications. Finally there are blogs. “Prolonged Hacking and Gnawing” (jmassier.blogspot.com) is updated weekly by John Massier, curator at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center. Massier lists art openings as well as ongoing exhibitions, along with commentary on a variety of other amusing topics that happen to strike his fancy. And you can subscribe and have it sent to your e-mail address each Friday.

—B. A.

Partners in Art:
The hunt continues in the Tonawandas
Anyone in search of a prime example of how the arts can act as an engine for community development need look no further than Webster Street in North Tonawanda. That’s where Partners in Art transformed a declining business district just north of a particularly beautiful section of the Niagara River into a thriving commercial center for the arts.

Standing in front of their Webster Street gallery, founding art partner Glenna Sternin explains that it all started because it was hard to find winter parking near the University of Buffalo south campus. That’s where friends and art teachers Sternin and Joan Horn were taking lessons in a rented storefront from WNY painter John Yerger. “So we said, ‘John, what if we found a place in the Tonawandas?’ He said sure, and that’s when we found the big pink building [Partner’s original two-story Webster Street location].” That was 1995. At first they were renters, but eventually they bought the building in the once-flourishing business district. “When we bought that big old building,” Sternin continues, “the lawyer said, ‘why do you want to come down here?’”
Yerger, Horn, and Sternin all found success teaching art classes, but once again dissatisfaction with the status quo led to a change. “Nobody liked climbing the stairs [to the second floor studios], so eventually the store next to us opened up, and we rented that. And it became our studio where we taught oil painting.” As Sternin explains, the business kept growing out of a demand for services that they had created. “We started just teaching classes and found out people needed supplies, so we added supplies. We found out people needed framing, so we added framing; found out that we’d like to have a place for people to show their work, so we opened a gallery. And then we decided we’d have a new show each month.”

Eventually, Partners sold the original building and purchased and renovated a large section of the block with the profits. They received a matching grant to transform the façades of the characterless storefronts into a charming canopied copper and brick art center. Partners now occupies five Webster Street addresses near the historic Riviera Theater. Their state-of-the-art studios are lavishly equipped with closed circuit television and wireless internet. The interconnected complex includes the art supply store, framing business (they are the nearest providers of plaque-mounting outside Canada), a library, offices, and a storeroom neatly stacked with still life objects. Partners specializes in classical realism, especially portrait and still life, and they just completed a four-day workshop with visiting artists from Woodstock, N.Y.

The story doesn’t end there. One of Partners’ former students, Patrick Sean Daley, went on to become a teacher, and then opened his own storefront studio down the street. Hodgepodge, a business that sells art and gifts, with a café, tea room, and gallery featuring paintings by E. Jane Stoddard, moved in next to Partners’ gallery. The Buffalo Suzuki Strings arrived in 2001. The North Tonawanda History Museum recently opened on Webster Street, and Jeanene Marie’s Dance Company is another recent arrival. I admit to Sternin that I had not thought of North Tonawanda as a thriving cultural center. “Nobody does,” she says, “‘till they get here; then they’re amazed.”

—B. A.

Yerger, Horn, and Sternin all found success teaching art classes, but once again dissatisfaction with the status quo led to a change. “Nobody liked climbing the stairs [to the second floor studios], so eventually the store next to us opened up, and we rented that. And it became our studio where we taught oil painting.” As Sternin explains, the business kept growing out of a demand for services that they had created. “We started just teaching classes and found out people needed supplies, so we added supplies. We found out people needed framing, so we added framing; found out that we’d like to have a place for people to show their work, so we opened a gallery. And then we decided we’d have a new show each month.”

Eventually, Partners sold the original building and purchased and renovated a large section of the block with the profits. They received a matching grant to transform the façades of the characterless storefronts into a charming canopied copper and brick art center. Partners now occupies five Webster Street addresses near the historic Riviera Theater. Their state-of-the-art studios are lavishly equipped with closed circuit television and wireless internet. The interconnected complex includes the art supply store, framing business (they are the nearest providers of plaque-mounting outside Canada), a library, offices, and a storeroom neatly stacked with still life objects. Partners specializes in classical realism, especially portrait and still life, and they just completed a four-day workshop with visiting artists from Woodstock, N.Y.

The story doesn’t end there. One of Partners’ former students, Patrick Sean Daley, went on to become a teacher, and then opened his own storefront studio down the street. Hodgepodge, a business that sells art and gifts, with a café, tea room, and gallery featuring paintings by E. Jane Stoddard, moved in next to Partners’ gallery. The Buffalo Suzuki Strings arrived in 2001. The North Tonawanda History Museum recently opened on Webster Street, and Jeanene Marie’s Dance Company is another recent arrival. I admit to Sternin that I had not thought of North Tonawanda as a thriving cultural center. “Nobody does,” she says, “‘till they get here; then they’re amazed.”

—B. A.

Bruce Adams is an artist, educator, and former board president of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center