Gallery View: Architects of an Allentown renaissance

bs-jan2012_0104firstfriday-0d4abc20For decades Allentown was known as the center of Buffalo’s art community, home to bohemian artists, with a gallery scene dating back to at least 1938 when ex-boxer and painter Tony Sisti opened his space on Franklin Street. In the forties and fifties the eclectic neighborhood became a magnet for beat generation artists. In 1958 Sisti helped found the Allentown Art Festival, and this historic Victorian community with its many shops, restaurants, and nightspots gained an enduring reputation as a thriving artistic hotspot.

Except it wasn’t.

A decade ago, aside from the annual art festival, the artistic energy had largely drained out of Allentown. A few stalwart Allen Street galleries were all that remained, notably not-for-profit El Museo. The art community was dispersed throughout the city, and nothing replaced Allentown as Buffalo’s identifiable art hub. While cities around the country saw thriving business communities spring up around trailblazing artist enclaves whose presence reinvigorated aging neighborhoods, Buffalo’s booming art scene had no such location.

That was then. Today Allentown’s art scene has seen a resurgence, pumping new creative life into an already vibrant community. New galleries began popping up alongside longtime venues. Several came and went, but now there seems to be a stable core of regularly exhibiting spaces. Perhaps the most apparent sign of Allentown’s reemergence as a viable art center is its First Friday Gallery Walk, the monthly self-guided tour of galleries that for many has become a must-attend event. It’s a social gathering for artists, a street party for art enthusiasts, and a free night out for those just seeking a fun time. How did this happen?

“I think when Elisabeth moved here, it represented a tipping point where we achieved a critical mass,” Says Barbara Hart, co-owner (with Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra executive director Dan Hart) of Studio Hart and one of the two women who played a central role in nurturing Allentown’s art renaissance. The Elisabeth she is referring to is the other originator, Elisabeth Samuels, owner of Indigo Gallery, located across from Studio Hart on Allen Street between Delaware and Franklin. In any other business, the two women might be rivals but, in the art community, working together is the key to survival. Hart continues, “Elisabeth brought a certain reputation as a real gallery owner, one who would run a tight ship over there, so we were more willing to put effort into [coordinating openings].”

“When I moved onto Allen street three years ago [from the former Insite Gallery on Elmwood Avenue],” says Samuels, “I approached Barbara and Dale [Schwalenberg] from Buffalo Big Print, and Brad Wales [of Gallery 164], and everybody I could think of to see if anyone was interested in doing a First Friday.” First Friday Gallery Walks exist in cities all over the country, where, one evening a month, galleries stay open late for what are often large crowds of visitors who stroll from gallery to gallery soaking up what Samuels calls “a shared energy—a collective presence.” Samuels reasoned that an art scene as energetic as Buffalo’s would be an ideal place for such an event. Hart, Samuels, and Schwalenberg were soon joined by Michael Mulley of College Street Gallery—who had also been trying to launch such an initiative, with sporadic success—and the four of them talked strategy. “At first it was a bunch of coffee drinking,” says Hart. From these talks, a few coordinated openings resulted, and a little nucleus of energy began incubating.

Hart recalls that with earlier attempts there weren’t enough galleries or sufficient energy to generate the needed chain reaction: “Part of getting it off the ground was being able to visualize it—to believe in it enough to do it.” Creating the Greater Allentown Gallery Association (GAGA) as a steering organization was the next big step, and gaining the support of the Allentown Association lent the cause credibility and momentum. “The Allentown Association funded the creation of our logo,” explains Hart, “and designed a map so people could find their way around the First Friday path.”

It wasn’t initially smooth sailing for the fledgling organization. There was an ambitious but ultimately disappointing early attempt to engage the nearby medical corridor. A successful bid for a $5,000 New York State Council of the Arts Decentralization Grant was announced, only to have the funds vanish amidst the Arts Council in Buffalo & Erie County embezzlement scandal. But the Allentown Association bailed them out by paying some accrued expenses, and the organization hasn’t looked back since.

“The big picture is that we’ve been building increasing participation by an ever-widening group of musicians and artists,” says Samuels. This includes busking by the 12/8 Path Band, whose energetic street music livened one summer evening. Buffalo State College fiber/design coordinator Jozef Bajus brought in students to do street installations. The Yarn Bombers, an anonymous group that GAGA has taken under its wing has yarn-wrapped a number of things on Allen Street: bike racks, tree trunks, lamp posts. “They’re like court jesters scampering around doing guerilla art in the dark of night,” says Samuels, “and by the light of day you come upon it and are surprised.” Other activities include musical performances directed by Kyle Price, spoken word events hosted by Café 59, and dance programs organized by Brad Wales at Gallery 164.

Above all, Samuels and Hart want to expand the visibility of Buffalo’s artists. “I think that’s one of the challenges in Buffalo,” says Samuels. “With the quality and quantity of artists that are here, we need opportunities to have their work seen. So here’s a chance for people to come out in a comfortable, non-threatening, casual atmosphere, and meander from gallery to gallery and view this work.”

Winter weather doesn’t seem to deter the gallery-going crowds, which have been growing steadily over the nearly three years that the First Friday Gallery Walk has been in existence. Maybe it’s the warmth generated by smiling people that has triumphed over the chill. Or it might simply be a good excuse to get out of the house and escape the winter doldrums. Hart and Samuels want to see the event keep growing. “I most recently lived in Columbus, Ohio,” explains Hart, “where there’s a big event called the Gallery Hop. That’s the vision I have for Buffalo, a bustling street full of arts events, street vendors, and bands.” She seems to be looking ahead to Allentown’s future as she adds, “It’s the thing to do.”

The next First Friday Gallery Walk will, take place from 6 to 9 p.m. on January 6. For more information: www.firstfridaysallentown.com/events/firstfriday/index.html
For an excellent video peek at Allentown’s First Friday Gallery Walk, visit:www.firstfridaysallentown.com/events/firstfriday/firstfridaysvideo/index.html

 

First Friday Gallery Walk Participants*

*Not all locations participate regularly

The C.G. Jung Center
408 Franklin Street

Art Dialogue Gallery
1 Linwood Avenue

Artspace
1219 Main Street

Buffalo Big Print
78 Allen Street

BWest
148 Elmwood Ave

College Street Gallery
244 Allen Street

COMAND Solutions
110 Elmwood Avenue

El Buen Amigo Art Gallery
114 Elmwood Avenue

El Museo
91 Allen Street

Gateway Gallery
141 Elmwood Avenue

Allen Street Hardware
245 Allen Street

Indigo Art
74 Allen Street

Kepa 3 Gallery
31 Barker Street

Mundo Images Gallery
500 Franklin Street

Starlight Gallery
340 Delaware Avenue

Studio Hart
65 Allen Street

The Sp@ce 224
224 Allen Street

The Vault
702 Main Street