Gusto critics look back at 2012, December 28, 2012

By Colin Dabkowski

News Arts Critic

In 2012, Western New York’s cultural renaissance continued apace, with major developments everywhere from the gritty concrete grain elevators of Silo City to the palatial Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

The year saw a deepening and broadening of the region’s grassroots cultural communities, made up of a seemingly infinite array of small organizations, enterprising individuals and pop-up projects that distinguish Buffalo’s arts scene from most others in the country. The 11-day Buffalo Infringement Festival, maybe the best marker we have of the growth of grassroots culture in Buffalo, ballooned to some 800 performances this summer.

At the same time, the shining upper echelons of Buffalo’s cultural landscape also saw marked progress, with major milestones reached at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Burchfield Penney Art Center and the theater that once housed Studio Arena Theatre.

The cross-cultural groups formed during the funding debate of 2010-11 gathered steam, sharpened their arguments and continued to counter the silver-bullet-obsessed political culture of this region.

Add it all up, and you get the heartening continuation of a trend that began almost a decade ago, when Buffalo’s visual arts and theater culture grew tired of living in the shadows and began to stake its claim on the region’s identity. As an observer of the cultural scene’s growth, I am always wondering about the point at which it will reach a plateau. Judging from this past year, that point remains a long way off.

Some key moments:

The Echo Art Fair, conceived by tireless Buffalo booster E. Frits Abell in 2011 in an effort to build up the region’s small community of art collectors, came into its own with an extremely popular and generally well-received event in July in the Larkin Center of Commerce.

The 710 Main Theatre, which formerly housed the defunct Studio Arena Theatre, came back to life over the summer with a presentation by MusicalFare Theatre. Its return as a presenting house holds great promise for the region’s off-kilter theatrical ecology, which for the sake of audience-building desperately needs a showcase of 710 Main’s size.

Louis Grachos, director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery since 2003, announced he would end his tenure for a new job in Austin, Texas. Former Burchfield Penney Art Center Director Anthony Bannon returned from a 16-year stint at Rochester’s George Eastman House to take up his old job.

Molly Bethel, who founded the Locust Street Art Classes more than 50 years ago, handed over the reins of that organization to Liz Van Verth. At Just Buffalo Literary Center, longtime artistic director Michael Kelleher took off for a post at Yale, handing things over to new artistic director Barbara Cole. And Dorothea Braemer, the German-born director of Squeaky Wheel who worked tirelessly to expand that healthy organization, passed the baton to successor Jax Deluca.

Street art was big news this year, with a new mural on Main Street by Max Collins, Ogreand Chuck Tingley as well as work by Collins throughout the area and pieces by acclaimed muralist Augustina Droze, local painter Bruce Adams and a group of anonymous graffiti artists who turned the walls of an old train terminal into an art gallery with their tribute to the late comics artist Spain Rodriguez.

On the theater scene, there were far too many stunning theatrical moments to list. But some highlights include Loraine O’Donnell’s punk-rock-perfect performance in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” at the Alt Theatre at the Warehouse; the world premiere of Neil Wechsler’s epic “Emperor and Galilean” at Torn Space Theater; and Kristen Tripp Kelley’s performances in “Time Stands Still” and “Other Desert Cities” in the Kavinoky Theatre.

Anniversaries abounded, with the Albright-Knox, Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society (recently rebranded “The History Museum”) and Buffalo Museum of Science each celebrating 150 years. Young Audiences of Western New York turned 50, and Theatre ofYouth celebrated 40 years.

The Buffalo-based LehrerDance also had a banner year, playing on the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts prestigious M&T Dance series and heading off to Russia this month for its first international performances. The Springville Center for the Arts, under the direction of Seth Wochensky, continues to stand out as a story of what the arts can contribute to rural communities.

The cultural scene also lost many important figures this year, including theater writer and producer Neil Garvey and Niagara University theater program founder Brother Augustine Towey. The visual arts community mounted the losses of artists Catherine Parker, Olga Bajusova, Lorna Berlin, Margaret Martin and the Buffalo-born Spain Rodriguez, whose retrospective exhibition in the Burchfield Penney Art Center remains on view through Jan. 20.