State of the art

By Bruce Adams
Photos by Jim Bush

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A panoramic view of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.


The arts have long been a major player in the Greater Buffalo cultural landscape. Now there are indications—from new construction and historical restorations to creative partnerships and grand proposals—that visual art may be on the threshold of a regional upsurge of exponential proportions. Is Buffalo ready?

Last June a landmark national report titled Arts and Economic Prosperity III confirmed what local arts advocates have long argued: Erie-Niagara’s art community leaves a sizeable footprint on the local economy. With input from sixty-one local nonprofit arts and cultural organizations crunched through sophisticated input-output analysis, the study determined that the arts generate more than $155 million annual economic activity, provide 4,740 fulltime equivalent jobs, and deliver $24 million to local and state coffers. These sorts of numbers can render politicians weak in the knees—and these are even better than the numbers that have gotten a certain tackle store a sizeable financial incentive just to call Buffalo home.

It comes as no surprise to those engaged in Western New York’s energetic art scene that the region is a hotbed of cultural consumerism. As Buffalo trudged through years of economic decline down a twisted path from “City of Light” to “City of No Illusions,” the arts have never ceased to burn bright, generating under trying conditions more cultural megawatts than much larger, healthier cities—this despite governmental leaders who slashed support for this proven asset even as they attempted to revive the flagging economy with one silver-bullet scheme after another. Now, after years of struggle, the regional art community—particularly visual art—appears perched to make a major leap forward. The evidence is everywhere.

Not your father’s BPAC
Spring 2008 will witness the grand opening of a new 84,000 square foot, $30 million, state-of-the-art Burchfield-Penney Art Center building located adjacent to Buffalo State College across from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Currently housed in Rockwell Hall on the college campus, the move will give this showcase for WNY art a major presence in the Elmwood Avenue Museum District, with improved visibility and accessibility, double the current exhibition space, and six times its present area for education and public programs. Gallery goers will be able to park there or at the AK and walk between the two museums.

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Jeremy Bailey’s Cercles Coulereux

Perhaps the greatest indication that the new BPAC represents a turning point for Western New York art is that it was built at all. Not long ago such an ambitious undertaking would have been a pie-in-the-sky dream, but the center has already raised well over $30 million in state and public contributions and construction is nearing completion. BPAC director Ted Pietrzak believes this seemingly sudden can-do spirit actually evolved over time and we are just now arriving at the moment when the stars have aligned behind the arts. “I think the future is now,”� states Pietrzak. “The new [BPAC] building represents this perfect constellation of art that’s occurring. We’re seeing widespread support from government leaders; the level of awareness is dramatically elevated because of the [Erie County budget] crisis. Community leaders are speaking out. I attend public forums and I don’t have to say anything; people from the community do all the talking. The public is speaking up.”

Shaking it up at the Albright-Knox
Never has the public spoken up more vociferously than during last year’s deaccession controversy over the sale of some 200 seldom exhibited pieces from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery collection. Ardent art supporters on both sides of this very public debate hurled impassioned pleas in support of their positions, demonstrating the depth of Buffalo’s cultural fervor. In the end, the membership backed the sale, and the $67 million addition to the acquisition endowment will help insure the gallery remains at the forefront of modern and contemporary art for generations.

Recent acquisitions of work by pivotal late twentieth-century artists include a commissioned drawing by conceptual art founder Sol Lewitt (to be installed by the late artist’s studio), a light piece by celebrated perceptual illusionist, James Turrell, and a Bruce Nauman video installation jointly purchased with the Whitney Museum. To accommodate its growing collection the museum’s strategic plan calls for a gallery expansion. “The level of quality and depth of the collection demands more space,”� explains museum director Louis Grachos in a recent conversation. Arriving in Buffalo in 2003, Grachos not only brought a passion for art, but also a vigorous imagination and willingness to depart from tradition. The free Friday evening series, “Gusto at the Gallery,”� for instance, features everything from poetry to belly dancing. This Grachos innovation has been wildly popular with the public.

Grachos pulls out a book of concept drawings prepared by internationally acclaimed architect Richard Gluckman. He eagerly details the goal of adding 50,000 square feet of space to the existing buildings on the Elmwood site without infringing on their historical architecture or altering the current Delaware Park layout. The designs, which incorporate dramatic glass-enclosed spaces, underground parking, and terrace dining overlooking the park, are no less than stunning. “Will this happen in my lifetime?” I ask. “There are hurdles,”� Grachos admits, “but the goal is to do this in five to eight years.”� It’s a goal Grachos believes is achievable.

Beyond/In Western New York
Grachos’willingness to think big led to another component of WNY’s rising art tide. Soon after arriving here he dusted off the Albright-Knox’s long-running biennial In Western New York exhibition—a show of local art that seemed mired in torpid tradition—and expanded it into an ambitious region-wide collaborative exhibition involving twelve local arts institutions and an extended geographic range. RenamedBeyond/In Western New York, the second engaging installment opens in September with much fanfare. But Grachos envisions even bigger things for the show. “One of my dreams is to take Beyond/In and turn it into an international exhibition of contemporary art,” Grachos says, “It could happen in a few years, and certainly a show with that kind of international ambition would create a lot of enthusiasm around the art community in Buffalo, and it could be a draw nationally and even internationally. Why not take WNY to an international level? Bring in a national curator or two to work with us in presenting a show that would bring some great ideas from all parts of the world.”

Such an ambitious program could only be carried out, Grachos believes, with the collaborative efforts of the group of diverse cultural institutions that work together on the past two exhibitions. “When you think of the combined expertise of Hallwalls, CEPA, the UB galleries, the BPAC, Buffalo Arts Studios, and the other like minded contemporary art institutions in our community, it’s a unique opportunity to do something bigger and stronger.”

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Deirdre Logue’s Beyond the Usual Limits: Part 1

Prosperity through collaboration
This level of cooperation among cultural organizations “is a truly unique experience to our region,”� says Grachos, “and yeah, it is about the context of Buffalo where it’s not a city of five million with an enormous economy and potential for sponsorship, so working together on things like this is the key to our success, but it says something that I also think is as important—maybemore important—it demonstrates the layers and depth that the art community has here.”

Like biological organisms adapting to inhospitable environments, some local institutions develop creative collaborations to survive difficult times. CEPA and Big Orbit galleries, along with literary art center Just Buffalo combined resources a couple years back in an experiment in collaborative management. “We had originally envisioned a three-year pilot project to investigate the benefits of a deep administrative collaboration,”� reports Lawrence Brose, director of CEPA Gallery. “Well, now that we have just completed year two, assessing all of the tremendous successes, we have decided to make this a permanent initiative; we have changed the way we are doing business forever.”� The arrangement, says Brose, has led to more effective business strategies, enhanced board and staff development, revenue diversification, increased financial contributions and membership, and expanded visibility.

Nonprofit Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center is also completing its second year in a unique partnership with for-profit Righteous Babe Records. Hallwalls leases space in the restored church owned by RBR at the corner of Delaware and Tupper, now simply known as the Church. The two organizations enjoy more than a landlord-tenant relationship. They engage in joint planning, share common space, and Hallwalls benefits from access to the Church’s twelve-hundred capacity sanctuary performance space. As a result of the greater accessibility provided by the downtown street level site, as well as frequent public events held by RBR, Hallwalls has experienced dramatically increased attendance and membership.

Enter Artspace
A collaboration of a different kind will soon be realized as artists begin inhabiting the sixty Artspace loft/work apartments in the renovated Breitweiser Printing Building and its newly built addition at 1219 Main Street. Artspace Projects, Inc., the nation’s leading real estate developer for the arts, has a history of turning urban eyesores into vibrant communities by creating centers of critical mass in formerly neglected buildings and neighborhoods. When Artspace opened in Lowertown St. Paul, Minnesota, for instance, the surrounding neighborhood went from fifty residents to 5,000 in six years. Artists qualify for the fully equipped low rent studios through a combination of demonstrated artistic commitment, community-mindedness, and financial need. If Artspace expectations hold true, this project will serve as a vivid illustration of how the arts can revitalize a city. What distinguishes this from other attempts to kick-start sections of the city (think Cobblestone District gambling casino) is the utilization of an existing asset—art activity—that contributes to rather than siphons away from the community. This approach to urban development—restoring historical buildings and populating them with creative individual—reflects a genuineness you just don’t get from big-box fishing stores with theme-park facades.

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Downtown Buffalo’s Metro Rail terminus,
proposed site for an AKAG satellite.

The future is now
There is no shortage of empty historical structures in Buffalo. “We have two major train terminals and vacant buildings and grain elevators that could be reutilized.”� Louis Grachos is thinking out loud. “Why not have a strong cultural presence on the waterfront?”� And he pulls out another set of Richard Gluckman drawings; this time of an adaptive use for the dilapidated D. L. & W. waterfront train sheds (now the Metro Rail terminus). The designs envision a dramatic makeover of the massive structure into a sleek facility for art, music, and performance with existing Metro Rail access that could easily house all thirty-three of the Albright-Knox’s massive Clifford Still paintings, host an outdoor waterside concert, and accommodate hungry patio diners, all simultaneously.

Grachos’s bid to reutilize a relic of Buffalo’s industrial heyday as a contemporary art space echoes the story of MASS MoCA in North Adams’s Massachusetts. North Adams’ economy centered on textile manufacturing, until the industry collapsed, the enormous textile plant shut down, and the town fell into economic decline. That was until the idle factory was transformed into the sprawling Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and North Adams rebounded with a robust cultural tourist economy that attracts visitors from around the world. “MASS MoCA is a great example of how a cultural institution can over time become an important identity for reviving a community and driving a new kind of economy,” Grachos contends. “I think Buffalo has an incredible opportunity on the waterfront to have a cultural component that is the very key to the future success of our city.”

Grachos envisions the train station as a future site for an expanded Western New Yorkexhibition that would accommodate the often massive art and installations of today’s major artists. At other times the facility would host a wide range of art activities, but Grachos isn’t seeing this as a venture the AKAG would operate solo. “The more realistic approach is to form a consortium of culturals to operate the facility,”� he explains, “Collectively we have the capacity to not only build cultural tourism, but draw our own community to the waterfront. It gives us an opportunity to provide more than sports and entertainment, where we could create something really unique and special.”

Everything’s in place: the vacant historical structure, a world-class architect experienced in adaptive-use art spaces, an eager art community, and a ready cadre of proven cultural institutions. So what’s next? “Support from the state, and those developing the waterfront, to get the building retrofitted,” says Grachos. The resources and infrastructure are in place; Grachos and other like-minded individuals are ready to build the cultural tourism many agree is our future. That future is now; all that’s needed is the commitment to make it happen.

Bruce Adams is an artist and educator living in Buffalo.