Just when you think that it might be going down for another of its long counts, Buffalo, that old feisty, rust-belt clunker of a city, comes roaring back with yet another extraordinary cultural idea in a long line of extraordinary, city-reviving cultural ideas.
This one is called "Beyond/In Western New York 2005 Biennial Exhibition." It is a massive expansion of the old "In Western New York" invitational exhibition established by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in 1977. Spread over 13 venues located throughout the area, it is an exhibition that draws on artists from not only Western New York but also those from the central part of the state and northwestern Pennsylvania, extending northward across the Canadian border to include Toronto, Canada's major art center.
The idea for the exhibition sprang from the fertile brain of Albright-Knox director Louis Grachos when, early in his tenure, he was looking for a way to re-establish a credible presence of regional art at the gallery. "The premise was to take a more serious look at art of the region," he said recently in describing the show.
The exhibition has certainly done that. Previous regional exhibitions were narrowly focused, often repetitive and of strictly local import. The new show will involve 58 artists from various geographical areas, who work in media ranging from drawing, painting, sculpture and printmaking to video, film, performances of various sorts and multimedia installations.
This is indeed a serious look, and wildly ambitious, too. The exhibition bites off so much that it has the very real possibility of bringing the region to the attention of critics, commentators and curators and other artists in the participating cities, if not beyond. And if we're really lucky, in the future the biennial may even become an ongoing cultural and tourist beacon for the people of this vast geographic area.
"Beyond/In Western New York" will have its first round of openings next weekend and continue with more openings on the two consecutive weekends following. All the large and most of the smaller art organizations of the area collaborated on the project, with curators from each venue taking part in the overall selection process. (See accompanying box for specific dates and listing of the artists and their venues.)
At first thought, Grachos imagined the biennial at the Albright-Knox with work chosen by the gallery in collaboration with the other art organizations of the area.
"What happened immediately and naturally was that everyone got so excited about the exhibition that it was decided that it should be spread to all the other venues as well as the gallery," he explained.
In an effort to play down the Albright-Knox's role in the show, at a certain point Grachos stepped aside. Gallery senior curator Douglas Dreishspoon, curatorial assistant Kristen Carbone and project coordinator Holly Hughes were left to organize and implement the massive project. Weeding out the final 58 artists from a colossal 700 submissions was the joint responsibility of all the curators from the collaborating organizations.
Carbone, who handled the day-to-day mechanics of the exhibition, said that at times putting out the call for work depended on grass-roots methods like walking the streets to hang posters in every coffee shop, book store and college bulletin board she could find. A welter of e-mails were sent and some 20,000 brochures mailed. The curators weighed in with their numerous contacts. Mailing lists were combined.
All the efforts paid off, said Carbone. "We got new people applying - lots of professors from Colgate, Ithaca, Hamilton, Rochester, artists from Ontario who had never shown in United States."
Months of viewing slides cut the number to under 100 artists. Then it was on to studio visits, to see the actual work.
"From the end of May to the beginning of July, we went on more than 80 studio visits," Carbone said.
"I tried, when possible, to have three curators for the visits. Afterward, we'd meet and have further talks about the work. . . . Ultimately, there was this big challenge to figure out which artist would show in which venue," Grachos said.
John Massier, the visual arts curator at Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, was impressed by how smoothly the operation went.
"My honest answer may sound like I'm making it up. But it's true: The interstructure of Buffalo makes it easy for everyone to get together," he said. "In other cities it may be difficult. Here, everybody attended meetings and were very committed to reviewing the work and weeding it down to a manageable size.
"By the end of it, when we got down to the final selections, there was no real jockeying for this artist or that artist," Massier said. "I think this (harmonious) process reflects the curatorial diversity involved. There was as much variety in the people looking at the art as there was in those producing the art."
Massier marveled that such an expansive and complex art project was successfully launched here.
"I come from Toronto," he said. "Toronto should have an international biennial; it doesn't even have a regional biennial. Instead, this regional biennial is coming out of Buffalo."
Massier also noted the irony of a big collaborative exhibition like this coming at a time of fiscal disintegration in Erie County and the city that has resulted in a drying up of art funding for all but the largest cultural organizations.
"This is the very thing that big funders are always asking for - collaboration," he said. "And this exhibition is the most blatant example of collaboration, and it's happening at this time when things are (fiscally) collapsing. Ironic is not a good enough word for it."
(The biennial is supported by Judge and Mrs. John T. Elfvin, Northtown Automotive Companies and the Baird Foundation. Additional support came from Consulate General of Canada, Buffalo/Consulat general du Canada, Hadley Exhibits, M&T Bank, Lumsden and McCormick LLP, the Premier Group and an anonymous donor.)
Interestingly, the wide compass of the exhibition doesn't mean that Western New York artists will have any less presence. In fact, Carbone noted that more, not fewer, artists from the immediate area are included.
"Of the 58 artists, 35 were from the original eight counties of Western New York, as compared with the 15 to 17 that were included in the old "In Western New York' exhibitions," Carbone said. "And this happened with no conversation about where artists came from."
Thus it is that viewers will see the work of familiar area artists such as painters Jackie Felix, Alberto Rey and William Y. Cooper; video-makers Jody Lafond, Tony Conrad and Meg Knowles; and performance artists Ron Ehmke and Jamie O'Neil. The askew whimsy of Alfonso Volo's objects will be in evidence, as will the haunting melancholy of Patrick Robideau's sculpture. Artists from outside the area whose work is familiar to Western New York audiences - like John Knecht and his animated lampoons of American politics - are also well represented.
Hallwalls curator Joanna Raczynska, who with Squeaky Wheel Director Dorothea Braemer selected the media artists, said that though video and filmmakers may be less known to broader audiences, their presence in the biennial is critical. Eve Heller, for example, is a Buffalo-based filmmaker whose work is shown all over the world, including a number of Hallwalls screenings over the years.
"She is an amazing artist who works in 16mm black and white silent film," said Raczynska. "She makes films that you can revisit again and again. They are non-narrative and, I'd say, almost other-worldly."
Sandra Firmin, curator at the University at Buffalo Art Gallery, said the geographic expansion of the show allowed great curatorial flexibility. Leslie Eliet from Ithaca, Mark Gomes from Toronto and Carin Mincemoyer from Buffalo, although quite different artists, represented a range of ideas that were centered around landscape and the earth that allowed Firmin to construct a semi-thematic exhibition. Electric violinist Ritsu Katsumata, who hails from Williamsport, Pa., will add to the mix in an opening-night performance.
Firmin was a new arrival on the scene just as the planning for the biennial was getting under way.
"I had just moved here, and I was thrust into a situation that gave me the opportunity to meet everyone connected with the other art organizations," Firmin said. "What I discovered was great collegiality."
Early on, Firmin heard the grumblings of local artists who feared they'd be supplanted, and she herself wondered how this unwieldy and untried system of collaborative selection could maintain anything like a democratic process.
But democratic it was: "I didn't see any of the sense of hierarchy that I feared. There was a huge amount of mutual respect; nobody tried to trump his or her colleagues. And the people at the Albright-Knox were always very generous."
A big plus for the artists in the show is the catalog, which will be the lasting documentation of the event. In contrast to the meager black-and-white catalogs of the former Albright-Knox invitationals, the biennial catalog will hold a color reproduction of the work of every artist (of his or her choosing), an artist's statement and introductory essays by the curators.
Heavily subsidized by the gallery, the catalog will cost $14.95, cheap for a production of this quality. "It is our gift to the artists to show how important this exhibition is to the gallery," said Grachos.
Grachos is optimistic about the future: "My hope is that the biennial will be a big success and that it will be even more enticing next time around."
And even with the realization of the show still a week off, Grachos is already envisioning bigger things down the line.
"If we can keep the quality in force," he mused, "who's to say that this couldn't be a format for an international exhibition?"
Buffalo needs dreamers like that.