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Five years ago, when Bob Drozdowski began his job as director of operations and marketing at the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center, entries for the center’s open-call art shows were trickling in painfully slowly.

“I’d be lucky if I was getting 20, 30, 40 pieces of artwork in the beginning,” he said during an interview in his small office on the first floor of the 160,000-square-foot former high school, which was saved from the wrecking ball in 2000 by preservationists and volunteers and converted into an arts center.

But last November, when the NACC mounted its annual fall show, Drozdowski received more than 120 entries. The uptick signaled a tipping point for the NACC, which has floated under the radar for some members of the local arts community outside Niagara County.

And because of the increased response, Drozdowski instituted a jurying system for the center’s annual spring show, “Beyond the Barrel,” which opens in the main gallery space Friday night. The juror for the show was Burchfield Penney Art Center Director Anthony Bannon, who chose 55 works out of 122 submissions. He also awarded five prizes. First prize went to Nikki Catalano-Ritchey for her bronze sculpture “Erotica”; second prize to James Craig for his painting “Phoson”; third prize to Jonathan Rogers for his painting “To the Finish.” Honorable mentions were awarded to Jeff Bagneschi for his ink drawing “This Maid Don’t Clean” and Mike Kudela for a mixed media piece called “Not One.”

“I think we accomplished a couple of things. One, we attracted some artists who have never exhibited here before. And I think we bumped up the quality a little bit,” Drozdowski said, adding that he estimated a third of the submissions were due to Bannon’s inclusion in the project.

The NACC’s main gallery, a 3,600 square-foot space that occupies the former high school cafeteria, was renovated last year with help from members of the Buffalo Society of Artists. Volunteers covered the tiled walls and surrounded columns with drywall and also constructed several movable walls, improving the atmosphere of the fluorescent-lit space.

The show, which includes sculpture, painting and photography, will also feature a special section dedicated to the late artist, poet and teacher Violet Gordon organized by her daughter, Bonnie Flickinger. The NACC’s light-filled Garden Gallery, an ad-hoc art space in the high school’s former grand entryway, will feature new abstract work by painter Candace Masters.

The trio of art shows opening this weekend is only one part of the breathless activity taking place in the cavernous rooms of the NACC. The center also hosts a community theater company, the Western Door Playhouse and two ballet companies along with various education programs, classes and workshops. Some 50 artists also rent studio space in the NACC and, Drozdowski said, all but one room is rented out.

Even so, the economic challenges of paying for utilities in such a massive and inefficient building are daunting. And after the Niagara Falls City Council diverted funds designated for the NACC earlier this year and forced the organization into an emergency fund drive it will have trouble repeating, those challenges aren’t going away any time soon.

Even so, Drozdowski was generally optimistic about the NACC’s future and its ability to sustain itself, and fulfill its artist-centric mission, going forward.

“Over the years, our goal has always been to support the local arts community and also be a proving ground for new artists. I’ve seen many artists who started here who now exhibit all over the area,” Drozdowski said. “We’ve had some very talented artists here.”

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What: “Beyond the Barrel”

When: 6 p.m. Friday through Aug. 25

Where: Niagara Arts and Cultural Center, 1201 Pine Ave., Niagara Falls

Admission: Free

Info: 282-7530 or www.thenacc.org

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com