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Nobody knows when they're sitting in the middle of a cultural renaissance.

It's only much later, with the distance of years and the clarity of hindsight, that we can begin to sort out exactly where we've been and, little by little, to understand how far we've traveled.

And looking back at the first decade of the new millennium, a period of explosive growth in Western New York's art and theater industries, it's plain to see that culture in Western New York has come a long way.

Consider the numbers:

In 2000, Buffalo's annual Curtain Up! celebration featured productions by nine companies. Ten years later, the event had ballooned to include 16.

By the latest count, there are now at least 23 professional or semiprofessional theaters (not including Shea's Performing Arts Center) in Erie County alone, compared to about 15 companies in 2000. Even with the 2008 closure of Studio Arena Theatre, the number of active theater companies in Western New York has jumped by about 50 percent over the past decade.

Buffalo's visual arts scene has experienced a similarly impressive period of growth. This has come both in terms of major projects like the construction of the Burchfield Penney Art Center in 2008 and the regionwide art show Beyond/In Western New York, and on a smaller scale, with the addition of many small alternative art spaces and commercial galleries throughout the region.

Using the Gusto calendar section as a rough reference, the number of galleries and museums regularly displaying exhibitions in 2000 usually floated somewhere between 30 and 35. In 2010, that number hovers closer to 50 -- a tally that doesn't include many of the new smaller alternative spaces which do not announce their exhibitions or do so only sporadically.

In the past two years, an incipient movement has arisen to tie the identity of the Buffalo Niagara region to the arts. Riding a wave of momentum caused by the past decade's marked artistic and theatrical growth, groups like the Theater Alliance of Buffalo and the Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance have formed in an attempt to create a regionwide strategy for the continued growth and funding of the arts in Western New York.

The growing movement has run up against opposition from some in Western New York who -- out of Buffalo-bred cynicism, political philosophy or sheer disbelief -- downplay the breadth, depth and popularity of the arts sector and question its relevance to the region's economy and way of life.

This growth in the arts sector has occurred despite the fact that total public support for the arts has declined slightly over the past 10 years, while the number of organizations vying for that support has increased significantly.

From 2000 to 2010, Erie County funded the arts at an average of $5.1 million per year -- with a notable dip to $2.7 million during the 2004-05 budget crisis. This year, in a major jolt to the arts scene, the county's support has dipped to $4.4 million spread across just 10 groups instead of the usual 40 to 50.

The City of Buffalo, which provided about $1 million per year to arts groups for the first two years of the decade, cut that support entirely in 2002 and has not restored it since.

So the arts in Western New York have proliferated in the face of local arts funding that -- at least until now -- has remained essentially static (in the case of Erie County) or been eliminated entirely (as with the City of Buffalo).

Because of Erie County budget cuts, the unlikelihood that city money will be restored during this calendar year and the fiscal disarray of New York State, public arts funding is set to decline much more dramatically over the next several years.

And that has led many in the local arts community to fear that the momentum they had been building for much of the past 20 years may be about to hit a brick wall.

"You can make an argument that the scene has exploded despite flat-lined funding," said Randall Kramer, a spokesman for the Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance and artistic director of MusicalFare Theatre. "But when have we reached the ultimate maximum that we can do with that flat-lined funding? How long can we continue this kind of growth, which is great for our region, with government funding that is flat-lining or in some cases decreasing? It's going to be impossible to reach what we could be without some partnership from the government."

>A theater boom

By 2000, Buffalo was already in the midst of a theatrical rebirth that began during the previous decade with the establishment of the Irish Classical Theatre Company and MusicalFare Theatre in 1990, followed by smaller companies like Buffalo United Artists in 1992 and the New Phoenix Theatre in 1996.

But in the 11 years that have passed since the fall of 2000, the Buffalo theater scene has undergone a kind of adolescent growth spurt, with the addition of several small and midsized companies that appeal to nearly every conceivable taste.

In 2002, Scott Behrend and Jon Elston launched Road Less Traveled Productions, which would soon establish itself as one of Western New York's most daring and significant professional companies. The following year, the young entrepreneur Dan Shanahan rented out the East Side's Adam Mickiewicz Library and Dramatic Circle and launched Torn Space Theater, now a respected experimental company.

Later in the decade, Kurt Schneiderman launched his own small Subversive Theatre Collective, and the theater scene welcomed the addition of the American Repertory Theatre of Western New York, the Playhouse of American Classics, the female-focused Red Thread Theatre and many others.

In 2008, the closure of Studio Arena Theatre, Buffalo's only top-tier regional company, was seen as a major loss to the local theater scene. But its protracted demise has not yet caused much perceptible damage to the health of the theater scene at large.

Though no comprehensive data exists to track audience numbers from 2000 to now, crowds have been growing markedly at some theaters. At MusicalFare, for instance, attendance rose by 53 percent over the past decade (about the same rate as the number of theaters), from about 16,000 in 2000 to 25,000 in 2010. Other theaters, such as Alleyway Theatre and the Kavinoky, have seen their audience numbers remain relatively constant, while the region's many smaller and newly established companies have reported modest attendance gains.

In the 2008-09 theater season, the most recent period for which data is availble, companies belonging to the Buffalo Theatre Alliance (including Shea's) reported a total attendance of 426,640.

Perhaps the biggest theatrical success story in the last decade played out on the stage of Shea's Performing Arts Center, where a multimillion-dollar public investment launched the theater on a period of unassailable growth that continues to this day. It is now one of the most highly sought-after venues for Broadway touring productions and has been breaking its own attendance records for several years running.

>New players in the arts

The growth of the visual arts scene has been nearly as dramatic as that of its theatrical counterpart, but its roots are in some ways more recent.

As Buffalo's large institutions go, the first two years of the decade were important ones. In 2000, two years after a $1 million gift from Buffalo attorney William Magavern, a site was chosen for the new Burchfield Penney Art Center and fundraising for the building began in earnest. It was opened, to great fanfare and acclaim, in 2008.

In 2002, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery appointed a new director, Louis Grachos, who led the institution in a bold new direction that saw it mounting landmark exhibitions like "Extreme Abstraction" and fostering collaborative projects like Beyond/In Western New York.

Beyond/In, as it has become known, launched in 2005 as an outgrowth of a more staid regional show, raised the region's already impressive visual arts profile. That extensive show repeated with different artists and larger footprints in 2007 and this year, drawing crowds from across the region and the country.

A bit later in the decade, a series of new commercial spaces launched, from 464 Gallery in the growing Amherst Street neighborhood to Indigo and Studio Hart in Allentown. Critical mass having been reached, Allentown's "First Fridays" Gallery Walk kicked off in 2009 and has been drawing crowds to the Allentown arts scene every month since.

In 2008, Aimee Buyea launched an alternative arts and music space called Sugar City in Allentown. Across town, Nobody's Art Center (now Filigrees Gallery and Boutique) opened its doors. Both of those DIY-friendly spaces served as venues for the sprawling Buffalo Infringement Festival, a summerly compendium of wacky alternative art, music and theater that began in 2005 and seems to grow exponentially with each passing year.

It's notable, too, that Western New York's dance, classical and pop music scenes have grown significantly since 2000 as well.

Even from this brief remove -- even as the ugly Erie County budget battle of 2010 replays in the collective memory of Western New York's cultural community -- it's clear that the past decade in Buffalo has been an extraordinary one by any measure.

Now, about that next decade

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com