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There's no doubt that 2011 was the Year of the Arts in Western New York.

In late 2010, when Erie County Executive Chris Collins slashed funding for small and mid-sized arts groups, he had no idea who he had picked a fight with.

And at the time, neither did those groups, which eventually coalesced into a powerful constituency.

Spurred on by Collins' fateful decision, theaters, galleries and cultural groups of all stripes banded together against a common enemy and hammered their message home: The arts create jobs, the arts make money, the arts create quality of life, the arts are the best thing this struggling region has going.

On election night, a little more than a year after Collins declared war on the arts, their efforts were vindicated, when a largely unknown arts supporter named Mark Poloncarz defeated Collins in the hotly contested county executive race. Of course, it didn't hurt that their opponent was about as lovable as Darth Vader. But make no mistake about it -- culture, as a regional force and a political constituency, has arrived.

Perhaps even more remarkable is that this unprecedented solidarity among Western New York's arts groups, forged during a time of crisis, is only the beginning. Now that the arts sector has become aware of its latent power and formed groups like the Arts Services Initiative to exercise it, there is no telling where it may lead the region next.

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While the importance of this year's mammoth debate over the arts in the region's politics and identity is tough to overestimate, it shouldn't overshadow the art itself. Much of what appeared on local stages and gallery walls was stunningly good in terms of its audaciousness, its ambition and its continuing resonance with audiences.

What follows is a backward glace at a busy year in the theaters, galleries and museums of Western New York.

>Many memorable productions

In 2011, the theater scene continued to grow both in quantity and quality, with strong and popular productions from companies new and old, large and small. But it also lost one of its leading lights, the prolific playwright, actor and former union organizer Manny Fried.

Fried died on Feb. 25 at the age of 97. He lived a life of staunch dedication to the working-class, whose members he represented both at the bargaining table and on the stage. His plays came out of the great tradition of the Group Theatre, and he remained a guiding figure on the local theater scene even through the last year of his life.

With Fried's spirit in mind, here's a look at some of the most memorable productions of 2011:

The Irish Classical Theatre Company's production of "Shining City," with phenomenal performances from Chris Kelly as a tortured psychologist and Vincent O'Neill as his even more tortured client, came off brilliantly under the meticulous oversight of visiting director Gordon McCall. Also at the Irish, "La Bete" kicked off the 2011-12 season in spectacular fashion with a bravura performance from comic genius Brian Mysliwy.

In April, LehrerDance and MusicalFare Theatre teamed up to produce "Something So Right," an original fusion of dance and musical theater that deserves plaudits for the originality of its conception, if not its execution.

At the Shaw Festival, two productions were complete stunners: "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," featuring a searing performance from Jim Mezon, and Andrew Bovell's melancholy, century-spanning drama "Rain."

At Torn Space, where "spine-tinging" is often the name of the game, Wallace Shawn's "Aunt Dan and Lemon" and Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher."

The Kavinoky Theatre's production of Tom Stoppard's "Rock 'n' Roll," featuring an electric performance from David Lamb, was engrossing from beginning to end.

Road Less Traveled Productions, which gets better by leaps and bounds every year, put on two bona fide hits: Stephen Adly Guirgis' masterful play "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" and Tracy Letts' side-splitting, sitcomesque dramedy "Superior Donuts."

At MusicalFare Theatre, the Buffalo band the Albrights teamed up with director Chris Kelley and a wildly gifted cast to produce a unique version of "Oliver!" to a rapturous response from the crowd.

Theater reviewers Ben Siegel and Ted Hadley each also offered their own top three productions from 2011. Siegel's were, in order, "Superior Donuts" from Road Less Traveled, "In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)" from the New Phoenix Theatre and "Oliver!" from MusicalFare. Hadley's picks, in alphabetical order are, "42nd Street" from the Kavinoky Theatre, "Floyd Collins" from American Repertory Theatre and "Imagining Madoff" from Jewish Repertory Theatre.

>Artistic impressions

Things were perhaps even busier this year on the visual arts scene, which was saturated with impressive exhibitions and collaborative projects.

But in January, the visual arts also lost a hero: Milton Rogovin, the great social documentary photographer who spent his life building a bridge between the haves and have-nots with his simple, graceful portraits of working men and women. A good way to honor Rogovin's 101 years on this earth would be to walk across it.

The Albright-Knox celebrated its 150th anniversary by launching a greatest-hits exhibition, "The Long Curve: 150 Years of Visionary Collection," which is predictably worth one's while. It also launched its innovative, money-saving "Spotlight on the Collection: Artists in Depth" series, creating smart exhibitions with stuff in its own collection. The highlight of that, for me, was its compact show "Arp, Miro, Calder" which is still on view in the Link gallery through April.

Also notable at the Albright-Knox: The show of newly acquired work "Surveyor" curated by Heather Pesanti, the installation of Nancy Rubins' controversial canoe sculpture on the gallery's front lawn and the epic "Videosphere" exhibition of video art smartly curated by Holly Hughes.

If 2011 was the Year of the Arts, it was also the Year of the Grain Elevators. Those mammoth concrete structures that line the waterfront were the subject of several exhibitions, beginning with Bruce Jackson's "American Chartres" in the University at Buffalo Anderson Gallery in January and continuing with CEPA Gallery's three-pronged grain elevator exhibition timed to coincide with the National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference in October.

Speaking of the National Trust, October's conference shone the spotlight not only on Buffalo's architecture, but its culture at large. The best part of the event, at least as far as Buffalonians are concerned, was the excellent documentary film "Buffalo Unscripted," a portrait of the city lovingly constructed by three National Trust staffers.

In July, the first edition of the Echo Art Fair went off without a hitch inside Buffalo's Central Terminal. The event, meant to create a market for Western New York artists, bodes well for the future of the local arts scene as it tries to draw attention from elsewhere.

The Infringement Festival, which could fit in any year-end category from film to dance to theater, was yet again larger than ever in size and in scope. It took over Buffalo with more than 1,200 strange and often unforgettable performances in 52 venues across the region.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com