Kathleen Gaffney is back in the game.
The former artistic director and CEO of the late and lamented Studio Arena Theatre, which had been condemned to death well before her 2006 arrival, took charge of the fundraising organization known as Give for Greatness this week.
As someone who closely covered the painful fall of the once-great institution already buried under mountains of debt by the time Gaffney began her brief role as its Hospice nurse, I am optimistic about her return to the Western New York cultural scene.
At first glance, she does seem like an unconventional choice to lead the fledgling G4G, the central mission of which is to raise money for cultural organizations across the region.
Her passion and her particular talent is for education, a realm in which she worked successfully before coming to Studio Arena. She and her husband, Roger Shea, founded Artsgenesis, an arts education organization based in New Jersey that flourished in the ’90s before winding down in subsequent years. After she was let go from the head job at Studio Arena, Gaffney headed to Dallas for a brief stint working with the arts education group Big Thought.
With funding for that job looking shaky and her duties constantly shifting, Gaffney said, she came to Buffalo, where she enrolled in Buffalo State College’s International Center for Studies in Creativity, took a part-time job directing theater productions at the Park School and, she said, set about reinventing herself. (A call to Big Thought inquiring about her tenure there was not returned.)
Her first order of business at Give for Greatness, one of several organizations to emerge during a difficult time for cultural funding in Western New York, is to meet with cultural leaders and members of the political sphere. Task two, she said, is to create a strategic plan. And task three, though the specifics are yet to be determined, already seems clear: raise as much money as possible to ensure that Western New York’s arts organizations achieve a level of excellence that will draw wide attention to the region and fuel its future economic growth.
There is no doubt that some strained relationships in the local theater community emerged from Gaffney’s tenure at Studio Arena, specifically with two theaters which put work on the Studio stage during its final season and were not fully paid for their work. But MusicalFare Theatre Artistic and Executive Director Randall Kramer, whose organization bore some of the brunt of Studio Arena’s financial troubles when Gaffney was in charge, said he is looking forward to working with her and helping G4G to realize its goals.
“If anybody would have a problem or would have a grudge or whatever, and not want to work with Kathleen, it would be someone like me,” said Kramer, who has played a major role in the formation of emergent arts advocacy groups like ASI and the Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance. “There is no time and no place for grudges in this arts community, in this town. We just need to move forward.”
It may be tempting for some to look at Gaffney’s tenure at Studio Arena and conclude that her experience with a troubled financial institution makes her a less-than-promising choice to lead a new organization whose entire identity is tied to raising money. But in this region’s cultural scene, which I would venture boasts more intelligent and hardworking people than the entire political establishment of Western New York (a low bar, I know), I think there ought to be room for second chances.
Gaffney never had a fair shot at Studio Arena, but she’s got one now. Let’s hear it for Gaffney 2.0.