If 2011 was a year of seismic change on the region’s rapidly evolving cultural landscape, each of the past 12 months has carried with it a little aftershock of progress.
In January, the region’s cultural organizations were still wide-eyed with astonishment over the unexpected victory of the arts-friendly Mark C. Poloncarz over his less culturally inclined opponent Chris Collins in the race for Erie County executive. Since then, the collective clout of Western New York’s countless arts organizations has continued to grow.
This year, many of the plans set in motion by visionary thinkers in previous years and decades began to come visibly to fruition, and financial crises of the distant past finally gave way to new vibrancy.
It’s true that 2012 marked the end of some important eras, including that of Louis Grachos at Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the storied Mohawk Place as the headquarters of Buffalo’s indie rock scene. But it also ushered in others, such as Anthony Bannon’s return as director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center and the rise of a newly healthy music scene in Allentown.
Part of why 2012 looks so good has to do with the fact that 2010 felt so bad. To be sure, the situation for many cultural groups is far from perfect, and the community continues to wage war on the perception that they are mere diversions rather than civic essentials. But, in sum, this has been a year in which Western New York’s cultural star has continued its steady and seemingly inexorable rise.
1. Grachos leaves Albright-Knox
Louis Grachos, the director of Albright-Knox Art Gallery since 2003, announced in June that he would end his tenure at the gallery and take a job as the director of the newly formed AMOA-Arthouse in Austin, Texas. Though Grachos’ directorship was controversial because of its sale of more than 200 premodern objects from the collection in 2007, he helped to reassert the gallery’s international reputation as a smart and contemporary museum interested above all in exploring new territory. At the same time, Grachos helped to foster a new collaborative spirit among all Western New York arts groups that has played a major role in the city’s ongoing cultural renaissance.
2. A banner year for the BPO
As orchestras in large and mid-sized cities across the United States contend with dwindling resources, striking musicians and other financial headaches, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s outlook, wrote News Classical Music Critic Mary Kunz Goldman in October, “is as bright as a Mozart minuet.” Though it still carries debt, the orchestra’s endowment is up to about $26 million, and ticket sales and subscriptions are reportedly at an all-time high.
3. Bannon back at Burchfield Penney
At the Burchfield Penney Art Center, currently showing two well-regarded exhibitions on the late Buffalo-born comics artist Spain Rodriguez and the artistic team known as McCallum/Tarry, a new day is dawning. In February, former BPAC director Anthony Bannon, freshly retired from a 16-year stint at the head of Rochester’s prestigious George Eastman House, returned to lead the Burchfield Penney once again. The results so far have been promising.
4. Mohawk Place closing but Allen Street music scene grows
Members of Buffalo’s music community and casual concertgoers alike were dismayed at the news that Mohawk Place, home to Buffalo’s small but active indie rock community, would close its doors in January. But while the closure of the ’Hawk leaves a gaping hole in Buffalo’s music scene, News Pop Music Critic Jeff Miers points out, a newly ambitious scene is rising on Allen Street. With old standbys like Nietzsche’s being joined by newcomers like DBGB and The Bend, Allen Street’s resolutely jam band-centric scene has received a healthy infusion of energy in the past year.
5. Waterfront is concert central
On Thursday afternoons in the summer of 2012, Lafayette Square remained a pretty patch of grass with an unspoiled view of City Hall. The former “Thursday at the Square,” along with its throngs of Labatt-swilling habitues, officially decamped for the more expansive (and even more popular) Canalside location. Indeed, Canalside officially came into its own as Buffalo’s best and most-buzzed-about outdoor venue not just for major and minor concerts, but for visual art, theater and dance.
6. Buffalo River corridor booms
Farther down the Buffalo River, in places like the industrial complex known as Silo City and in River Fest Park and Mutual Riverfront Park, hundreds of new cultural events took place during the summer months. In September, Silo City hosted an event called “City of Night” that brought bigger crowds into the complex’s grain elevators and other buildings than they had seen in decades. It’s mostly thanks to funding from the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, which has dispensed with dreams of drawing a Bass Pro-sized retailer to adopt a more culturally friendly program featuring small-scale events.
7. 710 Main Street opens its doors
In 2008, Buffalo’s theater community took a big hit when the 42-year-old Studio Arena closed its doors. This year, the doors finally reopened under a different marquee: the 710 Main Theatre.
The new venture, largely under the auspices of Shea’s Performing Arts Center, was sold out for performances by John Lithgow and Seth Rudetsky in September and will continue to serve as venue for touring shows and a showcase for local productions.
8. Arts-led revival in Springville
The tiny Springville Center for the Arts got an early Christmas present this year when New York State announced that it had received more than $800,000 for two projects aimed at revitalizing the economically challenged downtown it inhabits.
The center – and its soon-to-be-renovated satellite art space – has already made strides in renewing the economic fortunes of Springville.
9. The year of the mural
In 2012, street art began to take hold in Buffalo, with murals going up at 515 Main St., on the side of a building on Elmwood Avenue near Bidwell Parkway and a community-centric mural project taking shape on the side of a shop on Grant Street.
The most surprising street art development came last month, when a group of graffiti artists painted an extensive tribute to the Buffalo-born Spain Rodriguez in an old train station near the Central Terminal on the city’s East Side shortly after his death.
10. Infringement Fest balloons
Because of its seemingly exponential growth, the massive Buffalo Infringement Festival has managed to be one of the biggest stories for several years running.
This summer’s 11-day affair was no exception, with some 800 separate performances that signaled the continued, unabated growth of Buffalo’s artistic, musical and theatrical underground.
Earlier this month, the 325-seat Helium Comedy Club opened, under the management of local comedy impresario Kristen Becker, in the Cobblestone District.
LehrerDance, the Buffalo-based touring company, had a big year with appearances in the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts’ prestigious M&T Dance Series and a successful recent tour of Russia.
The Colored Musicians Club opened a new museum celebrating the rich musical and cultural history of the venue and the famous jazz, blues, R&B and gospel musicians who played and sang there since its founding in the 1930s.