For the past three years, Sean Donaher has guided CEPA Gallery and Big Orbit Gallery, two vital Buffalo institutions dedicated to two very different kinds of visual art, through one of the toughest economic periods in memory.
CEPA, the multifloor gallery that gave Cindy Sherman her first solo exhibition in the 1970s, focuses on photography and draws artists and exhibitions from around the world. The smaller Big Orbit, headquartered in a former Essex Street ice house, presents work by Western New Yorkers in all kinds of media.
Donaher has been straddling the two organizations since 2009, when former CEPA director Lawrence Brose was forced to resign to fight federal pornography charges. During that time, Donaher has maintained the quality of the galleries' separate exhibitions and kept visitors coming through their doors. But it hasn't been an easy road, and some important components of both operations have suffered from being overstretched and understaffed.
That will change during the coming year, as CEPA officially swallows Big Orbit. The merger, long in the making, will produce two new full-time positions and promises to improve the quality of both organizations' programming and their overall stability.
The Big Orbit space will not be shuttered and no jobs will be lost. The nationally recognized collaboration between CEPA and Just Buffalo Literary Center, which share three staff positions, will continue.
New York State, through its promising Regional Economic Development Council program, will kick in $60,000 of the total $170,000 cost of the merger. That money will allow CEPA to fold Big Orbit into its operations, pay off its modest debt and, most importantly, allow the gallery to fill its long-vacant artistic director position and to hire another program assistant.
That, Donaher said, will reinvigorate both galleries' programs.
“The public will benefit by more streamlined, more well-designed, better instituted exhibitions and programs,” he said. “The idea of those two positions primarily supporting the visual arts programming, it's a big deal.”
It's a big deal not only for CEPA, Big Orbit and Western New York art fans who will benefit from improved and better publicized exhibitions, but for arts organizations searching for new ways to survive. While the role culture plays in the identity and politics of the region is undoubtedly on the rise, all is not well.
Places like Buffalo Arts Studio – whose executive director resigned shortly after being appointed to the job last spring, leaving artistic director Cori Wolff responsible for the whole operation – may be able to glean some lessons from the move.
And members of Buffalo's theater community, where joint grant-writing and back-office efforts lag far behind those of the visual arts community, have long been hostile to collaboration because of a misguided perception that it will result in less art. Local theaters need to move beyond the corrosive ideas that they belong to a closed society, that their work will only ever appeal to an anointed audience of insiders, and that coordinated audience-building efforts present anything other than an imaginary threat to the community's remarkable diversity.
Big Orbit and CEPA's move shows that smart mergers and organized collaboration can result in better art, which results in bigger audiences and attracts more funding. Which in turn begets exactly what? You guessed it: more art. Let's hope this welcome development marks the beginning of a new era of prosperity.