When Anthony Bannon returned to the top job at the Burchfield Penney Art Center last spring, he promised to speed the Elmwood Avenue museum’s transformation into a living laboratory for regional culture and to set an international example in the process. And on Tuesday morning, about eight months into his second tenure, Bannon announced several new initiatives designed to expand the Burchfield Penney’s mission far beyond its exhibitions and to bring its work into the international spotlight. The programs include:
• A new international watercolor center headquartered at the Burchfield Penney and with a major online component, designed to draw artists from around the world.
• A fully funded, twice-yearly artist residency program that will bring an internationally recognized artist to the Burchfield Penney to study and create work associated with its namesake, the watercolorist Charles Burchfield. The first artist is New York City-based photographer and Jamestown native Janelle Lynch, who begins her residency in the spring.
• A quarterly series of “launches,” four-day festivals, each one linked to an exhibition at the center that will feature artists, musicians, poets, filmmakers and performers from Western New York and across the country. The first of these, “Testify,” begins Thursday and is tied to the center’s ongoing exhibition about the work of the late Buffalo-born comics artist Manuel “Spain” Rodriguez.
• The launch of a long-planned, publicly accessible database called the Arts Legacy Project, which will serve as encyclopedic trove of multimedia information about major and minor Western New York artists and organizations.
Taken together, the initiatives signal a new phase in the life of the Burchfield Penney, whose board and director are evidently determined to make the center into the most ambitious regional museum in the country. Bannon returned to lead the center, which he directed from 1985 to 1996, after 16 successful years as director of the George Eastman House International Museum for Photography and Film in Rochester.
“I’ve been away, and while away, I’ve had an opportunity to think about this great center and reflect on the extraordinary things that you did with [former director] Ted Pietrzak’s leadership,” Bannon said during his hourlong pep talk to the museum staff Tuesday morning in the center’s auditorium. “We must ever be re-creating ourselves, ever pushing ourselves to levels of new excellence. We need to be thinking well at all times about what is possible, what is necessary, how do we better serve?”
The first step, Bannon said at the time of his appointment nearly a year ago, was to capitalize on some obvious opportunities that the museum could accomplish easily – what he has called “low-hanging fruit.” The Watercolor Center, which will take advantage of Buffalo State College’s and the center’s combined resources on watercolor painting, as well as the international cachet of the center’s namesake, Buffalo watercolorist Burchfield, was one area.
The multipronged website project, which has long been in development under Burchfield Penney curator Scott Propeack, is part of its effort to expand its online presence.
During his time at the George Eastman House, Bannon greatly expanded its international profile through a series of programs. That global attention brought funding to the Eastman House, and the funding brought improved exhibitions and a bigger presence for the museum in the Rochester community.
Bannon is taking the same approach at the Burchfield Penney.
“This is a place where extraordinary things are made, and what’s made locally so often goes global,” Bannon said, making an indirect reference to current exhibitions featuring Buffalo-bred and internationally regarded artists Rodriguez and Jacqueline Tarry. “The local and the global meet here. And now, in the day of the Internet, you can’t avoid the local and global colliding. So any failure to pay attention to this regional museum and its role in the world is foolishness.”
Bannon also noted that all departments in the museum will be working much more closely together on programming, fundraising and outreach rather than working in the independent silos that exist in most American museums.
There are also a number of smaller initiatives in the works, including a new slogan for the Burchfield Penney: “At the Center,” a double entendre meant to position the museum at the center of Western New York culture. He also announced that Tullis Johnson and Stephen Vermette’s exhibition “Weather Event” would tour to the New York State Museum in Albany in the fall and that the museum hopes to tour more of its shows to museums around the region and the country.
Finally, Bannon noted that from now on, the Burchfield Penney would avoid publishing its own exhibition catalogues, instead pursuing international publishers that would lend the museum further global credence.
“I’m really excited because I think we’ve been developing a lot of really wonderful projects, and he’s very excited about them, wants to support them, wants to get us recognition for the great resources we have and the great work we do,” said Johnson, a Burchfield Penney curator. “I think a greater ambition for travel exhibitions and publications is exactly what we need to show the world what we’ve done and what we will be doing.”
Propeack, the center’s associate director for exhibitions and collections, was most excited about the Arts Legacy Project. He said the project will provide an indispensable resource for local artists, while providing “a cohesive approach to understanding of the cultural history of Buffalo.”
For Rita Auerbach, a popular local watercolor painter and volunteer at the Burchfield, the creation of a new international Watercolor Center was the big news of the day. But beyond that, Auerbach praised Bannon’s declaration that the Burchfield Penney should sit at the heart of Western New York’s culture.
“You know, Buffalo is culture. I think it’s who we are,” Auerbach said. “We all know it, but our problem is the world needs to know us beyond wings and weather.”