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Over the past 20 years, Western New York's cultural landscape has expanded and diversified at an unprecedented rate.

There are plenty of reasons for that, from Buffalo's increasingly attractive cost of living as larger cities price out all but the richest residents to the gradual rise of the collaborative spirit across all the arts. But one of the most powerful albeit often overlooked drivers of the region's cultural acceleration has been its colleges and universities.

In 1993, the University at Buffalo opened its $50 million Center for the Arts, a building that now serves as a vital cultural nexus. In 2008, Buffalo State College expanded its own cultural footprint with the Burchfield Penney Art Center, a laboratory for ideas where the public, the student body and artists intersect. (Both buildings were designed by the same firm, Gwathmey Siegel, which did a much better job with the standalone Burchfield than the sandwiched-in CFA.)

This week, Western New York welcomed another important campus building into the cultural fold: Daemen College's Center for the Visual and Performing Arts. The space, which opened Thursday night in a ceremony attended by movers and shakers from the local art and political worlds, is the result of a smart, $5.4 million adaptive reuse project. At the suggestion of its visual and performing arts program director, Laura Watts Sommer, the growing college created a striking new space in the former campus library, one that makes a statement to the student body and the public alike.

The easy alternative would simply have been to shoe-horn the school's growing arts programs into whatever out-of-the-way spaces were already available. Not doing that, along with Daemen's professed commitment to publicly accessible programming, demonstrates a reassuring acknowledgement of the arts' potential on-campus and off.

"In my opinion, the heart and soul of any community is reflected in the vitality of its arts. And one of the most amazing things about Buffalo in general and Western New York as a whole is the amazing art world in which we live," said Daemen College President Edwin Clausen just before delivering his remarks on the building to the assembled crowd. After moving to Western New York in 2000, Clausen added, "it didn't take me very long to realize what I think an awful lot of people have lost sight of: that a major economic driver in this area is the arts. Not health care, not technology, but the arts, broadly defined."

The overhaul of the building was largely successful. Large windows on the Main Street side reveal artists' studios as well as a large video monitor at the front of its gallery space, which is now hosting an engrossing exhibition by the photographer Brooke A. Knight. The interior space was designed, Clausen said, to be an "open laboratory," with graphic design students in the large upstairs workspace able to look directly into studio art classes below. An adjoining gallery space with movable walls, designed by former Burchfield Penney director Ted Pietrzak and current Burchfield employee Chris Siano, completes the picture handsomely.

The transparency of the center, due to the architects' use of glass wherever possible, Sommer said, will "literally extend us out into the community." That's exactly the right approach.

While Daemen's comparatively modest new arts center was not met with the flash or fanfare of our larger university art spaces, it is an invaluable contribution to the region's cultural scene and an all-but-guaranteed driver for its future growth.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com