In the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s airy Clifton Hall, a sculpture made from hundreds of disposable coffee cups stretches across the floor like a Styrofoam snake paused midslither. If you approach it from the right angle, you’ll see that some cups contain small, circular drawings of otherworldly landscapes, erupting volcanoes and other strange scenes evoking mythical or extraterrestrial places.
The sculpture, part of the gallery’s third annual “Inspired” exhibition, was created by a group of art students in Jenny Brown’s class at Southwestern High School in Jamestown after a field trip to the gallery last year. It was inspired by the work of sculptor and printmaker Ken Price, the subject of a recent exhibition at the gallery.
Elsewhere in Clifton Hall, you’ll find a snowy landscape by Christian Central Academy kindergarten students inspired the German painter Anselm Kiefer, a stenciled painting by students from Buffalo’s Academy for Visual and Performing Arts students that could easily be mistaken for an original piece by Ryan McGinness and a series of architectural drawings by Frontier High School students featuring historic Buffalo buildings.
This exhibition, part of the gallery’s wildly successful “Art’School” program that began in 2007 with a sponsorship from BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York, is proof positive of a deep thirst for creative inspiration from Western New York’s students and teachers. In the seven years since it was founded, the program has gone from serving 7,000 students per year to 17,000.
But inspiration can be expensive. Just ask your nearest high school art teacher, who will likely point to declining budgets for school field trips and shrinking opportunities for creative activities that were once thought integral to the educational experience. That’s why programs like Art’School and the gallery’s annual outdoor Art Alive competition, slated for Saturday, are becoming increasingly important.
Without the privately financed program, the students from Frontier High School whose architectural drawings were included in the exhibition would not have been able to visit the gallery. Last year, following a trend set by many local districts, their field trips were cut from the budget.
Dozens of Buffalo’s major cultural institutions and many of its smaller ones, including the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, the Burchfield Penney Art Center, CEPA Gallery, Hallwalls and Just Buffalo Literary Center, are building up their educational programs as a way to supplement declining arts activities in schools and to remain relevant themselves. The Burchfield Penney, for its part, serves about 12,000 students per year through field trips.
“One of the prime barriers to allowing teachers and students to visit the Albright-Knox is bus fees, so a program like Art’School eliminates that barrier and makes it much easier for teachers and students to visit the gallery,” said Jessica DiPalma, who coordinates the Art’School program. “With many of these students, we’re finding that this is the first time they’re visiting the Albright-Knox, or a museum, for that matter, and it’s a wonderful opportunity for us to take what they’re doing in their classroom into the museum so that they can be exposed to art in a different way.”
Indeed, students have been the main contributors to the interactive portion of gallery’s exhibition of paintings by Kiefer, which includes a room dedicated entirely to audience feedback. Every day, gallery staffers collect the pictures, notes and other scrawlings left by children to be tacked up on the wall and uploaded to the exhibition website. Many of them will be included in the exhibition’s official catalogue to be released later this year.
Look through the bevy of creative responses on the gallery’s Anselm Kiefer website, at the perennially inspiring Art Alive entries on Saturday or at the exhibition in Clifton Hall, which runs through June 15, and the vital importance of these programs will become clear.
If schools can’t afford to educate their students creatively as well as intellectually, we should be thankful our arts institutions are there to pick up the slack.