When Stefan Mychajliw first set foot in his office on the 11th floor of the Rath Building as Erie County comptroller-elect, he was appalled at what he saw.
Beige paint. Blank walls. Frowning employees.
“When I walked in, it was like 1965 East Germany,” Mychajliw said. “I was actually depressed the first time I walked into this office. I cannot begin to describe what a train wreck it looked like. I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed that this was my office.”
But things are different now. The walls have been painted a marginally less soul-sucking shade of off-green. The employees are smiling, at least while the boss is around. And best of all, the walls are now lined with paintings of classic Buffalo scenes by Mychajliw’s friend and fellow Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts graduate Vincent Alejandro.
During a reception in the comptroller’s office Thursday, the artist and office staff milled around in the small reception area, nibbling on cookies and admiring the newest exhibition in Buffalo’s strangest new art gallery.
Along with a wall of portraits of previous comptrollers, paintings and drawings by Buffalo artists and Buffalo Public School students are a constant fixture in the office. And not just in the way that some government and corporate offices switch out the art on the walls every few years, but with planned exhibitions complete with opening receptions, predetermined runs and, perhaps most importantly, press releases.
In his first 20 months as comptroller, Mychajliw has taken an intense interest in the county’s arts and cultural community. He’s voiced support for organizations such as the Western New York Book Arts Center, the Locust Street Neighborhood Art Classes, serves as an ex-oficio member of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery board and has made it his business to visit arts organizations large and small to get a feel for their operations.
Five years ago, few public officials would have bothered to court their cultural constituents, much less establish an art gallery in their offices.
But during the Erie County cultural funding crisis of 2011, the arts community banded together to assert their collective clout and made arguments about the importance of arts funding as an economic driver for the region. Since Mark Poloncarz’s victory over the anti-culture crusader Chris Collins, the talking points of that community have seeped into the official playbook for local officials on both sides of the aisle. And Mychajliw has learned them well:
“I’m very passionate about promoting the arts and our cultural institutions. It’s critically important for the vibrancy of our community. And from a fiscal perspective, I think we can drive the economic engine of our area through our arts and cultural instructions,” he said. “I think we need to look bigger in the county outside of just our sports teams. We have so much to offer here with our arts and cultural institutions, our architecture. I think that is a great definition of our community, how strong our arts and culturals are.”
As nice as all this sounds, a skeptical person might ask why exactly the Erie County comptroller is using time and resources meant to be spent on keeping the county’s fiscal house in order on interior design, visual arts curation and promoting a pro-arts agenda with tenuous connections to his official duties. A skeptical person might wonder whether Mychajliw’s professed commitment to culture, sure to be helpful should he choose to aim for an office on a higher floor in Rath Building, might not also be the slightest bit political.
Mychajliw, a former television news reporter and government spokesman whose political career is just beginning, deflected the question with the practiced finesse of a career politician.
“I’ve done this from day one,” he said. “Very shortly after I took office, student artwork was up. My initial goal had more to do with staff morale. I didn’t want to go to a chain store and buy prints and make the walls look nicer. That was not my intent in any way shape or form. I think morale has skyrocketed.”
Nancy Rooney, a data processing control clerk who has worked in the office for 14 years, nodded enthusiastically and took her boss’ cue.
“It’s true. It is,” she said. “There’s no doubt. It’s wonderful.”
Which isn’t to say that Mychajliw’s interest in the arts isn’t genuine. After all, he’s a painter: Two of his abstract paintings, in the style of Barnett Newman if Barnett Newman had a thing for taupe, hang in his office.
“I tend to dabble,” he said. “I have a soft spot in my heart for the arts.”
But you might say that Mychajliw is a much better performance artist than he is a painter. He has meticulously cultivated his public image as a fiscally conscious everyman.
His maroon 1999 Oldsmobile, a fixture of his campaign, has 165,000 miles on it, each click of the odometer a testament to his fiscal responsibility. During Thursday’s reception, he proudly pulled out a busted-up Samsung smartphone that looked like it had been run over by a steamroller and exclaimed, “I’m so cheap!”
“I try as best as possible to watch how every single penny is spent. That’s another reason why I hopped in the old car and wanted to see how every single dollar was spent for our arts and cultural institutions,” he said. “I had a deeper appreciation and a better understanding of how important it is that we fund those arts and cultural institutions. I saw it firsthand. Whereas, when you look at a budget book, it’s easy to cut or whack someone when you don’t know about institutions.”
Mychajliw knows those institutions now. He’s made a solid commitment to them. Whether he keeps his current job or rises higher, and whether his words represent genuine support or mere political bluster, that commitment has to count as progress.