On Tuesday afternoon, in a surreal scene fit for a David Lynch movie, public officials from across Erie County lined up behind a podium at Canalside under the blazing sun and sang the praises of a young girl with a great white shark for a head.
“I welcome Shark Girl to the banks of the Niagara River!” Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz declared, inviting the entire community to “sit next to her and look out, with her, at the gorgeous view that is the new downtown Buffalo and the wonderful future in front of us all.”
Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, not to be outdone, issued his own warm welcome to Casey Riordan Millard’s new sculpture, Shark Girl, which has already become one of the most buzzed-about new public artworks in the city’s recent history – if only because it is one of the few.
“I also want to welcome Shark Girl to the City of Buffalo,” Brown said. “While she is an Erie County resident, her residence is physically in the City of Buffalo, and we are very proud of that.”
Robert Gioia, chairman of the Erie County Harbor Development Corporation, encouraged visitors to take selfies with Shark Girl, which they promptly did once she was properly unveiled in all her toothy glory.
The buzz surrounding the sculpture, the first permanent piece of public art to emerge from a new partnership between Albright-Knox Art Gallery and Erie County that recently expanded to include the City of Buffalo, began to build immediately after the unveiling.
In perhaps the definitive measure of a successful meme-worthy public persona, the sculpture already had its own anonymously run Twitter account (@sharkgirlbflo) within an hour of Tuesday’s event. An example tweet: “Have a seat. I don’t bite. #SharkGirl”.
Reaction to the sculpture at Canalside, where many passers-by shot inquisitive looks at the sculpture and eventually paused to take a picture, was downright ebullient.
Judy Petz, of Depew, who was visiting Canalside for the first time, dubbed the sculpture “Sharknado Girl” in honor of Buffalo’s role in the filming of the cult cable hit “Sharknado II.” But her enthusiasm didn’t wane when she was told that the film and the sculpture, chosen by Aaron Ott, Albright-Knox’s new public art curator, weren’t tied together.
Buffalonian Rosie Evans was an immediate fan, but her husband, Dennis, had to go up for a closer inspection.
“It’s cute,” she said. “With all the stress in the world, it’s very whimsical. It made me smile.”
Dennis Evans returned from his critique with a profound question about Shark Girl: “Did the shark eat the girl, or did the girl eat the shark?” The answer was not immediately clear.
The debut of the statue, which is about as unintimidating and inviting as public artwork gets, follows last week’s installation of a temporary mural created with painters’ tape on the side of the Central Library that will be on view through Friday.
Erie County, Albright-Knox and the City of Buffalo on Tuesday also announced plans for two more public art projects this fall, including a partnership with Lamar Advertising that will feature art on area billboards. Another project will feature a large-scale painting created by members of the community under the supervision of Buffalo-born artist Charles Clough in Hilbert College’s Swan Auditorium in Hamburg on Oct. 25. The painting will be installed on the side of the Hamburg Public Library in mid-December.
Ott, whose salary is funded by Erie County, chose Shark Girl because of its whimsical nature and out of a desire to entice passers-by. Future works that are part of the burgeoning public-private art initiative, he said, will be more conceptually based and challenging.
“I was familiar with the artist for a decade, so I had a lot of faith in the work. I think people were like, ‘You’re giving us a Shark Girl?’ They were a little like, ‘I don’t know man,’ ” he said. But any skepticism had vanished by Tuesday, when everyone from Brown to the kids who huddled around the statue immediately after its unveiling was treating Shark Girl like a new best friend.
Beyond the cheekiness of the sculpture, though, the project heralds the beginning of a new era for public art in Erie County, which has long lagged behind other communities in which public art is a fixture.
“For as many people who spend time in the local museum, there are hundreds and hundreds of thousands more who live in our community who never set foot in one,” Poloncarz said. “If we can bring the art to them and enrich their minds, they’re better for it.”
Albright-Knox Art Gallery Director Janne Sirén, who helped to conceive of the new partnership, praised the city and county for getting on board.
“I have lived in seven different cities in seven different countries, in cities polka-dotted with public art, and yet nowhere have I seen the type of enthusiasm that surrounds things visual as here in Buffalo,” he said. “It’s an extraordinary thing that we have and we should be very, very proud of it.”