The public art landscape in Western New York was given a boost Tuesday with the announcement of a new collaboration between Erie County and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz announced plans to fund a new program in collaboration with the Albright-Knox as part of his proposed 2014 budget.
During a news conference in the Rath Building about the specifics of his $1.39 billion budget plan, Poloncarz said the county would contribute $60,000 to fund the salary and benefits of a new public art curator position at the gallery. As part of the proposed agreement, the Albright-Knox would dedicate at least $120,000 per year from its $94 million acquisitions endowment to purchase and install new artwork near community centers and other public spaces across Erie County.
The collaboration will at least partially address the gallery’s ongoing struggle to increase its operations budget and promises to improve a public art landscape that has lagged behind other midsized cities.
“They cannot use their endowment money to fund a curator. It can only be used to actually purchase art and install it. We have the ability to fund a curator, and we’re going to do this,” Poloncarz said. “For every $1 that we’re investing in county dollars, the Albright-Knox is going to invest $2 when it comes to actually purchasing art. This is not going to be in the gallery; it’s going to be in public community centers, public spaces, where people are going to be able to enjoy art, not just at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery or the Burchfield Penney.”
Former Albright-Knox board president Leslie Zemsky, who facilitated the program along with gallery director Janne Sirén, hailed the cooperation between the county and museum as a way to foster more public appreciation for art. Sirén was travelling on Tuesday and couldn’t be reached to comment.
“What I’m personally excited about is getting art out into the whole county and that’s what I think excited the county executive,” Zemsky said. “To me this is a game-changer, of getting Albright-Knox art into our community, especially into some under-served areas. This is the beginning steps of what I hope is a really long-term program.”
Sirén, who led the public art program in his native Helsinki while he was director of the city’s art museum, has long been a champion of installing artwork outside gallery walls. Public art was also a major cause for Sirén’s predecessor, Louis Grachos, who transformed the gallery’s campus on the edge of Delaware Park with new artworks and included some public art elements in the regionwide exhibition Beyond/In Western New York.
But this program, with a dedicated staff member and a steady flow of money from the gallery’s acquisition budget, has the potential to jump-start the long-stagnant effort to put more art on display in public areas. In the core of downtown Buffalo, for instance, the latest highly visible public artwork is Kenneth Snelson’s 1980 sculpture “Coronation Day” outside the Buffalo City Court Building.
Poloncarz said that the program would be overseen by a new board made up of Albright-Knox Art Gallery staffers and members of the public “to ensure that we’re not only taking care and making sure that art is in appropriate places, but that it represents what the community wants.” He said the new board would help to prevent controversies like the “Green Lightning” fiasco of 1984, when then-Buffalo Mayor James Griffin ordered the removal of a much-hated public sculpture by Billie Lawless along the Elm-Oak arterial, prompting a legal battle.
“We’re not going to be putting Gaugins there, we’re not going to be putting Picassos, but we are going to be putting art from probably a lot of people that are artists in this community,” Poloncarz said, “pieces of art that Albright-Knox curators believe are appropriate for public art location.”
Both Poloncarz and Zemsky said they hoped the $120,000 commitment from the gallery would increase after the program’s pilot year.
“It’s a way to use the acquisition budget to benefit our community,” Zemsky said. “I think it’s going to be awesome.”