Public art – the works that add beauty to a bland cityscape – is still not common in Western New York. When artists create murals on stores in Allentown and on Grant Street, it’s worthy of news coverage. The new collaboration between Erie County and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery presents an opportunity to change that.
From Chicago to Philadelphia to Mexico City, public art has added to the quality of life for residents. It has the potential to do the same here.
In the midst of specifics on his $1.39 billion budget plan, County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz announced that the county would contribute $60,000 to fund the salary and benefits of a new public art curator position at the gallery. The Albright-Knox would then 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.
For every $1 in county spending, the Albright-Knox is going to spend $2 in purchasing art to be placed where people can enjoy it as part of their lives, rather than having to go to the Albright-Knox or another of the many galleries in town.
Moreover, the project will broaden horizons, generate discussions of what is art and give people a reason to pause and think as they go about their lives.
Leslie Zemsky, former president of the Albright-Knox board, facilitated the program along with gallery director Janne Siren. Siren, a longtime champion of art in public spaces, has talked of such a project here since his appointment in January. His predecessor, Louis Grachos, notably transformed the gallery’s campus on the edge of Delaware Park with new artworks and also included public art elements in the regionwide exhibition Beyond/In Western New York.
Any discussion of public art in Western New York has to recall the unfortunate 1984 controversy over “Green Lightning,” a neon sculpture by Billie Lawless along the Elm-Oak arterial. Not everyone appreciated the piece, to put it mildly. Then-Buffalo Mayor James D. Griffin ordered the work, featuring several illuminated dancing penises complete with top hats and canes, removed.
The makeup of the board overseeing the new program – Albright-Knox staffers and members of the public – should protect the public trust.