AH, BELEAGUERED art! Hemmed in by legal maneuvers, harangued by evangelists and police, mocked by columnists and flat-out censored.
The National Endowment for the Arts is so cowed that it has taken to hectoring artists about proper and improper subjects. At the moment, its chief point seems to be to create fear.
Until this year, the fear was distant. Censorship happened in other places. Buffalo culture fancied itself rich in enlightened institutions and savvy in the ways of art. Then, in mid-August, Artpark canceled a performance by Survival Research Laboratory, a San Francisco artists group that had been contracted to present the season-capping event.
The art community was staggered. Artpark was, ostensibly, a place of experiment -- a laboratory for the arts, as the new visual art director, David Katzive, described it. Executive Director David Midland, brought back to head the park again after a successful stint in the early years, put an end to that attitude of experiment, even if -- as surely was the case -- he never intended it.
The whole affair was badly handled. Midland dodged the issue of censorship, resorting to breach-of-contract arguments that seemed almost designed to alienate artists by its bureaucratic cloud. Survival Research -- always an outrageous group, harshly satirical and unfailingly controversial -- unbeknown to Midland was to have a "Bible burning" as part of its performance. Artpark knew only vaguely what Survival Research meant by these words. But the words were enough for Midland. Whatever the director's feelings about the effect on Artpark's reputation might have been, he was closed-mouthed about them. He said only what was necessary.
Then, when a group of local artists demonstrated to protest Artpark's action, they were arrested -- needlessly, from all reports -- and jailed. Midland, apprised of the demonstration by the demonstrators themselves, chose not to intercede. He let the police take responsibility, though his presence might have served to soften the confrontation or even dispel it.
The Artpark fiasco was a small sadness to the art community compared with the news that Seymour H. Knox Jr. died at 92, on Sept. 27. Knox had been such a longstanding force in Buffalo culture, both as a philanthropist and as one of the great collectors of modern art, that his death would be seen as the close of an era. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery had lost its chief benefactor and an old friend; the community had lost an irreplaceable presence.
Meanwhile, another longtime friend of the gallery, George F. Goodyear, had made a decision that would surprise many observers of the Buffalo art scene. "Vase With Daisies and Poppies," one of two paintings by Vincent van Gogh at the Albright-Knox and long a centerpiece there, would be put up for auction. Goodyear and the gallery shared ownership of this important painting, and after two years of negotiating, a deal was struck. The gallery would get 65 percent, up from the original 60; 28 percent would go to the Buffalo Museum of Science; the remaining 7 percent would go to the University at Buffalo Foundation. Goodyear stressed that proceeds from the picture -- which was expected to bring $12 million to $16 million -- would come right back to the community. But for more than a few art lovers, the point was the loss of the picture. Van Goghs you don't replace. To these people at least, a treasure had been removed, one so valuable that no amount of money could make up its loss.
But that wasn't the end of the tale. At Christie's auction house in New York City, the bidding on "Vase" stopped at $9.5 million and the painting went back to the seller. What happens to the painting now is unclear. But one thing is clear enough: Whatever decisions are finally made, they will be made in terms of dollars, not art.
The departure of the painting could not have been a happy episode for the gallery; no museum of the Albright-Knox's caliber likes to lose a masterpiece for any amount of money. It isn't good for the collection, and it isn't good for the institution's reputation on the international front.
Fortunately, the gallery had accrued ample international reputation as the sponsor of the American entry in the esteemed Venice Biennale in the spring. Artist Jenny Holzer, chosen by the Albright-Knox's chief curator, Michael Auping, won the Best Pavilion award. Her installation was regarded by many as the most innovative in the whole of a very extensive international display.
Here, too, money played a big part: Holzer's spellbinding use of computerized electronic signboards had a staggering cost. But it was money well-spent. Holzer's art, in its Venice manifestation, was a high-tech performance of incredible dimension. It needed all its fancy electronic hardware even as it went about undercutting the very technology that made it possible.
Another kind of technology was at work back home with the unveiling in the early fall of the Castellani Art Museum on the Niagara University campus. The $3.5 million building, as modern as it is, seems to have one foot in the past. Austerely proportioned and clad in Italian marble, it looks a bit like a stripped-down Renaissance palace. But the collection that would go inside was decidedly modern, a wide-ranging group of works collected over the past dozen years by Armand J. Castellani, benefactor of the new museum.
Amid the swirl of the sometimes disturbing events of 1990, the new building was a pleasant, solid fact. It offered evidence that art was still being collected, secured and shown with the enthusiasm of a connoisseur: not censored, not sold.