In a lot of important ways, Sara Kellner has served as the eyes for the Western New York art community in its ongoing (and sometimes frustrating) effort to keep abreast of the ever-shifting edges of advanced contemporary art.
Kellner has been on the Buffalo scene for eight years, curating more than 70 exhibitions and projects in her role as director of visual arts at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center. Her tenure will end in mid-October when Kellner leaves Hallwalls to become executive director of Diverse Works, a well-established alternative art organization in Houston, Texas.
Kellner joined the Hallwalls staff in 1991 when she was 24 years old, bringing a youthful enthusiasm and energy that showed in the range and ambition of the many and varied projects under her direction.
Sitting on a stool in Hallwalls' black-walled cafe and stopping occasionally to work out problems with staff members who pop by, Kellner recently looked back on the excitement of her years here.
"The things I'll remember will be the extraordinary change and growth that Hallwalls went through in these eight years -- the moving to this building (from downtown to the Tri-Main Center), the celebration of the 20th anniversary. I'll also look back fondly on the hundreds of artists who I had the pleasure of working with.
"The thing I'm most proud of in recent years is the artists' residency program. The question became, how can we do extraordinary exhibitions and support artists at a time when grants and fellowships are being radically cut?"
She points to the current exhibition by Hilla Lulu Lin (through Oct. 29), one of Israel's young, important artists, as an example of the success of this residency program. All the work in the show -- videos and mural-size digital images -- was produced by the artist during her residency here, using Hallwalls facilities.
Kellner recalls a few of her favorite exhibitions of the past. "A painting exhibition called 'Buttered Side Up' comes to mind," she says. "Many of these painters worked between abstract expressionism and pop. It turned out to be a great combination. In fact, the show was the start of my interest in Houston: Half the artists were from there."
Les Le Veque's installation "Is It Love?," consisting of a tower of video monitors containing images of blinking eyes, was another favorite. "What impressed me was how the blinking eyes were sending out messages in Morse code that were the slogans for telecommunications companies -- like General Electric's 'We bring good things to light.' It was both a poetic gesture and a political gesture."
Probably Kellner greatest memory will come from the community itself. She was born here and has family here, and during her tenure at Hallwalls she learned something about the cooperative spirit that runs through the Buffalo arts community.
"The pleasures of collaboration with many art organizations in Buffalo was important to me," she says. "The spirit of the people was amazing -- their openness, their sense of sharing. My theory is: It's the snow. People simply get together and help out."
As a friend of hers says, at Diverse Works Kellner will be Le Grand Fromage. She will work with a staff of eight, a board of 30 and, unlike Hallwalls, have the benefit of an artists' board as well.
Diverse Works' budget is larger than Hallwalls' -- $727,000 compared to $400,000 -- and fund-raising will be among Kellner's primary roles. Early on, she will be implementing long-range plans that include the development of educational and outreach programs.
In the recent past, Kellner has been board president of the National Association of Artists' Organizations. She is an author and a widely traveled lecturer. Kellner holds a degree in painting from the Rhode Island School of Design and, when time allows, continues to paint.
"I'll be moving 1,500 miles away," she says. "In many ways I'll be sad to leave. But Houston is also a friendly and open place with a fantastic artistic community. Diverse Works is an organization that I've admired for a long time."