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Art center will be a presence

The $33 million Burchfield-Penney Art Center, officially unveiled today, will create a major presence for the 40-year-old institution and bring a significant addition to the city's Museum District.

The modernist museum space -- tentatively set to break ground this summer, with a probable opening in 2008 -- will feature a curved, 35-foot-tall zinc-coated wall visible from Elmwood Avenue and include a limestone cylindrical form and block-shaped building. Limestone wainscoting will line the bottom of the building.

The state-owned museum will be built on five acres, a stone's throw from its current residence inside Buffalo State College's Rockwell Hall. The building was designed by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects, known for renovating and adding on to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1992 and, locally, for designing the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts, which opened the following year.

The state-of-the-art facility will double Burchfield-Penney's current exhibition space, add areas for the college's renowned art conservation department and other educational needs and include a museum store and 156-seat auditorium.

"I think this is going to be a remarkable addition to Buffalo's cultural legacy," said Ted Pietrzak, Burchfield-Penney's director. "It adds to that whole cultural fabric that allows us not only to serve our community better, but also to attract visitors and rebrand this region."

Louis Grachos, director of Albright-Knox Art Gallery across the street, expressed enthusiasm for the building's design. "I love it. It's an elegant building. That beautiful curve will give the building tremendous presence as you approach it in all directions," Grachos said. "It's going to glisten and over time develop a patina. I think it will be a very, very nice addition."

Criticism over the museum's design, however, has been mounting from Forever Elmwood, a group of business owners and residents that works to preserve the historic nature of Elmwood Avenue.

A main objection is that the building's entrance faces the parking lot and is not visible from Elmwood, leaving pedestrians to face a tall, windowless wall set back from the street.

"The pedestrian environment is not addressed in this building; this is so single-mindedly oriented toward car traffic," said Karl Frizlen, an architect and co-chairman of Forever Elmwood's design committee. "In the suburbs, where there are no other references, it would probably fit fairly well. But not in this particular location."

Pietrzak said an entrance onto Elmwood had been considered but wasn't possible because the museum needed a traffic circle to accommodate the safe drop-off of schoolchildren and special-needs visitors. He said as a college building, it also needed to open up to the campus.

"Any possible design would not have worked to make a front entrance on Elmwood Avenue," Pietrzak said. He added that the height of the wall and the building's distance from the street were dictated in part by the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Frizlen said Forever Elmwood had been consistently rebuked when requesting information or seeking inclusion in Buffalo State College's decision-making process. "It has been handled in secrecy. Forever Elmwood and neighborhood block clubs were never invited to any of these meetings," Frizlen said. "We have asked them, continuously, to publish their plans and make them available to the community, and they have resisted doing so."

That complaint is shared by North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. "I'm disappointed there was no significant community input in this," Golombek said. "With millions of taxpayer dollars involved, there should have been some sort of public meeting or public involvement."

Pietrzak acknowledged the lack of public meetings but insisted a lot of people outside of Buffalo State had been involved. That was particularly so, he said, in creating the 220-page program study in August 2000.

The Burchfield-Penney possesses the most comprehensive collection of acclaimed painter Charles E. Burchfield. The museum exhibits craft art, architecture and photography along with fine art, often by Western New Yorkers.

Fund raising for the new museum, which stalled after 9/1 1, received a huge boost in January, when Gov. George E. Pataki announced that $16 million in capital construction funds would be provided. That means $26 million of the $33 million project has been raised or committed, Pietrzak said.

The museum director said the new building will ease space shortages that will no doubt be recalled with humor in years to come. "We build crates for our nationally touring exhibitions in our hallway, with a table saw stored wherever we can hide it," Pietrzak said.

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

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