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Art for our sake UB's Center for the Arts started with a dream, but diverse concerts on the Amherst campus are now a reality

King Crimson. Bright Eyes. Bonnie Raitt. David Byrne. Alison Krauss. Bela Fleck. Derek Trucks. Pat Metheny. Tears For Fears. Ray Charles. Moe. Cesaria Evora. Cassandra Wilson. Bruce Hornsby. Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Liz Phair. Aimee Mann. Lyle Lovett. Cyndi Lauper. John Legend.

What do these artists have in common? Not much, musically. But over the past several years, they've all performed on UB's Amherst campus, inside a theater with incredible sightlines and state-of-the-art acoustic design.

For the sort of concertgoer who appreciates an eclectic array of musical styles, and values impeccable live sound, this has been manna from heaven.

In an economically challenged community like ours, the ghosts of great artistic and cultural ideas litter the skyline like abandoned grain silos and vacant steel plants.

There has been much made of the choice to put the University at Buffalo North Campus in the suburbs, and not in the heart of the city. But it is time to acknowledge the success of the Center for the Arts, which over the past decade has blossomed into a fundamental participant in the area's cultural community.

In the perpetual art/commerce war, the Center for the Arts is claiming a rare victory in the "art" column.

>Born under a bad sign

"The center was hatched right as a SUNY-wide budget crunch began," recalls Tom Burrows, executive director of the facility, over lunch recently. "The center opened in 1994, and I came on board in '96. Just as I did, it became apparent we would have no programming money from the University itself. We'd be, aside from the salaries for our staff, on our own."

Burrows, a Texan by birth, exudes a slightly contradictory air on first impression. He's both intense and elegantly refined. It is his energy, his dogged insistence that the center can pull off its dual mandate -- to provide cultural education to the UB student body, and to engage itself with the broader Buffalo arts community and general population as a whole -- that sits at the core of the center's blossoming over the past several years.

Prior to coming to UB, Burrows served as production manager at New York's Circle in the Square, general manager at the Establishment Theatre Company, and completed stints managing the Yale University School of Drama, the Shaw Festival Theatre, Toronto's O'Keefe Center -- now the Hummingbird Theatre -- and Hamilton Place in Hamilton, Ont.

Last week, the Buffalo & Erie County Arts Council named Burrows recipient of the 2006 Arts Council Award, noting his "exceptional support, achievement and excellence in the arts and cultural community of the Buffalo Niagara region."

That's quite the resume. Burrows is quick to point out and returns to the theme repeatedly, throughout conversations -- that the growth of the Center for the Arts is the result of what he calls an "incredibly dedicated and knowledgeable" small staff.

Burrows made his mark quickly after arriving at UB, and he used dance as his means of doing so. Feeling that "dance was an underserved art form in the community," Burrows began scurrying to secure grant money, corporate sponsorships and various forms of revenue generation in order to "present world-class dance at an affordable price." He insitituted a residency program, where visiting companies worked with the student community and local primary and secondary school kids, in order "to introduce young people to dance."

Burrows succeeded in this venture, and simultaneously created the template that he and his staff would follow in making the center a significant popular music venue in the first five years of the new decade. One might refer to it as the cultural equivalent of borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.

>Diversity a must

"Essentially, what happens is that we'll get excited about a particular artist, and start investigating the possibility of making them part of the season here," says Rob Falgiano, assistant director of the center, and longstanding member of the Buffalo independent music community. "We'll toss the idea around between us and really try to work out the feasibility of it, before presenting it to Tom [Burrows]. He trusts us to know what we're doing."

Falgiano, along with director of marketing Dave Wedekindt, is responsible for achieving the delicate balancing act that the Burrows ethic requires -- presenting a unique roster of shows that will satisfy the artistic requirements of the team, and simultaneously generate enough revenue in ticket sales to pay for themselves.

"That's the trick," laughs Falgiano. "We want to present exciting, cutting-edge artists, as well as seasoned performers, in diverse areas of music. And yet, these shows need to make money, something that isn't always guaranteed when you step outside of the mainstream."

According to Wedekindt, the center is always juggling the events it books, in order to fund the shows the team feels strongly about, despite their less-than-guaranteed financial payoff, with the runaway success of more "sure thing" events.

"It's fair to say that our commercial projects and room-rentals are funding our non-commercial ones," he says. "It's working. Right now, our programming is paying for itself."

Room rentals at the center are a major source of revenue, and represent the venue's inclusion in the broader community. For example, Fun Time Presents, the promoter responsible for booking the Town Ballroom and the majority of the Thursday at the Square summer concert series, booked the center's Mainstage Theatre for an upcoming show featuring Great Big Sea.

Fun Time's Donny Kutzbach praises the Center For the Arts team for "taking chances on the shows they present."

"I've seen some amazing shows there over the years," says Kutzbach. "Many of them are the sort of events you wouldn't really want to see anywhere else, because the environment there is really unique. They're doing a good job."

>In the loop

The center's team is unique, in that the two members most responsible for booking music acts are musicians themselves, with varying degrees of experience on the other side of the stage.

Falgiano has been a fixture on the Buffalo indie-rock/folk scene for some 15 years, first as a member of the bands Plaster Sandals and the Contortionists, and later, as a solo artist and leader of the All-Hank Trio, a group dedicated to playing the music of Hank Williams. He's a seasoned songwriter, and his sophomore solo effort, the recently released "Red," finds him perfecting a pop-folk-rock sound that suggests James Taylor fronting Coldplay.

Wedekindt is a schooled musician and a tenor saxophone player.

"Unfortunately, I haven't been too active with it in recent years, due to work and other commitments," he says. "But my musical training and background definitely play a big role in the acts I recommend. It's also one of the reasons I've chosen this profession. There aren't a lot of places where an MBA and appreciation for music can work together."

Falgiano concurs. "There's no doubt that the fact that I'm a musician, and have been immersed in the world of music for so long, plays a huge part in whatever insight I might have into booking the right acts to fulfill our mandate," he says. "We bat this stuff back and forth, and we listen to the input of all the staff -- particularly Joel Thompson, who runs the box office -- as well as students. Between us, we have a pretty good idea of what is cool, or cutting-edge, or whatever, and what will do well in our little corner of the market."

Burrows believes that his team's knowledge of music "is what makes all of this popular music programming work, because they have their ears to the ground, so to speak."

>Not a bed of roses

There have been failures along the way, of course.

Some shows just don't sell as well as one would expect, for reasons that are never quite clear. Recent shows with Liz Phair and Aimee Mann were surprisingly undersold. It's not likely that ticket price is the issue; UB students could have attended Mann's show, for example, for $20, the general public for $27. That's below the average ticket price for artists of this stature.

Some gigs are too well-attended, as contradictory as that sounds. The recent Keller Williams show at the center was a sellout, but it was a rowdy affair that required the presence of campus police. The center's team is sad to say that Williams is not likely to be a part of future programming seasons, though he fits the bill from an artisitic standpoint. The "no smoking" and "no drinks in the theater" rules are not something that Burrows and company plan to loosen.

But for every bump in the road the center has faced, there is a victory it can boast of. Last year, Burrows and his team -- most notably, director of operations Jamie Enser -- joined with Goo Goo Dolls bassist Robby Takac's Music Is Art Foundation for "Music Is Art Live @ the Center," a weekly program which found the center's atrium transformed into a coffeehouse-type atmosphere. Takac and the center's team worked together to book "the best of Western New York's contemporary musicians and visual artists" for multimedia programs.

UB film students participated in documenting all of this. Now, the resulting television series will be aired at 10:30 p.m. every Sunday evening on UPN 23 WNLO beginning tonight. Tuesday also marks the commencement of the sophomore season of "Music Is Art Live @ the Center," which carries on every Tuesday evening in the atrium, beginning at 9 p.m. Like last year's series, this one is open to the public, free of charge.

For Burrows, Wedekindt and Falgiano, the puzzle pieces are beginning to fit.

"There's still no feeling like sitting in the Mainstage Theatre as the lights go down, knowing that we took this idea from its initial germ to completion," says Falgiano. "That's incredibly gratifying for us."

"The thing we've been working towards from the beginning, and the thing we are still trying to perfect, is finding our own niche, and excelling within that niche," says Burrows. "That means offering something that no one else in the greater Buffalo area is offering in quite the same way. And I really do believe we're succeeding in that venture."



>The many faces of UB's Center for the Arts

The Center for the Arts atrium is transformed into a coffeehouse-type atmosphere on Tuesday evenings during "Music Is Art Live @ the Center." The program combines live music performances, visual and graphic arts, and film.

One of the world's most popular operas, Johann Strauss' "Die Fledermaus," will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday by the Helikon Opera of Moscow. The operetta will be performed in German with English supertitles, and will be accompanied by a 45-piece orchestra.

Award-winning dance troupe Elisa Monte Dance comes to UB on March 24. The company advertises itself as "bridging cultural barriers through the universal language of dance."

Great Big Sea, which has a loyal fan base in Western New York, will peform at the Center for the Arts on April 19. This Canadian band of Celtic-inflected stalwarts fuses Newfoundland traditional music with modern pop.

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