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Historical Society takes progressive role at Lafayette

As a former Buffalo-area arts fundraising professional, one of the things I absolutely miss most about the cultural climate of my former home is the across-the-board pride Western New Yorkers have in their regional history. It can be found everywhere, from the blue-collar corner bars scattered through the city's diverse neighborhoods to top executives' corner offices dotting the Queen City skyline, and thanks to a groundbreaking new partnership, that array will also include now the Hotel at the Lafayette.

In a recent column, Buffalo News arts critic Colin Dabkowski railed against the collaborative efforts of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society and the grand private renovation effort led by Rocco Termini, one of the city's premier cheerleaders willing to put his money where his mouth is. Dabkowski believes the Historical Society is stepping too close to a slippery slope of commercialization and privatization; in actuality, he just needs to reference a map that isn't skewed with cynicism.

First, he believes diverting Historical Society staff time to projects at the hotel is out of line with the nonprofit's mission, of which he excerpts only one phrase. He could have included its directive of exploring "innovative programming, partnerships and collaborations." The opportunity to collaborate with a private enterprise eager to show off the region's rich history without having to assume the massive expense of a new venue seems pretty innovative to me, and though Dabkowski says this effort goes against maximizing "the educational potential for our community's vast resources," I have to believe a building that will bring history back to life downtown has a wealth of educational potential.

Second, he cites the Historical Society's nonprofit status and reliance on public funding, and presents parts of this project as a divergence from the purpose of that support. What he fails to explore is that institutional givers, from governments to charitable foundations, want and expect nonprofits in this day and age to create sustainable, collaborative relationships for the overall benefit of the arts.

We are encouraged by these funders to "tear down the silos" of support and find creative ways like this partnership to thrive. This is not compromising integrity -- it's creating synergy.

All in all, Dabkowski's position is rooted in a philanthropic history that is unrealistic today, a point he acknowledges. But his characterization of this being a "desperate times call for desperate measures" situation shows a simple refusal to recognize the innovative nature of this arrangement.

If Buffalo's core of locally grown industry leaders and corporate supporters want to fund an interactive, engaged part in promoting the region's history, expanding its cultural and economic footprint in lockstep, I say more power to them. Other cities should be so lucky.


Robert Pape is a former fundraiser for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the current development director for a professional chorus in Cambridge, Mass.