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New wave of leaders lifts culturals

There's a whole lot of new blood in Western New York's cultural world.

Since September, at least five significant cultural groups have appointed new directors or artistic directors. And each of these promotions or new hires signals the growth of a cultural scene in the midst of a much-needed recovery.

Anthony Bannon is returning to Buffalo in May after 16 years leading Rochester's George Eastman House to reassume his role at the helm of the Burchfield Penney Art Center. Young directors Cori Wolff and Jeff Langridge have assumed control of Buffalo Arts Studio from its founder, Joanna Angie. Barbara Cole, formerly the education director at Just Buffalo Literary Center, was promoted into that organization's important artistic director role.

What's more, Tod Kniazuk, a former Erie County legislature staffer, became the first executive director of the ambitious advocacy group known as the Arts Services Initiative. And in early May, Eric Jackson-Forsberg will leave his job as a curator at the Martin House Complex to take charge of the growing Western New York Book Arts Center.

On its own, this collective changing of the guard at some of our most visible and vibrant cultural institutions would be remarkable enough. But what makes this truly a sea change is the common vision of these new directors, each of whom is committed to fostering far broader public engagement with their work.

In the ancient era of comfortable arts funding from public and philanthropic sources, some cultural institutions were free to do their work without worrying too much about audience development. The audiences would come, or not, but the money kept showing up. In some cases, this resulted in tremendous cultural programming from which not nearly enough people benefited.

The current era, in which the financial rug may be pulled out from any organization at any time, demands a smarter approach. In addition to creating compelling programming and publicizing it, institutions must now dream up innovative ways for new audiences to access their work. And while the need for more dedicated public and private arts funding has never been clearer, this particular side effect of tough economic times is actually good for everyone.

Some cultural institutions' idea of what the word "public" means remains far too narrow. With these new appointments of community-conscious leaders, the cultural definition of that word is finally beginning to line up with the one in the dictionary.

At Bannon's Burchfield Penney, the mission of the already progressive institution will shift even more toward the community at large. The BPAC and Buffalo State College, Bannon said in an interview with The News in February, have forged a partnership in which "a college and its museum have declared themselves on behalf of the civic good." Bannon's approach, he continued, will take culture "out of the discreet act of beneficence, of doing the right thing one-on-one or small-group-to-small-group and casts it in terms of a much larger proposition."

Jackson-Forsberg preaches the populist gospel as well.

"I really have always tried to be a curator who focuses on trying to make the case for whatever the collection or the outlet that I'm championing is, for the uninitiated," he said. "I don't think that's something that all people in the arts necessarily do, but I've tried to do that. For one thing, it's a matter of how the arts are sustained."

For another, it's the way they should have been operating all along.

To the question "Why should we care?", each of these new leaders will need to devise innovative answers that connect the great work of their organizations to people on the street. It seems they're already well on their way.