On Thursday afternoon, the Burchfield Penney Art Center’s gargantuan east gallery echoed with the sound of hammers and jigsaws as staff and volunteers scrambled to put the finishing touches on the center’s newest exhibition.
The awe-inspiring centerpiece of “Displacement: Barge Prototype,” which opened Friday and runs through Oct. 19, features a hulking model of an Erie Canal barge retrofitted to serve as a floating art gallery.
Impressive as it is, the 100-foot-long and 30-foot-wide structure is merely the first phase of a multiyear project that, if all goes to plan, will send a seaworthy art gallery based on this prototype carrying artwork by Western New Yorkers and others along the Erie Canal from Silo City to Brooklyn and back.
Almost the entire Burchfield Penney staff was involved in the construction process. Thursday afternoon, the center’s development director, James Wyman, was helping to attach a piece of plywood to the hull. Renata Toney, who works in the museum’s public and community relations department, was about to change into her gym clothes to lend a hand. Even security guards have been in on the process, helping to drywall and spackle the vessel’s gallery spaces.
Every Thursday during the run of the exhibition, as many as 20 local artists per week can bring one piece of art into the Burchfield Penney to be considered for inclusion in one of the ship’s nine galleries. The eight-member team in charge of the project – members of a group that calls itself the Trans Empire Canal Corporation or TECCORP – will then hold public feedback sessions on the submitted art, during which they’ll decide which works to include.
This unusually transparent process of selecting artwork is one of the most exciting aspects of the project, which seeks not only to bring artwork outside gallery walls but to challenge the pervasive notion of contemporary art as an exclusive pursuit for the privileged.
A.J. Fries, a Buffalo painter and member of TECCORP, has long worked to dismantle the idea of museums and visual art in general as an elite activity. During the regionwide biennial exhibition Beyond/In Western New York in 2010, he held a tailgating party in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery parking lot, complete with custom-made jerseys, as a tongue-in-cheek argument for the cross-cultural appeal of the visual arts.
“One of my goals there was to have somebody who would not even think about going to a museum for whatever reason, but just to show them, yeah, it’s fun, this is a lot of fun. It’s not just wine and cheese parties and things like that,” Fries said. The goal with the art barge project and its transparent curation process is similar.
D. Olivier Delrieu-Schulze, a TECCORP member and a driving force behind the project, characterized the barge as a kind of art-delivery system that is likely to entice viewers who might not ordinarily venture into a museum.
“The object itself is interesting, and there’s a little bit of spectacle,” he said. “People can have fun walking around and explore it, but then maybe they’ll walk through one of the galleries and see a work and suddenly art opens up for them.”
What is perhaps most remarkable about the project, beyond its sheer ambitiousness in the face of everything that could go wrong between now and its eventual launch, is that it found an institution brave and crazy enough to sponsor it. The Burchfield Penney staff, from director Anthony Bannon to the person who tears your ticket, seems to have an almost evangelical faith in the artists of this region and their potential to reshape the local and national culture.
For Burchfield Penney associate director and TECCORP member Scott Propeack, the project represents a desire from within the center to radically retool the idea of what a museum is, how it functions and who it serves.
I see it as a demonstration against the built-in intimidation of the American museum experience, the profusion of academic art language that seems more concerned with proving its own intelligence than elucidating the art at hand and the self-defeating attitude of exclusivity in which much of the art world has slowly imprisoned itself over the past four decades.
“We work in the public trust, but over the past 100 years we’ve built up walls between the public and the work,” Propeack said. “Most people feel when they walk through the doors of a museum that something about the space makes them feel less intelligent, like people are speaking down to them because they should, of course, know all this stuff. That’s what we do. We make people feel stupid. That’s a great crown that we wear. And how do we take that apart?”
With a barge full of art, apparently. And why not?
Other museums might have laughed the idea off as too prone to failure, too unpredictable, too ripe for ridicule to be worth the risk. But now that the prototype exists and plans are moving ahead to acquire an actual barge, the project is starting to seem less and less insane. It’s really happening. And so far, it’s shaping up to be a beautiful thing.