The Hamburg Public Library’s $3.6 million expansion project, which deposited a new rotunda with high ceilings and huge windows in a former parking lot along Buffalo Street last year, was about much more than adding space for books and computers.
It was about atmosphere. It was about attitude. And, perhaps most importantly, it was about art.
The central importance of visual art to the reconfigured space becomes immediately clear when you look up at the curved wall above the entrance, which features an eye-popping painting by Charles Clough based on Paul Gauguin’s famous mural “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?.”
The piece, painted with the help of dozens of volunteers under Clough’s supervision in Hilbert College’s Swan Auditorium, is part of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s countywide public art program and will remain on view in Hamburg indefinitely.
Its presence in the library, which, like many branches, has evolved into more of a community center than a stuffy reading room, is a signal to patrons that they have entered a space designed to foster and feed their curiosity and to challenge their intellect. It’s also a message from Erie County and from the Albright-Knox that cultural and government leaders in the region are thinking about how to integrate art into the lives of county residents both within public institutions and on the grounds around them.
What’s more, through a happy accident of architecture, the piece is viewable 24 hours a day through the library’s windows, which reveal the illuminated piece to drivers and pedestrians as they make their way down Buffalo Street.
While art has long been an integral part of library director Jack Edson’s philosophy, the expansion has lent a more official feel to his formerly ad hoc program, with exhibitions that rotate on a semi-regular basis, artist talks and openings.
“I judge all libraries by their art collection,” Edson said, referring to libraries’ trove of books devoted to visual art, of which the Hamburg Library boasts dozens. During a tour of the space, he spoke with hushed enthusiasm for the work of Clough, John A. Sargent III and Ani Hoover, whose satisfying vertical drip painting hangs above the water fountain.
Elsewhere in the library, 18 of Clough’s colorful abstractions share space with celestial oil paintings by Sargent, an Ohio-based artist whose tightly controlled approach stands in comfortable contrast to the swirls and freehanded gestures of Clough’s work. Sargent, who will speak about his paintings in the library at 7 p.m. April 1, caught the attention of Edson during the last iteration of the Echo Art Fair held at the Central Library in 2014.
Even the library’s new carpeting is embedded with flairs of artistry, where the standard-issue gray nothingness typical of office carpeting is occasionally interrupted by bright squares of color. And on a wall in the side hallway hang two handmade quilts by Edson, which add a welcome bit of texture to what would otherwise be bland beige walls.
Edson seemed especially pleased by the interplay between Sargent’s formal canvases flecked with splashes of white paint and Clough’s inspired, outsized finger paintings. He is a major proponent of Clough’s work, and of inherent tension it exhibits: Within a predetermined structure defined both by the edges of the canvas and his chosen inspiration (some more obvious than others), his paintings vibrate with energy and burst with thoughtful juxtapositions and miniature compositions.
Many of Sargent’s works, on the other hand, make tentative gestures toward abstraction and surrealism from the solid ground of traditional landscape painting. Their celestial subject matter, while expertly executed and infused with a thorough understanding of light, are a counterpoint to Clough’s formal and stylistic adventurousness.
Each body of work is illuminated by the other. As is the library itself, now a necessary stop on the area’s gallery circuit.