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50 years on, Burchfield Penney thrives on Buffalo pride

The Burchfield Penney Art Center is one of Buffalo's great undersung success stories.

It opened in the mid-1960s in the modest surroundings of a former library in SUNY Buffalo State's Rockwell Hall, with a modest mission to match: to honor the pioneering work and influence of Buffalo painter Charles E. Burchfield.

But that mission almost immediately expanded to artists in Burchfield's circle. It grew in tandem with Buffalo's blossoming arts scene to include a wider swath of visual art from across Western New York.

And gradually, with Burchfield's spirit as a constant guiding force, it grew into the ever-swelling regional repository for creative culture it is today.

On Dec 9, the Burchfield Penney will celebrate its 50th anniversary by returning to its roots: On Nov. 11, it will open a reconstructed version of the center's very first exhibition of paintings by Burchfield called "The First Exhibition: 50 Years with Charles E. Burchfield."

"December Storm," a 1941-1960 painting by Charles E. Burchfield, was the centerpiece of the Burchfield Penney Art Center's first exhibition in 1966. It is also on view during the center's recreation of that exhibition to mark its 50th anniversary.

"December Storm," a 1941-1960 painting by Charles E. Burchfield, was the centerpiece of the Burchfield Penney Art Center's first exhibition in 1966. It is also on view during the center's recreation of that exhibition to mark its 50th anniversary.

The centerpiece of the Burchfield show, and indeed the center's entire collection, is the 1941-1960 painting "December Storm," which takes pride of place in the show beneath a Burchfield quote about the opening of the center on Dec. 9, 1966.

Longtime curator Nancy Weekley described the painting as "an allegory of war, the power of nature, the redemptive glory of spiritual beliefs, and a visual equivalent to musical masterworks."

In the quote, Burchfield recounts the warmth of the event, his hope that the painting will be "the nucleus of a new 'Burchfield Center at Buffalo" and concludes that the entire affair put him into "a state of euphoria."

It's been the goal of each of the center's three leaders -- founding director Edna Lindemann, Ted Pietrzak and current director Anthony Bannon -- to extend that sense of warmth and purpose into future decades.

A case in point: Also opening on Nov. 11 is "Here," described as a love-letter to Western New York history and culture and designed to position the center as the headquarters for Buffalo's civic and cultural identity. And to promote the arts as an essential part of Buffalo's existence on par with its industrial legacy, its beleaguered sports teams and its hoped-for economic revival.

"We are an echo of the culture of the city," said Chief Curator and Associate Director Scott Propeack on a recent afternoon as Burchfield paintings and prints leaned against the walls waiting to be hung. "What we do find exciting is that we can bring that spirit in."

That spirit greets visitors immediately as they enter the museum through its demure entrance. Lining the entrance corridor is a series of portraits by photographer David Moog, who has been luring artists to his makeshift studio for an ambitious project to make portraits of every living Western New York artist.

It's on display outside the building, where three metal towers with panels laser-cut in the style of a Burchfield painting lean toward the 2008 building's zinc facade. At night, high-powered projectors inside those towers project an endless stream of video art -- much of it locally produced -- onto the side of the building.

And it's on view through the center's website, which through its Arts Legacy Project, has become a crucial resource for anyone interested in the history of the arts and culture in Western New York.

During a recent visit from the American Alliance of Museums, which reaccredited the Burchfield Penney in August, Propeack said the reaction from accreditors about the breadth and variety of the center's programming was overwhelmingly positive.

"They all said it's so refreshing to come to a museum that doesn't let its scale interrupt its ambition," he said.

Compared to the nearby Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which recently launched a $125 million expansion project, that scale is, characteristically, modest.

The Burchfield Penney has an annual budget of about $3.3 million, of which $1.3 million comes from SUNY Buffalo State, about half a million from its $11 million operating endowment and the rest from philanthropy, grants and earned income. It has a staff of 50, of which about half are full-time employees.

With relatively modest resources, the Burchfield Penney has launched a diverse array of programs aimed at capturing and enriching the creative life of Western New York.

In addition to serving as the go-to resource for Burchfield scholars, the center also holds what director Anthony Bannon believes are the definitive archives for a dozen more artists and institutions, including the revered photographer Milton Rogovin and the storied history of Artpark.

Inside the walls of the Burchfield Penney, you can always be detect some echo of the vision and magnanimity of Burchfield, whose humanist bent and even his interest in music motivates much of the center's programming today. That includes recent high-profile exhibitions "Heat Waves in a Swamp" and the "Blistering Vision," which is set to travel to several other museums in the months to come.

"I don't think it's a spirit that we will lose," Bannon said.

"The First Exhibition: 50 Years With Charles E. Burchfield" and "Home" open Nov. 11 and run through Feb. 26, 2017. Admission is free on Nov. 11, but is normally $5 to $10. Call 868-6011 or visit burchfieldpenney.org.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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