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Q&A: Jennifer Kursten talks about reviving Carnegie Art Center in North Tonawanda

NORTH TONAWANDA - Wooden floors, intricately carved columns and a grand foyer with a stained glass window on the ceiling are part of the striking entrance to the Carnegie Art Center, a historic building which dates back to 1904 , but this gem closed for most of 2015 due to dwindling public funds and was almost lost.

The struggling art center laid off its executive director of five years, Mary Simpson,  in 2014 because of budgetary problems. Simpson was credited with obtaining a $343,000 grant to update the 1904 facility, leaving the city with the prospect of a newly repaired facility and no one to run it.

What a difference a year makes.

After renovations to the 240 Goundry St. building were completed at the end of 2015, the CAC took off running with part-time program director Jennifer Kursten. Now Kursten is preparing for the center's second-annual Art off the Wall exhibition and fundraiser at 7 p.m. Thursday, December 1, hoping the event will be a celebration of a successful new start.

Art off the Wall offers art lovers a chance to buy a 5-inch by 7-inch piece of original artwork for $20. For an extra $10 visitors can get a sneak preview and first choice of art from 6 to 7 p.m. at a reception with a complimentary drink and hors d'oeuvres.

Board President Barbara Hughes said the annual budget for the Carnegie Art Center is growing. In 2013 the center had a budget of $34,609, of which $21,500 was an in-kind donation from the City of North Tonawanda, which owns the building. The budget grew to $65,900 by the end of 2015, with the center relying on volunteers to build its membership and fundraising. Hughes said she expects the center to match or exceed that total this year.

"This clearly states the power of a community that has come around to support this organization through volunteer hours and the artists who want this organization to survive and thrive," said Hughes. "We are definitely coming back."

Kursten, 54,  a graphic designer, who was the first staff person to be hired after the CAC  closed in 2015, is part of that revival. She had formerly worked for the center as part-time program coordinator in 2011 and 2012. Her role then was to manage a state grant, but her current role has expanded to manage all programs and events.

The native of New Bedford, Mass., moved to the area in 1991 and decided to stay, partly because she loved the art community in Western New York. She said Niagara County doesn't enjoy the reputation for arts that it deserves.

Jennifer Kursten, program coordinator at Carnegie Art Museum, left, with watercolor artist E. Jane Stoddard of East Amherst, at the center on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Jennifer Kursten, program coordinator at Carnegie Art Museum, left, with watercolor artist E. Jane Stoddard of East Amherst, at the center on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

"I spent a lot of time in Buffalo, but unfortunately word doesn't get out about the creative things happening in Niagara County," Kursten said.

Kursten talked about the Carnegie Art Center - which is open from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursdays and noon to 3 p.m. Saturdays - with The Buffalo News.

Are volunteers increasing?

We get new volunteers every week. Every weekend we are open we get a least one person who wants to volunteer. When we have an event two to three volunteers sign up. We have about 40 volunteers. We started off with an artist advisory group of about 15, who were dedicated to the Carnegie in one form or another. Last year our first event was Art off the Wall. There was just so much positive, fun, exciting energy. The art that was donated was phenomenal.

What type of grants have been used to update the facility?

We were closed in 2015 to renovate and install the handicapped accessible bathrooms. Prior to that we only had the tiny little water closets that date back to the 1904 building. We had a handicapped accessible ramp and door put in as well. In 2011 and 2012 they refurbished some of the windows. In 2009 they refurbished the plaster in the skylight area.

Are you done?

Oh no. There's always work to be done with an old building.

Besides the art, do people come here because the Carnegie building is on the historic register?

Absolutely. We get people who are interested in historic buildings and architecture, architectural students. We also get a lot of people who are coming back to visit the area who had utilized it when it was a library.

How long ago was that?

It was built as a library in 1904. In 1976 they built a new library on Meadow Drive and this became an art center and has been an art center ever since, for 40 years.

It seems like you have been very busy lately.

Oh yes. We've had eight exhibitions and we had the student spotlight, which we've been doing since 2007, with the exception of 2015. We are trying to bring in different people. We just finished up our jazz concert series. That went very well. Each concert was unique.

Is that something new for the CAC?

Yes and I have to say the board has been enthusiastic, dedicated and engaged. Our volunteers have been very generous with their time. If it weren't for the board and the volunteers we wouldn't be able to keep this place running. It's through the board and the volunteers and networking that we develop these programs.

What other types of programming have you offered?

We had seven educational programs. For the kids we had drawing and cartooning classes. We did a songwriting workshop for teenagers, which we are going to do again next year. For adults we had a traditional Appalachian broom making workshop and a poetry workshop. We had a panel discussion with Just Buffalo Literary. We had 16 events, including the concerts we've had a poetry reading, three artists talks in collaboration with exhibitions. This summer we did the North Tonawanda Art Walk.

Was this daunting to pull this place up after it was closed for a year?

It was, but because everyone is so enthusiastic to see this place succeed, we've been able to move forward.

Why?

When people come into this building they are in awe. They love the space and some of it is the community itself, because they don't want to see a public building left vacant. Also the emotional attachment people have to this space, through the arts or as a library. Or love of history.

Know a Niagara County resident who’d make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com.

 

 

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