Bannon and his Burchfield Penney, driven by curiosity - The Buffalo News

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Bannon and his Burchfield Penney, driven by curiosity

More times than I can count, I've encountered something at the Burchfield Penney Art Center that would have seemed out of place in almost any other art museum.

There was a bright Sunday afternoon in 2014, when I stumbled on a crew of staff and volunteers constructing a 100-foot barge in the middle of the East Gallery. There was a summer evening in 2013, when a crowd gathered to watch three high-powered projectors housed in shining steel towers live-stream the Lake Erie sunset onto the eastern facade of the building.

And there was a recent day, not long after the presidential election, when I walked into the east gallery to discover not an exhibition, but a "visual poem." Each painting or sculpture in that show was a bridge across the racial, geographic and socioeconomic gaps that define life in Western New York.

I don't think any of these risky ideas originated in the curious brain of Burchfield Penney Art Center Director Anthony Bannon, who announced his retirement from the institution this week. But I can be certain that they wouldn't have happened -- at least not in their pure and unadulterated forms -- without this preternaturally curious personage sitting in the director's chair.

To be sure, during his second directorship, his more earthbound initiatives and priorities carried plenty of weight. He was intent on amplifying the Burchfield Penney's national and international reputation, which he did with the establishment of the International Center for Watercolor and the museum's artist residency program. His focus on the heyday of Buffalo's avant-garde art scene in the 1970s, in which he played a vital role as a Buffalo News art critic and later as a filmmaker, was a near-constant presence at the center.

Anthony Bannon to leave post as Burchfield Penney director

And Bannon used his considerable clout in the museum world to promote the Burchfield Penney as the primary research center for those interested in the work of its namesake, Charles E. Burchfield, among other important artists.

But Bannon's enthusiasm for the strange and unexpected, his instant embrace of unorthodox ideas that pushed the boundaries of what a museum could do, is what defined his two-part tenure at the center.

It was an enthusiasm he cultivated during his time as a News critic dedicated to beating the offbeat bushes and testing the untested. Much to his credit, Bannon was an early and ardent supporter of Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center when other mainstream writers were immune to its nascent genius.

"His training as a journalist made him absolutely, totally responsive to everything – theater, music, movies," my colleague Jeff Simon said. That training, paired with his wide-ranging curiosity, prepared Bannon to transform the center into an institution as polyglot as its leader.

Anthony Bannon led the Burchfield Penney Art Center from 1985 to 1996 and 2012 to 2017. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

He carried that curiosity with him into the Burchfield Penney directorship in 1986, taking the baton from its original director Edna Lindemann. He carried it through his career as a photography scholar, penning important works on the photo-pictorialists of Buffalo and monographs on various American photographers.

When he again arrived in Buffalo after 16 years as director of the George Eastman House (now the George Eastman Museum) in 2012, Bannon brought with him a kind of erudite evangelism for the untapped potential of the American museum.

Bannon, who speaks with the calm and considered cadence of a preacher, is evangelical in his belief about the international import and the utter singularity of Western New York's artistic culture.

"Both museums and universities are places where propositions are turned around, in which we place ourselves in positions of vulnerability, in which we say, 'I don't know the answer, I want to learn,' " Bannon said at the time of his re-appointment. "I come to you because I wanted to be surprised. I want to be challenged. I want to be knocked off my feet. I want to be threatened by new ideas."

At the Burchfield under Bannon, the threat of new ideas was everywhere. It came in the form of musical performances and poetry readings during the series of quarterly festivals he launched. It came in the form of rigorous exhibitions based on the writing and musical affinities of Burchfield. And it came in public events the center hosted in its auditorium, including an appearance last year by controversial artist Ashley Powell, who stirred debate with a provocative public art project at the University at Buffalo.

There are few better characteristics in a leader than curiosity and the willingness to take risks. Bannon was far more likely to entertain a new idea than to dismiss it, far more likely to throw his full weight behind an inspired notion instead of letting its progenitor sink or swim by themselves.

"Tony was instrumental in helping the museum grow in very valuable ways during his first tenure, and turned it up a notch or two during his second tenure," said longtime Burchfield Penney curator Nancy Weekly. "I suspect Tony’s accomplishments during his second term have made him proud. He loves this place."

Bannon's second departure from the Burchfield Penney will not be easy for those addicted to the unpredictable, all-inclusive modus operandi of this institution. Here's hoping that his replacement has half his fervor for promoting the cultural import of Western New York, half his heart and half his career-defining curiosity.

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