Since becoming executive director of Just Buffalo in 1998, Ed Taylor has emerged as a leading advocate for the Western New York arts community, but long before he ever considered moving here he knew that the city had much more going for it than just a professional football team and lots of seasonal weather.
"There are dozens of fair-weathered American cities that wish they had a semblance of the cultural life Buffalo takes for granted," according to Taylor, "and the truth is that more people around the country know this than all the unfortunate stereotypes about Buffalo that the national media choose to perpetuate would have us believe."
A North Carolina native who served as the national coordinator of a Washington, D.C.-based organization known as WritersCorps prior to his appointment here, Taylor offers an anecdote to illustrate the respect with which Just Buffalo and the Western New York literary community are regarded on the national scene. At the same that Just Buffalo undertook a nationwide search for a successor for its co-founder and longtime director Debora Ott in the autumn of 1997, the executive director's position in the literature program at the National Endowment for the Arts also became available.
"I think most people would be surprised to find out that it was the position here in Buffalo that generated the greater amount of interest among professionals in the field," Taylor notes.
What prompted Taylor to leave WritersCorps, which sponsors writer residencies at various non-traditional settings around the country, for an organization whose primary focus is regional?
"As we head into a new century, I think that both for political and aesthetic reasons, the place where all the action in the arts will be is on the community level. Building concrete relationships on the local level with people who can see how the arts can provide meaning and context in their lives and change in their communities on a day-to-day basis is the best way to sustain healthy and stable arts organizations for the long run," says Taylor. "I applied for this job thinking that Just Buffalo was that kind of organization, that Western New York was that kind of community, and so far I haven't been disappointed."
Although Just Buffalo hasn't made any radical changes in terms of its mission, structure and programming under Taylor's leadership, there have been noteworthy shifts in focus and how the organization relates to its membership.
"For one thing, I think we have expanded our programming to address the interests of people who are serious readers, but do not necessarily identify themselves as writers. This is a subtle change, and I'm not sure if people perceive projects like last year's 'What if Everyone in Buffalo Read the Same Book?' as different from what Just Buffalo had always been doing, but I'm definitely interested in making the reader an equal part of the equation as far as our programming is concerned.
"In the past, we may have focused a bit more on the needs of writers and performers in advancing their work, and less on building an audience for literature in the community. Recently, we've become involved in a national initiative called the Audiences for Literature Network whose core principle is that if we bring writers and readers together on the same level of discourse, the result will be general enlightenment." Even as Just Buffalo looks to develop new audiences for contemporary fiction and poetry, it plans to find new ways of getting its core constituency -- those who write, teach, perform or enroll in various aspects of the organization's programming -- to take on new roles of responsibility and leadership in the community.
"I'd like to help working writers find a reason to stay to in Western New York, and make a living using their writing skills," proposes Taylor. "We do a lot of educational programming -- especially school based writing programs -- and we are looking to more of it. For those who have the appropriate skills, there is a legitimate living to be made in this community as a teaching artist. One of things we hope to do over the next couple of years is to formalize the role of the professional teaching artist in the classroom and the community."