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Just Buffalo's new home enhances alliance

As artistic collaborations go, this one has more than its share of poetry about it.

The Just Buffalo Literary Center, long a hub of poetic, literary and intellectual activity in Western New York, has pulled up stakes from the cramped quarters it shared with CEPA Gallery in Main Street's Market Arcade Building and moved into brand-new digs farther downtown.

Its new light-filled offices and performance space occupy the second floor of the Western New York Book Arts Collaborative, an ambitious new space intended to promote the book-related arts in all their scope and variety.

Just Buffalo's new home, as the cursive lettering on the side of the building at Washington and Mohawk streets attests, housed the Slotkin department store, a purveyor of women's dresses.

But before that, the building contained what was likely the largest used book store in Buffalo's history. That edifice, News Arts Editor Jeff Simon tells me, was a legendary haven for the city's literarily inclined.

The full-circle story is almost too perfect: an unused building once dedicated to literature returned to new significance through the efforts of Buffalonians dedicated both to fostering the arts and revitalizing the blighted architecture of a shrinking city.

The book arts center's collaboration with Just Buffalo is more than a match made in literary heaven. It's a rare and encouraging success story that bodes well for the city's increasingly convergent cultural scenes.

Just Buffalo's main performance and workshop space on the second floor is still undergoing the final phases of construction, but the book arts center is in full swing with a fully equipped print shop in the basement and a large exhibition and retail space on the ground floor. During a small opening event Sunday, the space echoed with good vibes as representatives of the city's visual arts, poetry, literature and music scenes chatted over mimosas about the new project's potential for this community and others.

"People from Rochester and even Syracuse are coming in and saying, 'Wow, this is amazing that you have all this stuff in Buffalo.' There's actually like arts envy," said Richard Kegler, a local designer who founded the book arts center with his wife, Carima El-Behairy.

Just Buffalo, which launched its major "Babel" reading series in 2007, has been strengthening its already solid position on the city's arts scene through a mounting series of collaborations on large and small scales. Its association with CEPA Gallery and Big Orbit, which will continue despite the move, is often touted as a model for the way arts organizations can shore themselves up in a tough financial climate and reach larger audiences by sharing resources.

Just Buffalo Education Director Barbara Cole touted the idea of collaboration as a way not just to survive but to buoy the arts in general.

"Less is more sometimes, but in this case more is more, and it's absolutely about strengthening and digging deeper roots," Cole said. "It's about breadth and depth I think, to keep sort of moving out and going deeper" into the community.

Now, as Just Buffalo enters its relationship with the book arts center, both organizations stand poised to deliver new and exciting arts programming to far larger sections of the community than they could reach individually.

For its part, Just Buffalo will relaunch a series of workshops, which had largely been suspended since it moved from the Tri-Main Center to its smaller offices in the Market Arcade, in its second-floor performance space. It will also launch a once-monthly series called "Big Night," in which a poetry or book reading anchors an entire evening of music, food and art of all sorts. The first of the series, featuring poet Lee Ann Brown, will be held at 8 p.m. Saturday.

"We're hoping, instead of it being sort of a poetry reading, where you go to a poetry reading and then you go out to the bar afterward, you come here and it's a big night and you just stay," said Just Buffalo Artistic Director Mike Kelleher during Sunday's event. "You leave at some point," he added, to big laughs from the crowd.

This burgeoning association between the book arts center and Just Buffalo is yet another example of the friendly collaborative spirit that's happily bouncing across disciplines and reinvigorating the arts -- from the visual and theatrical to the literary and poetic -- all across the city. Teamwork, it turns out, isn't just a disposable lesson you learned on "Sesame Street." As a growing list of local arts groups is demonstrating, it can point the way toward success.

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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