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Pietrzak leaving at the top of his game

Colin Dabkowski covers theater and art for The Buffalo News. In his new column – the 21st new feature in our 30 in 30 campaign – Dabkowski will give his unique point of view on everything from local arts organizations to Buffalo's nightlife, galleries, people, and more. Find his column every Sunday in the Spotlight section.

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Ted Pietrzak knows how to work a room.

On a blindingly bright Wednesday afternoon in late February, the outgoing director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center strolled into the dining area at Trattoria Aroma restaurant at about five past noon.

Before sitting down to lunch at his favorite table, near the window looking out on Bryant Avenue, he caught up with the waitress, a longtime acquaintance, and a pair of arts advocates at a nearby table. As the restaurant filled for the lunch hour, Pietrzak managed to exchange pleasantries with nearly every person who entered. Between bites of risotto, Pietrzak smiled his eager smile, and everyone else smiled back.

"I've raised millions of dollars in this room," Pietrzak said. And from the adoration lavished on the museum director, it seems clear that those millions were not terribly difficult for him to extract. They flowed into the coffers of the Burchfield Penney, which, with help from the State of New York, Buffalo State College and others, built the sparkling new museum across the street from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery that opened in late 2008.

As museum fund-raising missions go, Pietrzak's 12-year tenure at the Burchfield Penney could be considered nothing less than a rousing success. Which is why some Burchfield Penney staffers and many in the community were taken aback last month when Pietrzak announced he would resign his position effective Oct. 15.

Pietrzak will leave behind an organization in solid financial health and with a rising local and national profile. Considered side by side, the pre- and post-Pietrzak Burchfield Penneys are almost unrecognizable as the same institution.

In his 12 years at the helm, Pietrzak spearheaded what has been an awe-inspiring metamorphosis for the local arts organization. The Burchfield Penney blossomed from a small regional art gallery in an academic building into a nationally recognized museum with a stunning new building and an explosion in new memberships. The museum, dedicated to the regional artists of Western New York and to renowned watercolorist Charles Burchfield, has been embraced by the community to a degree not even Pietrzak predicted.

The director, whose voice carries the strong accent of his native Hamilton, Ont., has decided to exit the Burchfield Penney at the top of his game. It's a laudable decision. His departure this fall will come on the heels of "Heat Waves in a Swamp," which opened March 7 and is perhaps the most prominent exhibition in the center's history, and of this fall's exciting citywide "Beyond/In Western New York" show.

The Burchfield Penney, having been constructed in part due to Pietrzak's ability to relieve people of their cash, is ready for new leadership. "The secret of fundraising is wholeheartedly believing in what you're doing," Pietrzak said, "and sharing that vision and relating it to other people, [showing] how it relates to their life."

There is no doubt fundraising was Pietrzak's greatest strength as director, but it didn't end there. His vision for the museum was focused on accessibility, and, as he put it, on "closing the gap between the vision of the artist and the public appreciation of the work." His solution was to focus on something not normally associated with temple-on-the-hill museum experiences: An almost Walmart-esque degree of customer service, complete with friendly door greeters and smiling front-desk attendants.

"You close the gap between art and people by making sure you have the right toilet paper," Pietrzak said, with a laugh. "You've got to be thoughtful in everything you do."

As one might expect from any boss with a strong vision, Pietrzak has not always been popular with his staff. In fact, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that there was a sense of relief in some corners of the Burchfield Penney when Pietrzak announced his resignation, which was not entirely unexpected in knowledgeable circles of the art community. But these concerns, strongly held though they seem to be, have had little outward effect on the quality of programming at the Burchfield. Nor have they impeded its mission to draw people into the ever-expanding Western New York art scene, for which it has become a showcase.

Still, any creative organization functions best when its director and staff are in step. Pietrzak's departure for new adventures -- he has not decided what will be his next project -- allows the opportunity for a strong institution to become even stronger.

"Not many people, first of all, have opportunities to build a museum," Pietrzak said, taking a rare moment to reflect on the breadth of his accomplishment. "Not many do it right and engage the community and bring in innovative ideas. And not many communities then respond to museums the way they've responded to the Burchfield Penney."

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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MONDAY: In "Gathering Places," the 22nd feature in our 30 in 30 campaign, we will highlight one distinctive local place and the unfolding action that takes place there. Look for it in City & Region.

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