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Done right, art and Statler are good match

Niagara Square, in the very heart of downtown Buffalo, is a study in opposites.

One soaring building on the square, a striking new U. S. courthouse slated to open in less than a year, signals the most significant addition to the Buffalo skyline since the oppressive brown pillar at One HSBC Center went up in 1970. But directly across the street stands the crumbling Statler Towers, a hulking landmark that now is vacant and mothballed, its ground floor sheathed in ugly panels of whitewashed plywood.

This jarring juxtaposition of novelty and decay illustrates the positively wacked-out approach of constructing new, multimillion-dollar structures within a stone's throw of under-used properties ripe for rehabilitation and adaptive reuse. But, despite the dire situation, it provides a kind of opportunity.

At a recent meeting of the city-appointed Buffalo Arts Commission at City Hall, member Don Siuta brought up the suggestion of sponsoring a mural contest, wherein artists would submit proposals and compete to decorate the unsightly hunks of wood that now ring the 87-year-old structure.

There are a scary number of hurdles to clear before such a project could go forward. Since the city doesn't own the building, it would need to get permission from the bankruptcy trustee to modify its facade. The commission itself, underfunded to the point of near-irrelevance, would have no money to pay artists for their work. And in the unlikely event that some entity materializes tomorrow to rehabilitate the building's crumbling infrastructure, the panels may not be up for long.

Siuta and the Arts Commission have their work cut out, but the end goal is by no means impossible. The City of Buffalo should make its job easier by helping to fund the project and clear any red tape that stands in its way.

This proposed contest, in addition to promoting a no-brainer mix of art and civic engagement, could serve as a boon to the Arts Commission, which has been largely ineffective as an instigator and advocate for new public art projects for at least the last decade. With newly appointed chairwoman Catherine Gillespie and several new members, now is an ideal time for the commission to reassert its relevance, attempt to make a visible mark on the spirit of the city and thus prove itself worthy –as many feel it already is –of meaningful funding from the City of Buffalo.

Of course, you have to be realistic about such a project. Acrylic-wielding artists are not going to swoop in

from their Allentown or Elmwood Village enclaves to save the Statler in some hipster fantasy of grassroots adaptive reuse. Nor will a modest mural project likely have much of a tangible effect on the course of the burgeoning movement to save the building. But the role for art in the revival of the structure like this doesn't need to resemble the plot of "Rent" to be successful. It doesn't need to be epic. It can be understated and still worthwhile.

A successful parallel can be found in the 1998 collaboration "Main Street/Art Street: The Windows Project." Fostered by the now moribund Arts Council in Buffalo and Erie County, the project tapped artists to fill in vacant storefronts along Main Street with a variety of installations that used art to both physically occupy and intellectually address the vacant architecture of downtown Buffalo.

It also has to be said that embedded in the attractive possibility of an artist-improved facade is the clear and present danger of actually upping the ugly factor. That's why participants in the project need to be carefully selected and their proposals thoroughly vetted by a group with good credentials and at least a modicum of taste.

And while the idea of inviting high school art students to attempt rudimentary murals on the panels may be charming in theory, the results could be the visual equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard.

Given the approach of the massive, citywide art exhibition "Beyond/In Western New York," it might also make sense to explore the possibility of a collaboration with that ever-growing entity in hopes of lending the project some increased credibility and appeal.

John Massier, a "Beyond/In" organizer and visual arts curator at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, approached the idea of tapping artists to paint on the panels with cautious optimism.

"I have a paradoxical feeling toward it. It's great, but it's kind of like taking some magic markers and painting on a Band-aid. There's nothing wrong with it. It could be dynamic if it's done quickly and the artists are enthused," Massier said. "But at the same time I wish there weren't a need for it. I wish the Statler were getting renovated."

Don't we all. But since no workable rehab project seems to be on the horizon, it makes sense to explore a more immediate alternative to the unacceptable state of Niagara Square.

Armed only with brushes, some paint and a compelling idea, Western New York's artists are uniquely situated to pull something meaningful out of the mothballs. A project like the Arts Commission's, carried out with curatorial wisdom, consideration and speed, could draw some positive attention and civic energy to a situation that will only become worse for being ignored.

It may not bring large-scale or immediate change, but it could add some small measure of beauty to the lives of Buffalonians and visitors alike.

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