If you have ever set foot into Buffalo's art world for even a brief moment, chances are you've crossed paths with Gerald Mead.
Since the late 1980s, Mead has been a smiling, benevolent presence at most any gallery opening, art auction or party worth going to, from the huge, multi-exhibition affairs in CEPA Gallery to the smallest reception at Indigo on Allen Street.
In the span of a few hours on a recent Friday night, Mead bounced back and forth among six separate openings, ranging from a show of work by his colleague Josef Bajus in the Canisius College library to a site-specific installation in SP@CE 224, a tiny art gallery in Allentown.
The omnipresent Mead always makes it a point to greet the artist with a look in the eye and a sincere and knowledgeable question about the artist's work.
Mead is inarguably Buffalo's most visible and socially active art collector and has come to be considered a guiding and indispensable figure on Western New York's art scene. Since beginning his collecting career in earnest in 1987, Mead estimates he has attended some 2,500 art openings in galleries and museums across the region. In the process, he has amassed an impressive collection of 550 works by 470 artists who have called Western New York home.
For Michael Beam, a curator at the Castellani Art Museum at Niagara University in Lewiston, Mead is carrying a torch passed on to him from Charles Penney, the late Lockport collector whose name adorns the side of the Burchfield Penney Art Center.
"Charlie Penney had a mercurial, unrelenting dedication to collecting as well as supporting his artists regionally. As far as Jerry goes, I think he is in the exact same vein. That is his life. That's what he does," Beam said. "He attends everything, he knows everyone, but more importantly he also sets a very strong example."
"I have kind of an insatiable appetite for art -- for art and artists -- because really, the two can't be separated," Mead said. "The highest compliment that you can pay an artist is to come to their opening reception, and to see their work. An artist makes something not to be in a vacuum. They make it to be experienced and enjoyed and to be part of the public dialogue."
Now Mead, a prolific assemblage artist and a former longtime curator at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, is inviting the public to take a look at the fruits of his long and ongoing obsession, with "Public/Private," a major exhibition of works from his collection paired with pieces from the Castellani Art Museum. It is on view through Aug. 14.
The exhibition, the latest and largest in a series of shows culled at least in part from Mead's trove of local artworks, is aimed at highlighting the differences between collections amassed by public museums and the often more idiosyncratic contents of their private counterparts. If such a seemingly esoteric project sounds less than enticing on its surface, a look at the range of pieces on view and the often fascinating stories behind them in the exhibition may put that argument to bed.
For instance, a pairing of two large canvases by the watercolorist Robert Blair -- a contemporary of Charles Burchfield -- have a kind of conversation with one another. One, an untitled landscape from Mead's collection, shows streaks of lightning flashing over a lushly rendered autumn landscape. Next to that, the Castellani's "Canyon," a 1975 painting by Blair, shows a ruddy southwestern landscape rendered in brilliant hues of red and orange. Together, the pieces tell a story about an artist whose brush took him on travels far and wide in search of poignant scenes of natural beauty.
On the opposite wall, two photographs by Josh Iguchi, both from 1993, speak of an important time and place in Buffalo's art scene. Iguchi, one of the founders of Buffalo's Big Orbit Gallery, sits at a long table littered with cans of Old Vienna beer and surrounded by his friends, all Buffalo art-world types, in a configuration meant to mirror da Vinci's "The Last Supper." Like many other pieces in Mead's collection, Iguchi's work represents a snapshot in time of the Buffalo art scene, which has served as the temporary stomping ground for dozens of successful artists who spent time at Buffalo State College or the University at Buffalo before going on to careers in New York City or elsewhere.
Other loaded pairings include two excellent, tongue-in-cheek early photographs by the wildly successful artist Cindy Sherman, a synergistic pair of works by Joseph Piccillo, two small works by the noted North Tonawanda-born painter Robert Mangold, a pair of photographs from John Pfahl's "Altered Landscapes" series and two engrossing pieces incorporating Eastern European architecture by the artist Endi Poskovic. Work by transient artists like Poskovic, if not for taste-making collectors like Mead and Elizabeth Licata, who gifted her own piece to the Castellani, might have never entered a public collection at all.
The show, as a whole, demonstrates Mead's preference for small, compact works -- as much an aesthetic decision in line with his own miniature art-making as a practical one, given his modest financial resources and limited storage space. More than some other collectors whose tastes can tend toward the eccentric, Mead's goal is to build a museum-quality collection with little more than one representative piece from each artist. Thus his collection looks very much at home in a museum environment -- a place where the works will undoubtedly end up.
And in addition to his passion for bringing works into his own collection in what he admits is a quixotic attempt to create an "encyclopedic" record of art-making in Western New York, Mead never misses an opportunity to proselytize for his hobby in the hopes of spreading the collecting bug to others. He is out to demolish the notion that art collecting is a rich man's game, noting that many pieces can be had for less than $100, and a great deal of what's on sale in Western New York is priced at less than $1,000.
On the occasion of a 2004 survey of his own miniature assemblages in the Castellani, Mead made a point to ensure that as many people as possible left the show with a bona fide piece of his art. On the back of each of the 1,000 exhibition programs printed for the show, Mead left a blue thumbprint. The tongue-in-cheek caption: "Artist's thumbprint, 2004, edition of 1,000, Sherwin-Williams 'Revel Blue' semigloss latex. 1 7/8 . Courtesy of the artist."
And tonight, in attempt to indoctrinate even more people into the art of art collecting, Mead and Beam (who organized the exhibition), will host an event dubbed "The MEAD Party: An Art Infused Celebration." The night will feature videos by Kyle Butler and Sylvie Belanger, art-based performances by Rob Lynch and Jonathan Hughes, a "design-your-own-cupcake" station overseen by Zilly Rosen of Zillycakes, along with index card caricatures of each attendee by illustrator David Saracino and mini-Polaroid portraits by photographer Nancy Parisi.
For Mead, collecting has been as much about the art itself as about the relationships and friendships he's forged with the artists. His collection, far more than a trove of objects, represents something much deeper -- a life lived in devotion to the arts. The feeling of satisfaction he gets from looking out at the exhibition and reflecting on how he built it is something Mead is dedicated to spreading.
"Someone once asked me what my favorite piece in my collection is. That would be like if I had five children, who would be my favorite child?" he said. "Actually, in reality, my temporary favorite is always the one that I just acquired."
WHEN: Through Aug. 14
WHERE: Castellani Art Museum, Niagara University, Lewiston
FOR INFO: www.castellaniartmuseum.org