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Arts Access program removes barriers to the arts in Buffalo

For the past several years, I have rarely missed an opportunity to point out that the Buffalo Niagara region is in the midst of a period of stunning cultural growth.

The amount of art and theater-related activity in and around Buffalo, judging only by the crude measure of Gusto listings, has nearly doubled since 2000. A new theater company or gallery seems to open every few months. Grass-roots arts groups have emerged to foster a new generation of alternative art spaces, theater projects and cross-cultural festivals in venues such as Silo City, the empty second floor of the Central Library or even on the city’s post-industrial waterways.

At the same time, Buffalo’s largest institutions have become markedly stronger. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery is now flush with money to buy art and is inching closer to unveiling expansion plans. The Burchfield Penney Art Center is realizing its potential as a community gathering space and a laboratory for innovative art projects. The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, against all odds, is in sterling financial condition.

But in all the conversations about Buffalo’s cultural ascendancy and bandying-about of the term “buffalove,” an entire swath of the city’s population has been largely absent. Among American cities with more than 250,000 residents, Buffalo has the distinction of being the second-poorest, with some 29.9 percent of city-dwellers living below the poverty line.

A new effort launched by the Arts Services Initiative is attempting to include many of those residents, as well as the suburban poor whose numbers are increasing, in the city’s cultural revival. Last week, ASI announced the launch of its Arts Access Program, which will provide free tickets to theater events and museum exhibitions for residents who hold Electronic Benefit Transfer (or EBT) cards and their families.

Given the seemingly intractable issues that account for Buffalo’s persistent poverty problem, from a broken school system to the disappearance of the region’s once-vibrant manufacturing economy, the program cannot hope to be much more than a gesture of hope. But it is an exceedingly important gesture, one that argues loudly for the need to ensure that Buffalo 2.0 will not leave a third of its residents behind.

It would be naive to assume that the working poor of this region, who often hold down two or more jobs with no benefits and have next to no free time, are just dying to attend the current Ken Price retrospective in the Albright-Knox or the Irish Classical Theatre Company’s ongoing production of Moliere’s “School for Husbands.”

But by removing the financial barrier to accessing the arts, the organizers of this program are creating the potential for cultural organizations to build audiences that look more like the region they inhabit. In turn, even if the number of people who take advantage of the program is small, those organizations may start to produce programming more relevant to a broad swath of the community.

If Buffalo’s fortunes are truly improving, then the city has a rare opportunity to devise innovative ways to direct those fortunes at everyone. Dozens of organizations – such as the Partnership for the Public Good, the John R. Oishei and Community foundations, PUSH Buffalo and many small cultural organizations, including Road Less Traveled Productions, Locust Street Neighborhood Art Classes, Ujima Theatre and the African American Cultural Center – are doing important work in this area.

But the Arts Access Program is the cultural community’s most broadly based attempt yet to wield the arts as a tool for improving the fortunes of the entire community.

At a minimum, the program will make those of us who stand to benefit from the cultural and potential economic growth of the region think harder about ways to extend that growth into the East Side and other poverty-plagued areas.

At a time when talk of Buffalo’s rise is practically omnipresent in the more privileged sections of the city, it’s good to see a small but promising effort to invite more people to the table.