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Two big departures in Buffalo’s art world leave room for new blood

The tight-knit art community of Western New York got a double-dose of disappointing news last week, when longtime curators Sandra Q. Firmin of the University at Buffalo Art Gallery and Cori Wolff of Buffalo Arts Studio announced they’d be leaving for new jobs in other cities.

In her 13 years at UB, Firmin consistently mounted challenging and mind-opening exhibitions and oversaw a residency program that brought dozens of talented artists to Western New York from around the world. Wolff, who took control of Buffalo Arts Studio from its founder Joanna Angie in 2012 after several years as its artistic director, helped to stabilize that rickety organization while curating an ambitious series of excellent shows.

These are two remarkably talented and hard-working people, and their departures will leave two glaring holes on the local art scene. But it will also make way for a vital infusion of new blood, a natural feature of any healthy ecology that nonetheless comes as cold comfort in this particular case.

With organizations as small as Buffalo Arts Studio and even midsized ones such as UB’s art gallery, the personality and style of the lead curator or executive director permeates everything.

At Buffalo Arts Studio, it was evident in the visually alluring and accessible style of the art on view, which under Wolff’s tenure ranged from the tortured trees of David Schirm to the playful, naturalistic wood sculptures of Jesse Walp. The fact that she did this all while guiding the organization through an especially difficult financial time makes her accomplishments there all the more remarkable.

Wolff’s new job with Cincinnati’s public art program ArtWorks is the perfect move for her, a role where she’ll be able to change the daily lives of citizens who have never set foot in an art gallery.

At UB Art Gallery, Firmin’s more intellectual bent and focus on conceptual art with connections to issues outside the art world – the evolution of technology, the changing natural environment, the revival of cities – came across in everything she did. Though I too often found Firmin’s writing about the exhibitions she curated esoteric and potentially off-putting to art world neophytes, the shows themselves were of consistently high quality and always aimed at expanding her audience’s understanding of the world around them. Not just the art world.

The brightest feather in Firmin’s cap has to be her extraordinary, meticulously researched “Artpark: 1974-1984,” an exhaustive but not remotely exhausting look at the heyday of the Lewiston institution that helped foster so many international art careers. She’ll no doubt bring that same academic rigor to her new job as director of the University of Colorado Boulder Art Museum.

Both Wolff and Firmin were key organizers of the Beyond/In Western New York exhibitions of 2007 and 2010, two of the greatest cultural achievements in recent local history.

It helps that this double-whammy of bad news was tempered with a bit of good news, as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery announced the much-anticipated appointment of Chicago-based curator Aaron Ott to serve as the gallery’s new public art curator.

Ott’s appointment, after a search that produced more than three dozen applicants from Buffalo and far beyond, bodes well for the region. The position is funded by Erie County and the art is funded by the Albright-Knox, a kind of public-private partnership that has helped to revitalize many other American and European cities and will go a long way to increasing Western New Yorkers’ limited exposure to contemporary art.

At times like this, when the ground beneath such vital institutions as the UB Art Gallery and Buffalo Arts Studio seems to be giving way, it’s important to remember that we’re witnessing the natural evolution of the scene.

As former Albright-Knox Art Gallery director Louis Grachos said when he announced his departure for Austin in 2012, new blood is always good for a community.

“Ten years is a good (amount of) time for any museum,” Grachos said before he left Buffalo. “It’s nothing about not being competent or not being an outstanding director or curator, but it’s about the realities of the cultural arena.”

Firmin’s 13 years at UB and Wolff’s six years at Buffalo Arts Studio yielded incredible things for Western New York’s cultural world. Their shoes will be difficult to fill, and their contributions are likely to linger for decades more.


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