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Encouraging prospects for Buffalo's public art

Colin Dabkowski

In Buffalo, one benefit of undergoing a regionwide renaissance is that you are forced to start following your own laws.

Case in point: In 1999, the administration of Mayor Anthony M. Masiello – with stars in its eyes about the city’s future and a comprehensive plan nearing completion – wrote an important law into the city charter. In terms vague enough to be selectively ignored with little consequence, that law required the city to set aside 1 percent of every capital project involving more than $1 million of city money for public art.

Of course, those optimistic lawmakers had no inkling at the time that the tech crash or the attacks of Sept. 11 were right around the corner, along with several years of fiscal instability. Almost overnight, the “law” transformed from a binding stipulation in the city charter to an overly ambitious new year’s resolution.

Since 1999, there have been dozens of capital projects on which the city spent $1 million. But, according to News Staff Reporter Jill Terreri, no one at City Hall or anywhere else could name more than two projects that followed the law. As Terreri wrote in her Friday story on new efforts to enforce the law, those were a mural in the B District police station and the decorative doors of the Frank E. Merriweather Library.

Resuscitating the law has been a preoccupation of the local visual arts community for years, but until recently no one from the Kafkaesque fortress of City Hall seemed interested in responding. I made several futile inquires of the Brown administration over a year about the status of the law, and none were returned.

Much of the thanks for this new development goes to Delaware Council Member Michael J. LoCurto, who sponsored a council resolution to impel the city to follow the regulation. He has paid more attention and appears to be more committed to the cultural vitality of the region than any city official in at least a decade.

LoCurto said the law merely fell victim to other priorities.

“I think it’s not always malicious,” LoCurto said, raising important questions about what other overlooked laws might lurk in the city charter. “I think there’s things in there that people don’t realize, and very few people have an actual copy of the charter. I assume the law department does.”

It’s not an act of serendipity that the Brown administration is now suddenly trying to repair its broken promise. It’s the result of a years-long campaign of questions and complaints from the cultural community, whose message has finally become too loud to ignore.

LoCurto is that rare city politician with a genuine sensitivity to the concerns of the community and an ability to codify those concerns into a binding document. His resolution, fueled by years of community frustration over this issue, will help to relaunch a stagnant program that could potentially remove the rust that still stubbornly clings to Buffalo’s public image.

The region is poised to make a great leap forward in the public art realm, both because of the city’s renewed interest and the recent appointment of Aaron Ott as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s first public art curator. Ott’s salary is funded by Erie County and the new art that we’ll shortly be seeing around the county is funded by the Albright-Knox – a public, non-profit partnership much more progressive than we’re used to seeing in these parts.

“The Albright-Knox’s Board of Directors and staff are committed to the importance of public art and we enthusiastically applaud the city’s renewed efforts to commit funds to its public art program,” Ott said in a statement on Friday. “This will be an important addition to the public art initiative that Erie County approved in its most recent budget.”

Ott, who arrived earlier this month from Chicago, where he worked as an independent curator, is determined to make art a bigger part of the conversation in the Buffalo-Niagara region.

His goal, he said, is not merely to plop new sculptures into public places (though this also is desperately needed) but to create projects that make citizens pause and think about their visual and social surroundings in new ways.

Ott has arrived at precisely the right time, as the city’s residents and elected leaders are simultaneously coming around to the idea that a region’s identity has a great deal to do with its visual culture. And that public art – whether it takes the form of a decorative library door, a massive downtown sculpture or a community-wide mural project – is not some frivolous luxury but a vital public obligation.


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