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Snarking on ‘Shark Girl’ won’t get you far in Buffalo

Well, that was fast.

It took a grand total of 90 minutes after the debut of Casey Riordan Millard’s popular “Shark Girl” sculpture on Buffalo’s waterfront Tuesday for the first naysaying politician to chime in with a searing critique.

“You paid for this statue folks,” Erie County Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy wrote on Twitter, invoking the common refrain of conservative culture warriors everywhere. “What a terrific waste of taxpayer money.”

Except that it wasn’t.

A few minutes later, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz responded to Langworthy’s strongly worded outburst with a statement so smooth it might have been prewritten: “Actually ... you didn’t,” Poloncarz wrote, going on to say that the sculpture was paid for out of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s private art fund. “Thx 4 shooting first and asking questions later.”

Poloncarz’s response speaks to the remarkable ingenuity of the new three-way public art collaboration among the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Erie County and the City of Buffalo, which effectively insulates the county and city against criticism from those who would accuse officials of funneling public funds into art projects they don’t like.

The reaction to Langworthy’s gaffe and Poloncarz’s rebuttal was swift and merciless, the Internet equivalent of the sound a group of high school boys make after a really good “your mom” joke. Langworthy did not even attempt a comeback.

But when I caught up with Langworthy on Wednesday morning to talk about the innovative public-private art partnership, he stuck by his statement. He noted that while no public money directly funded the statue, public funds do support the salary of Albright-Knox Public Art Curator Aaron Ott as well as the operation of the gallery in general.

“We absolutely are heavily funding the Albright-Knox and many other cultural things, and I think there’s certainly room for public support for the arts. But I think that particular ‘Shark Girl,’ is rather absurd,” Langworthy said.

Which, of course, is exactly the point of the sculpture. It is an unexpected interruption of Canalside’s developing visual landscape, an object designed to transport you out of the moment and to activate some dormant part of your imagination.

It’s just that for some who have been disenchanted by the art world’s long and self-defeating march toward exclusivity over the past several decades, that dank part of the imagination has been dormant for so long that it needs some help waking up.

When it comes to public art, there are those who wouldn’t be happy with anything other than another bronze Buffalo or a statue of Jimmy Griffin holding a six-pack and waving an American flag. But I don’t think Langworthy is one of them.

In many ways, you can’t really blame him or others who have had instant negative reactions to the sculpture for responding the way they have. But what you can blame them for is employing their knee-jerk reactions for political gain.

“When lacking an informed position, resort to invoking the ‘taxpayer,’ ” Tod A. Kniazuk, director of the Arts Services Initiative, wrote on Facebook in response to Langworthy’s tweet. “I hope to never use many of the services my taxes go toward like the holding center, probation, or many county roads, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have them.”

Where the political opportunist and the armchair art critic meet, you’ll always find people like Langworthy, who are only too eager to retrofit their knee-jerk reactions about art into a dubious political argument.

Let me put it this way:

Though I appreciate the on-field antics of the Buffalo Bills in the abstract way I imagine many Bills fans appreciate the paintings in the Albright-Knox, I understand that the team’s worth to Western New York’s quality of life and its collective psyche is incalculable. The fact that the Bills are a terrible football team shouldn’t make any difference in the amount of public funding they receive. And while I think the public subsidies for Ralph Wilson Stadium are wildly overinflated, it would seem inadvisable to tie the amount the team receives to how much it entertains me, a person with only a passing interest in football.

So it is with people like Langworthy and many of his local and national colleagues, who have often employed public arts funding as a tool to sow division among the electorate and to create false enemies.

The good news is that this cynical tactic is finally losing its luster in Western New York, where a dawning awareness about the importance of our cultural landscape is gradually transforming the region into a more artistically progressive place.

Five years ago, a three-way partnership among the Albright-Knox, the county and the city designed essentially to feed Western New Yorkers imaginations would have been unthinkable. Five years ago, public officials could not have cared less about public art. Now they’ve taken it up as a cause, out of some combination of political expedience and genuine enthusiasm for art.

And whether you love “Shark Girl” or hate her, that’s an accomplishment worth applauding.


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