In the early 1980s, the fledgling performance artist Karen Finley sent out 50 manila envelopes to 50 arts organizations across the United States, each one containing a VHS videotape and a handwritten note.
Hallwalls was the only one to respond.
So, in 1982 at the invitation of performance curator Tony Billoni, Finley took a train from Chicago to Buffalo and made her professional debut on an ad-hoc stage in Hallwalls’ space at 700 Main St. Because Billoni and Hallwalls took a chance on Finley, they helped to launch one of the most acclaimed performance art careers in America.
On Friday night, Finley returned to Buffalo, as she has many times since her professional debut, to help celebrate the 40th anniversary of Hallwalls, the radically open-minded arts center that has survived through countless funding crises and forged an international reputation by taking chances on artists like her.
“I want to be here for this moment,” Finley said before a large crowd in Babeville’s Asbury Hall. “It’s important for me, for my life as an artist and also for me as an artistic citizen. I want to honor this institution and what it provides for not only the community, but I feel for our nation as well.”
Friday night’s event was a quintessential Hallwalls affair, mixing a sense of the organization’s important history with its irrepressible, forward-looking spirit.
The program featured videos from Hallwalls extensive archives, including snippets of Finley’s debut, performances by the iconic drag artist Ethyl Eichelberger and the pianist and composer Yvar Mikhashoff. The crowd also got a glimpse of the original Hallwalls crew in a roundtable discussion: Charlie Clough, Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman and others.
Current and former Hallwalls staffers also offered up poignant reflections on the organization’s history and its spirit, portraying it as an “extraordinary, unlikely institution” unique among American arts organizations.
“Hallwalls was my first real job, although I hesitate to call it that because it was such an unreal place at the time I was here. It was like a giant playground,” said Ron Ehmke, who was Hallwalls’ performance art curator from 1986 to 1994. “It’s a miracle that it’s still around because it seemed like it existed on a thread the entire time I was here. We were worried about funding, we were worried about all kinds of things, and yet, day after day, things happened, things existed, things grew, and they continue to grow, which I think is amazing.”
For the current Hallwalls crew, which is down to a skeleton staff of two full-time workers and six part-timers from its 1990 level of seven full-time and 10 part-time positions, keeping the organization open is a constant concern. Forty years after its founding, the experimental spirit that drove Hallwalls in its heyday remains as strong as it’s ever been. But federal and state funding, which has been on the decline since the culture wars of the early 1990s, does not.
“Hallwalls is still dangling by a thread,” said Hallwalls’ part-time music director Steve Baczkowski. “I always expect to come and the doors will be locked up and everything will be shut down, but it never happens. It never happens. Despite that thread, it never breaks. And that’s a testimony to the extraordinary community that we have here.”
Under executive director Edmund Cardoni, who has led Hallwalls for more than 20 years, the organization built its international reputation and became one of the most visible and active representatives of Buffalo’s remarkably diverse and active cultural community.
For an organization founded on the principle of freewheeling experimentation, Hallwalls embodies some strange juxtapositions: It’s served as a reliable beacon of outward stability in the community and a laboratory for unhinged experimentation; a proponent of radical art for small but committed audiences and a champion of creativity as a community-wide building block.
These tasks are not easy to maintain or quantify in an atmosphere that demands meticulous data and measurable outcomes for even the smallest investment. But what number represents Hallwalls’ function as a launchpad for the Karen Finleys of the world? What collection of data captures the vital role it has served as the voice of a cultural community?
“At Hallwalls, I did not have to validate, explain, justify,” Finley said in a short piece she wrote to mark the anniversary about the early spirit of the organization. “The art was enough.”
Lately, alas, the consistently high quality, volume and breadth of exhibitions, events, concerts and other activities Hallwalls continues to present with its minimal staff has not been enough to create financial stability for the organization. Despite that, it has found ways to persevere. And though the road ahead will doubtless be even more challenging, here’s hoping it finds ways to make it another 40 years.