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Time to speak up on Albright-Knox expansion is now

Colin Dabkowski

Here is a sample list of fun activities most of us would rather do than attend a public meeting:

Clean behind the fridge. Take the New York State Bar Exam. Do our taxes. Watch a Justin Bieber concert. Be buried alive.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly: complain.

The great American pastime of launching angry and indignant complaints long after it is too late for them to have any effect is probably the number one preferred alternative to attending public meetings on hugely consequential, publicly financed development projects. (See also: voter turnout.)

But sometimes, because we still live in the vestiges of a participatory democracy, it is necessary to add your 2 cents to discussions of great public import. Which is why, if you’d like to have any influence whatsoever on the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s long-brewing plans to launch a major expansion and renovation project, you should just bite the bullet and go to Kleinhans Music Hall at 6 p.m. Wednesday, or to any of three other public meetings scheduled throughout Erie County during the next month.

I promise it won’t hurt a bit. Also, there will be free snacks.

I can understand your reticence.

If you’ve attended a public meeting, you’re probably familiar with the typical approach. Ordinarily, a speaker stands in front of a podium for an hour or more pouring out an endless monotonous stream of indecipherable jargon, designed to act on the audience like verbal Ambien, until such time as people leave or fall asleep. A minute or so of public comment follows, and then: “Well, look at the time. We’ll have to wrap up. Thanks for coming.”

Many public meetings are decorative filigrees on plans that have already been signed and sealed in boardrooms or at City Hall and fail-safes against those inevitable complaints. They often serve as dog-and-pony shows in which both public officials and citizens are bit players in a discount drama that always ends the same way: with the guys in the locked room getting what they want.

Mercifully, this does not appear to be how the Albright-Knox meetings are constructed.

Public presenters don’t get much more engaging than Albright-Knox Director Janne Sirén, who is apt to weave stories about his time as a paratrooper in the Finnish armed services into his commentary on the architectural history and aspirations of the gallery.

Sirén’s compelling sales pitch lasts only about 35 minutes, after which the group splits up into various groups to share feedback with gallery staffers. Group members also write down their thoughts on Post-It notes and put red stickers next to pre-written answers to a series of questions about the gallery’s future written on white boards.

This set-up has pros and cons. On the negative side, dividing the crowd up into smaller groups effectively limits the group’s ability to build consensus around a particular viewpoint. On the positive side, it gives those who are reticent to pipe up in front of a big group of people the chance to contribute their ideas without the pressure of public performance.

Given the gallery’s rather poor track record on public input stemming from its poorly handled 2007 deaccession controversy and the secretive process that led up to these meetings under its new administration, I’m not entirely convinced that the sessions are a great deal more than a pretty punctuation mark toward the end of a long paragraph of planning.

But for the first time in the gallery’s decade-long planning process, the public has the chance and responsibility to make them something more than that. We’ll never know if we don’t participate. And, where millions of dollars of public money are likely to be involved, the stakes are monumentally high.

An important part of our city is about to undergo a major transformation at the hands of the region’s flagship cultural institution. After a long period of meetings behind closed doors, that organization is finally opening up and soliciting your thoughts.

The time to speak up is now.


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