There’s no doubt that 2014 was a year of earth-rattling change across Western New York.
Billionaires bought in big-time. Tired old buildings fell and shiny new ones arose in their place seemingly overnight. At the street level, a new restaurant or art gallery seemed to pop up on every other corner every other week.
After years of relative stasis gave way to signs of noticeable growth about a decade ago, it’s now become abundantly clear: The Rust Belt Resurgence is real. And fewer places have borne its effects more visibly in the past 12 months than Buffalo’s hyperactive cultural, entertainment and dining scenes.
This was the year when Buffalo’s food scene blew up in earnest, adding swanky new downtown spots dishing out innovative food and transforming outlying neighborhoods into culinary destinations.
Many of the disappointments and heartbreaks of recent years were erased as if they had never happened, with moviegoers and theater-lovers flocking once again to beloved spaces that had until recently been left for dead.
The music, comedy and theater scenes continued their unabated growth. A statue of a girl with a shark for a head signaled the dawn of a new era of public art across Erie County, while the Albright-Knox Art Gallery officially launched an expansion project that may produce Western New York’s most significant piece of contemporary architecture in decades.
Here are 10 of the top stories from Western New York’s vibrant cultural scene, listed in no particular order:
1. Beyond burgers and fries
This year saw an unprecedented burst of investment and energy in Buffalo-area restaurants, from the opening of the gargantuan (716) sports bar and restaurant at HarborCenter and the addition of the sophisticated Oshun to the downtown dining scene to the buzzworthy arrival of such hipsteresque hangouts as Buffalo Proper, Black Sheep, Hydraulic Hearth and too many more to mention. According to News Food Editor Andrew Galarneau, veteran restaurant operators can’t remember the last time this many ambitious restaurants opened their doors in such a short period of time – and there’s plenty more on the way.
2. An alcohol-fueled renaissance
The city’s newfound excitement about food spilled over into a growing fervor for all things alcoholic, from the microbreweries popping up throughout the city to a craft-cocktail obsession that shows no signs of abating. For proof of the craft brewer’s sudden superstar status, look no further than the game-changing Resurgence Brewery on up-and-coming Niagara Street or the Big Ditch Brewing Co. on Ellicott Street. Incredibly, the city now boasts more craft breweries than at any time since shortly after Prohibition.
3. A gallery gears up for growth
After more than a decade of abortive plans, feasibility studies and speculation, the space-strapped Albright-Knox Art Gallery officially launched a process likely to result in a major renovation and expansion of its historic home in the Museum District. The gallery sought ideas in a series of public meetings about the shape that project will take, making an argument about the dire need for more exhibition space and a building worthy of its world-renowned collection of modern and contemporary art.
4. North Park, Market Arcade and Mohawk Place
The distance between disappointment and redemption on Western New York’s cultural scene is shrinking.
Countless tears were shed by music fans when Mohawk Place closed in early 2013, but its period of dormancy turned out to be short. When the club reopened this fall under new ownership, according to News Pop Music Critic Jeff Miers, it felt just like it used to, with bookings that speak to the “diversity, the sense of surprise, and the energy that made the club a great place to hear new music in the first place.”
It was the same story with the North Park Theatre, which was briefly shuttered last year but came into its full-fledged glory in 2014 after a stunning restoration by its new owners. And movie-lovers once again were spared protracted disappointment with the news that the former Market Arcade Film and Arts Center, which closed late last year, will soon be converted into an updated AMC multiplex.
5. Cultural groups collect clout
When it comes to convincing politicians and foundations to cough up money for cultural groups, it helps to have ammunition. Some heavy artillery came in the form of a new study released in October by the Arts Services Initiative showing that the arts generate 2,900 full-time jobs, $87.4 million in labor income and $4.3 million in local and state tax revenues. That came in handy when, in early December, the Erie County Legislature passed a budget that included a small but significant bump in funding for more than 60 cultural groups large and small.
6. Collaboration reigns on classical music scene
In the classical music scene, News Classical Music Critic Mary Kunz Goldman said, the trend of the year was collaboration. The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra collaborated with Irish Classical Theatre and LehrerDance for “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” the play by Moliere with music by Richard Strauss. Dale Chihuly’s glass works lent glamour to the BPO’s production of Bartok’s opera “Bluebeard Castle.” Those were two of the most talked-about events of the year. LehrerDance also collaborated with Buffalo Opera Unlimited for two jazz operas in June.
Also much talked about was the BPO’s opening gala, featuring soprano Renee Fleming, often named as the world’s most celebrated opera singer. To have her at our gala, so soon after her appearance in January 2014 singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl, was a coup.
7. First Niagara Center draws big names
2014 was a good year to be a pop music fan in downtown Buffalo. In an unusually short timespan, First Niagara Center drew some of the most popular touring acts in the country. It all started in January with a well-received performance from Jay-Z, followed by “reigning queen of pop kitsch” Cher in April. What followed was a 10-day period of pure bliss for pop culture addicts, with performances in rapid succession by Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga.
8. Public fervor for public art
Buffalo’s newfound obsession with public art reached a fever pitch this summer, when “Shark Girl”, the strange and inexplicably entrancing sculpture by Casey Riordan Millard, drew ecstatic, iPhone-wielding crowds to Canalside. Its unveiling, seemingly attended by every politician within a 100-mile radius and accompanied by a pair of fake Twitter accounts, marked the de facto launch of a collaboration among the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Erie County and the City of Buffalo that will bring many more public art projects large and small to a region long starved for them. “Shark Girl” was preceded by a temporary tape-art installation at the Central Library and followed by a community painting project at Hilbert College in Hamburg and the installation of Matthew Hoffman’s “You Are Beautiful” billboards throughout the region.
9. An emerging entertainment district
As the popularity of Buffalo’s waterfront continues its apparently inexorable rise, a new entertainment district is coming into its own in a part of downtown that once went to bed promptly at 5 p.m. Even when the Sabres aren’t playing and the circus isn’t in town, fun-seekers can find plenty to do at a host of new spots: Drinks at the Handlebar on Swan Street, house-made sausages at Ballyhoo in the former Malamute building, music in Buffalo Ironworks in the Cobblestone District, comedy around the corner at Helium, and any number of cultural activities – from ice skating in winter to live theater and music in the summer – at nearby Canalside. What a difference five years makes.
10. Comedy (almost) every night of the week
This was the year that the talent and enthusiasm of Buffalo’s large and diverse stand-up comedy scene was matched by the establishment of new performance spaces, new opportunities for up-and-comers and, perhaps most importantly, new audiences. Since Helium opened in the Cobblestone District in 2012, audiences’ appetites for comedy have grown steadily along with their standards. The upshot? An across-the-board increase in the quality and quantity of comedy in Western New York.