On Tuesday, Jan. 13, faithful fans of the Buffalo Sabres poured into the First Niagara Center or flipped on their flat-screens to watch the team retire the number of Dominik Hasek, one of the greatest players in franchise history.
It ought to have been a joyous occasion. But the consensus on Twitter, and in this building, was that the ceremony lacked the pomp and circumstance befitting its honoree’s legacy.
Sabres fans, as they have become all too accustomed to doing, let out a collective sigh before watching the team go down, 3-1, to the Detroit Red Wings. But a select group of hockey fanatics was especially disappointed in one aspect of the ceremony much of the coverage overlooked: The unveiling of a new painting by San Jose artist Mark Gray of Hasek flanked by Sabres teammates Michael Peca, Richard Smehlik and Alexei Zhitnik.
When news about Sabres’ commission of a painting by an artist from outside this art-crazed region hit Facebook, the reaction from Buffalo’s creative community was swift and merciless. Disappointment deepened into anger.
“I think that there are probably 39 artists in Buffalo who could have done something like or better than this,” said Sabres fan and Burchfield Penney Art Center curator Scott Propeack in a Facebook post. “A misstep in Hockey Heaven, unless Hockey Heaven is where hockey fans go to kill artists.”
The comment stream that followed was filled with both righteous indignation – “Barf,” one eloquent poster wrote – and humorous harping over the fact that a San Jose artist was chosen to memorialize Hasek’s time with the Sabres rather one of dozens of capable local painters.
Local artists and curators were upset, understandably, over what seemed to be just the latest in an endless series of snubs, dismissals and elisions borne by the region’s thriving community of visual artists. Considering the fact that the Sabres’ popular statue of the French Connection and Tim Hortons’ commission of a sculpture of its namesake were created by Texas-based artist Jerry McKenna, the team seems to be getting a reputation for overlooking the cultural resources that surround them.
In the case of the Hasek painting, Sabres spokesman Michael Gilbert explained that the situation is a bit more complicated than it might appear.
The final choice rested not with the team, Gilbert said, but with Hasek himself. He also said that the team submitted sketches by local artist Ron Bailey, who has created artwork for the Sabres in the past, but ultimately lost out the commission to Gray. He also noted that photographs by the likes of Bill Wippert and Ron Moscati line the walls of the First Niagara Center and that one of them, by Moscati, was the inspiration for the French Connection sculpture.
Asked whether the Sabres feel a responsibility to the local cultural community when the team seeks out commissions, Gilbert gave an unequivocal yes.
“It’s absolutely a concern. We’re a Buffalo team. We’re a Buffalo-based team, and we always try to do that. That’s why we submitted Ron’s stuff. We just didn’t make the final selection as to the type of picture, drawing or painting that was made. Dom did that,” Gilbert said. “But in the future when we have other things like this, when we have more control over it, I think you’ll see us using Ron or others who we’ve used in the past. … We’d always like to use local people if we could.”
Gilbert’s even-handed response, I think, ought to give local arts supporters and painters some hope about the organization’s evolving understanding of its place in the wider culture of Western New York.
Yes, there’s something inarguably dismaying about a local institution’s real or perceived ignorance about its cultural surroundings. (Especially when, in the case of the Sabres, that institution has benefited from an exhibition celebrating its 40th anniversary in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.)
But that line of critique can go too far, reinforcing the kind of grim parochialism that insists local resources and people be used exclusively for everything. It’s integral to the growth of the region that we look outside for inspiration and talent, the better to understand and improve our own stature in the world.
In the case of the Hasek painting, a riot of blue and yellow that feels tossed-off and oddly proportioned, I feel confident in saying any of at least a dozen Western New York painters could have done a better job. Classically trained sculptors are somewhat more difficult to come by here, but we’ve got them.
It seems clear that the Sabres, an organization as integral to the culture of Western New York institution as any, could have made a more concerted effort to reach into the swirling talent pool of Western New York artists and sculptors who would have jumped at the chance to honor their home team.
It might have made for a bright spot on an otherwise dull night.