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Labor and culture converge in Albright-Knox exhibition

On Monday afternoon, the executive board of the Western New York Area Labor Federation took a field trip.

It wasn’t to a picket line, a local factory in the midst of a labor struggle or a meeting with intransigent managers. Instead, the board of some two dozen representatives from local unions gathered instead around a rectangular table in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s light-filled café, where they talked, among other things, about ramping up their involvement with the region’s vibrant cultural community.

The board and the federation’s president, Richard Lipsitz, came to witness the fruits of their involvement in the gallery’s exhibition “Overtime: The Art of Work,” an excellent survey of artists’ representations of labor since the 19th century. After the meeting, curator Cathleen Chaffee led the group on a tour of the show, which doubles as an overdue exploration of a theme that courses through the whole of art history and a savvy audience-building strategy for the gallery.

This strange-bedfellows relationship between the gallery and local labor unions is the latest evidence of the Labor Federation’s strategy to penetrate areas of the community that until now have been deaf or resistant to its message of fair labor practices, collective bargaining and high-road economic development. They’ve also been screening labor-related films, sponsoring plays at Subversive Theatre Collective (including the upcoming adaptation of Manny Fried’s “The Unamerican”) and are developing a relationship with Buffalo Arts Studio.

The collaboration also seems to signal the dawn of a new and more vigorous commitment to community outreach for the gallery, which took the crowd-pleasing step of making gallery admission free on Sundays through the end of the exhibition’s run on May 17.

“The fact that they joined with us tells me that they’re interested,” Lipsitz said. “It recognizes that the labor movement in this town is alive and well, and it is. It recognizes too that we have something to say about these things, and that our members and friends are out looking for activities to participate in. There’s a lot of skin in the game for the folks who run this building. If they want the art gallery to expand its outreach to the community, we’re the perfect organization to do it with.”

In their tour of the exhibition, the board members clearly responded to the political tone of the show. There is a definite vein of sympathy for the plight of the worker throughout the show, from Agnieszka Kurant’s installation featuring an endless conveyor belt placed in front of a mirror to Honoré Daumier’s “Laundress on the Quai d’Anjou,” both of which express a sense of Kafka-esque repetition, dread and drudgery only underpaid laborers understand. There are also locally beloved pieces like Thomas Le Clear’s 1853 painting “Buffalo Newsboy,” which because of Chaffee’s smart positioning becomes easy to read as a critique of the 19th-century tendency to idealize child labor practices.

For Chaffee, who proposed the show almost immediately upon her arrival at the gallery last year, it represents an opportunity both to tap into the gallery’s huge collection of work about labor and a way to build bridges with segments of the community who do not typically come to the gallery.

“Attempting to open the museum a little bit is something we all wish we could do more often,” Chaffee said. “I don’t care if you own the factory or you work in it, this is very relatable.”

For Lipsitz, who noted that local union membership is strong at about 23 to 25 percent as opposed to the national average of 11 percent, cultural outreach is one small part of the federation’s broader efforts to change the perception of the role of unions in democratic society.

“We want to support progressive activities in all kinds of aspects of social life. So it’s not just cultural. It’s economic. It’s political. It’s legislative,” he said. “We see cultural work as important to the quality of life in the community and we should support the arts generally. And in particular, we should support art which recognizes the history, role and current impact of working-class people on society. This exhibition actually does that.”

Throughout much of its history, like many museums, the Albright-Knox did little to dispel the notion of the museum as a kind of playground for wealthy patrons and donors to which the public was invited as a kind of afterthought. That changed dramatically with the arrival of Louis Grachos in 2003 with a wider embrace of the local cultural community, and by extension a broader audience.

All signs point to the gallery further distancing itself from that history of elitism, through programs such as its ambitious public art project (see: “Shark Girl”), an expanded educational program and upcoming collaborations with Daemen College and the University at Buffalo aimed at fostering visual literacy among children.

At the same time, the labor movement locally and nationally has sometimes been viewed as narrow-minded at best and obstructionist at worst in its approach to issues beyond the bargaining table. Whether or not that perception is accurate, programs like the Labor Federation’s growing cultural outreach program have the potential to recast the public perception of unions at a time when they’re under increasing scrutiny and attack.

In this equation, culture wins and labor wins. And that means everybody wins.