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Now seeking a cultural plan for Buffalo

On May 18, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed legislation to launch the city’s first comprehensive cultural plan.

The two-year survey of New York City’s diverse cultural environment, according to the New York Times, will “analyze its current cultural priorities, assess how service to different neighborhoods can be improved, study the condition of arts organizations and artists, and plan how the city can remain artist-friendly in a time of high rents and other economic pressures.”

With that signature, New York City joined the growing ranks of American cities that have prioritized the arts as integral to their economic and educational well-being. Perhaps more importantly, those cities – Austin, Houston, Denver, Chicago and others – also have acknowledged a need to address uneven access to cultural activities among citizens.

But Buffalo, despite a recent dawning of cultural awareness among elected officials from the city and county along with several promising public arts programs, has not yet produced a long-term vision for culture’s role in the region’s resurgence.

But since Western New York is a much different place than New York City or Chicago, does it really need a long-term cultural plan that mirrors those of cities several times our size?

“It is definitely something that’s been identified as a need for our area,” said Tod Kniazuk, director of the Arts Services Initiative of Western New York. “It’s something that lots of folks in the field look at and think it’s a good idea.”

Indeed, ASI applied for a grant from the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council to put a cultural planning process in motion a few years ago but were not successful. Now, Kniazuk said, his organization is revisiting the idea of fostering a plan.

The cultural plans of the past few years have mostly emerged from government-funded departments whose employees – sometimes after a great deal of prodding – have acknowledged a lack of understanding about the cultural environment around them. Locally, where there is no dedicated government agency charged with overseeing and promoting the cultural vitality of the region, a cultural planning effort would need to look much different.

That puts the onus on groups like the Arts Services Initiative and the Great Buffalo Cultural Alliance, two groups that grew in part out of the Erie County cultural funding crisis of 2011, to launch and spearhead a planning process.

“It should come from the field. It needs to be reflective of the people who are going to be asked to live this and move it forward, and so I think that the answer is that the city of Buffalo and Erie County and New York State, our government partners, our funding partners, our business partners, absolutely have to be part of this,” Kniazuk said. “They have to be involved in some way, but I think it is stronger for it to come from the field and be owned by the field. It’s not simply, ‘How is the city going to invest in arts and culture?’ It’s, ‘How is the cultural sector going to work together, come together, plan together and move forward together?’ ”

We can complain, and should, that neither Erie County nor Buffalo has a dedicated cultural office beyond the severely limited mandate of the Buffalo Arts Commission. But like the period of uncertainty and fear that created such productive solidarity among local arts groups in 2011, the absence of a public entity like Denver’s Arts and Venues office or New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs might actually be an opportunity.

“What happens when the next city leader comes in or county leader comes in? We see that priorities shift depending on who’s in charge. And that’s part of the risk if it’s a city-owned or county-owned plan,” Kniazuk said. “If it’s of the sector, some of the circumstances in which we work, some of the context in which we work may change, but at the end of the day we’re still us.”

In Buffalo, where so many piecemeal cultural projects of great vision are being launched – from the artistic laboratory that is Silo City to the ambitious Ferry Street Corridor Project– it would be useful to have a plan that links all those efforts together and points them, collectively, toward the public good.

A bona fide cultural plan “allows us to think very broadly about issues like equity and access and diversity,” Kniazuk said. “Arts and culture helped rebuild this region. We’re leaders in moving this region forward. Now we have to make sure we have a plan as to how we continue to move forward so that other things don’t pass us by.”