Long before “Shark Girl” materialized on the banks of the Buffalo River, before Shayne Dark’s jarring organic sculptures sprouted at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens and before Buffalo began its deepening romance with the urban mural, Western New York was home to one of the most successful public art projects in American history.
That project, which drew half a million people to the edge of the Niagara Gorge to take in challenging sculptures, performances and installations every summer from 1974 until the mid-1980s, was called Artpark.
In its heyday, the Lewiston venue was a multipronged miracle – an impossible fusion of the populist and the avant garde, a wondrously anti-institutional institution somehow both funded and embraced by the public. But as public funds dwindled and the culture wars of the late ’80s commenced, Artpark began its slow transition away from ambitious and risky public art projects and toward safer bets like musicals, rock acts and the free or cheap weeknight concerts for which the venue has lately become known.
But this year, after more than two decades of atrophy and a few promising artistic warmups in recent seasons, Artpark is reconnecting with its roots in a significant way.
On Monday, a group of artists from fine arts masters’ degree programs from across the eastern United States descended on Lewiston to begin a series of residencies that will produce five new temporary installations clustered around the entrance to the Mainstage Theatre.
They are Soe Yu Nwe of the Rhode Island Institute of Design, Caroline Doherty of the University at Buffalo, Becky Sellinger of Virginia Commonwealth University, Ryan Pecknik of the Ontario College of Art and Design and Tommy Coleman of Yale University.
The projects will include Coleman’s sculpture of a 30-foot radio tower laid on its side and emitting a recording of one of the most memorable Artpark projects of yore, Sellinger’s hollowed-out Airstream trailer featuring an immersive video installation, Doherty’s series of new park signs written in the highly endangered Tuscarora language and Nwe’s ceramic serpent woven into the landscape.
“When Artpark opened in 1974, it was a playground for cutting-edge artists creating new and unusual art experiences for the public, in an environment that was the first of its kind,” said Tanis Winslow, Artpark’s visual arts and family programming director, in a statement. “I want to give [a] venue to these new art ideas and give them an audience in the way that Artpark sought to when it first opened. I hope that this residency program is an inaugural experience and that will become an annual event at Artpark.”
In addition to the residency projects, the venue has also commissioned a mural by popular Buffalo artist Chuck Tingley that will greet visitors on their way into the theater and a quiet sculptural installation by Bethany Krull in a willow tree behind the theater.
For Tommy Coleman, an MFA student at Yale University, the opportunity to be a part of the park’s artistic resurgence is “incredibly exciting.”
His installation, a replica of a radio tower on its side with a slab of earth still attached, contains audio of Chris Burden’s famous “Beam Drop” installation of 1984, during which massive steel I-beams were dropped from cranes into a bed of wet concrete to form a kind of randomized sculpture. Coleman said he was in touch with Burden about the project a week prior to the artist’s death in May, and has also drawn inspiration from famous Artpark alumni such as Vito Acconci, Lynda Benglis and Martin Puryear.
“Being able to play the sound of Chris Burden’s I-beams dropping for people to hear again is really powerful,” he said. “Artpark has changed a lot over the years. But I guess that’s kind of what makes this program right now really exciting. It’s a chance to start anew, and we get to test some boundaries and set up new ones.”
To be sure, this residency program doesn’t have the budget, the resources or the reputation of its predecessor. And there’s a lot more bureaucracy and red tape involved than Burden and his contemporaries ever had to deal with.
Even so, the young artists working here through June 20 and their challenging projects seem to signal a welcome new appetite from the institution to honor and revive its own extraordinary artistic legacy.
“If more artists had the opportunity to work in such close contact with their audience,” the critic Lucy Lippard wrote in an excerpt quoted in the catalog for the University at Buffalo’s landmark exhibition “Artpark 1974-1984,” “this could be the birthplace of a genuinely public art – neither equestrian statues nor their abstract counterparts but an art that belongs where it is and to the people there, illuminating the history and development of the area and becoming a heightened part of the experience of the place.”
Lippard’s great hope for Artpark never exactly came true, even in the midst of the experiment. Once the ’90s arrived, that hope was all but extinguished. But this summer, in a quiet but promising way, it’s coming back to life.