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The case for leaving Buffalo behind

In the New Buffalo, rents are impossibly cheap.

In the New Buffalo, opportunities for artists are unlimited.

In the New Buffalo, all you need to achieve your dreams is a positive attitude, an unlimited supply of moxie and a $3.00 pour-over to propel you from one accomplishment to the next.

One minor thing about this New Buffalo you’ve been hearing about, though? It doesn’t quite exist. At least not yet.

For some artists and creative types who have made names for themselves here over the past decade or longer, the siren song of Buffalove is starting to sound a little hollow. For them, the renaissance narrative is crashing hard on the rocks of reality. And so, as Katie Couric fawns over Canalside and millennials put down roots, some great Buffalo talents are pulling up stakes and heading for brighter lights and bigger paychecks.

Among them are Tim Newell, perhaps Buffalo’s most popular and busiest actor, who left last year to prove himself in the more fertile theatrical community of Chicago. Katie Sehr, one of the region’s most gifted artists whose intricate abstract drawings are in dozens of private collections as well as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and Burchfield Penney Art Center, floated downstream to Hudson to connect with the more lucrative New York City art market. And Ian Be, a lesser-known performer who was an essential part of Buffalo’s grass-roots culture and the countercultural vibe of Buffalo Infringement Festival, reached the end of his curiosity about the 716 and decamped for the 850 – that’s Pensacola, Fla.

To be sure, the departure of a handful of creative talents for greener pastures in no way invalidates the new story Buffalo has been telling about itself, which is filled with too many success stories to count and some serious potential for the future. Creative attrition is a natural feature of any healthy culture, and we should avoid reading too much into these artists’ decisions to leave rising Buffalo behind.

Even so, their loss represents a reminder about the creative limitations of Western New York, which remain in place despite the positive press and the influx of public money and other investment that is quickly reshaping the skyline and providing more opportunities for certain privileged demographics. As the Brooklynization of the former Rust Belt accelerates, aided by a steady supply of bright-eyed millennials with big dreams and minuscule checking accounts, reversing the oxidation of past decades for those in the arts is proving harder than the prevailing narrative might suggest.

For Newell, who worked in Buffalo’s top theaters for more than 20 years and is perhaps best known for his roles with Shakespeare in Delaware Park and Theatre of Youth, the decision to leave town was about a lack of new opportunities for an actor of his experience and ambition.

“Buffalo is very limited. It’s a mid-sized city and there’s only so many companies one can continue to circulate through. I kind of hit the ceiling and realized that there was nowhere else to go,” Newell said in a phone interview from Chicago. “I just felt like the ceiling was getting lower and lower and it was just time for me to branch out and take with me everything I’ve learned in the last 20 years.”

He did that, and while he hasn’t yet broken into Chicago’s most sought-after theater companies, he has booked minor TV roles and bigger roles at medium-sized theater companies.

In Buffalo, a theatrical Galapagos of dizzying variety that may well be America’s most interesting grass-roots theater community, there is no “top-tier” theater in the mold of Chicago’s Goodman, Minneapolis’ Guthrie or our own former Studio Arena. This represents a lopsided ecology and economy, which fosters a culture of overworked actors with little opportunity to make a decent living and resulting limits on quality, economic opportunity and talent retention.

Sehr, meanwhile, voiced a concern common among many of Buffalo’s most talented and prolific visual artists: Despite promising efforts such as the Echo Art Fair and new projects like A.J. Fries and Karen Eckert’s Collect Art website, the market for fine art here remains anemic at best.

Sehr couldn’t have been more successful within the milieu of Buffalo’s vibrant visual arts scene, but economic opportunities were hard to come by. Unlike many artists in other cities who can sustain themselves with their artwork alone, Sehr also worked as a graphic designer, limiting the amount of time she could spend in her studio improving her work.

“I’m more of a fine artist than a competitive graphic artist. I wanted to go somewhere my art could sustain me, just my art,” Sehr said in a phone interview from Hudson, two hours north of New York City. “I had to get out of there because it was going to be a safe place for me to live. … I wouldn’t really meet my potential if I stayed there. My work was not as relevant as it was five years ago.”

As for Be, a poet and musician whose work harkens back to the Beat generation, the decision to head south was based more on creative limitations than economic ones. For Be, as for many artists in small and mid-sized cities, familiarity with the facets of Buffalo’s culture eventaully bred restlessness if not outright contempt.

“It’s hard to know the truth in your own backyard. When you’re too familiar with a place, a set of attitudes and set of perspectives develop that make it difficult to understand what’s going on,” said Be, who now lives in the small city of Pensacola, Fla. “I know too much about that city and I felt like it was affecting my attitude and it was affecting the way I was interacting with the arts scene and the city in general.”

In many ways, Be’s story is like that of many adventurous young creative people in many cities who feel the pressure of a tough job market and small-town mentalities. But Newell and Sehr’s stories point at a more significant problem – a fractured artistic economy and ecology that fosters grass-roots experimentation but fails to foster excellence and reward it when it arises.

If Buffalo’s renaissance is to live up to the hype, it’s a problem we should all be striving to solve.


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