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Citywide project to bridge Buffalo neighborhoods through art

In cities segmented by class, race and politics, it is often artists who are charged with bridging divides.

For a yearlong period beginning next fall, that task will fall to the Chicago-based artist Nick Cave and several community organizations. They will collaborate on an art and performance project spearheaded by Young Audiences of Western New York along with C.S.1 Curatorial Projects and funded in part by a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

“Plenty” will launch in late 2017, when Cave will begin working with community groups, local artists, Buffalo students and arts organizations to create a series of dance and theater performances as well as four elaborate parade floats. The performances that emerge from those workshops are planned for early 2018 at public parks in four neighborhoods, and the entire project will culminate in July 2018 with a parade through the streets of downtown Buffalo and a daylong event at Silo City.

The project, shaping up to be the most substantial and wide-reaching collaboration among local cultural organizations since the 2010 exhibition series “Beyond/In Western New York,” is projected to cost $700,000, according to Young Audiences Executive Director Cynnie Gaasch. The $100,000 grant from the NEA, part of its “Our Town” project aimed at community-building cultural events and programs, combined with about $100,000 of in-kind donations, leaves the group with about $500,000 to raise from local and national sources before “Plenty” launches late next year.

“We see the arts as a tool for young people and their families to build successful lives, learn more about the world, to engage the community at large,” Gaasch said.

To pull off the multipronged effort, Young Audiences is working with CS1 Curatorial Projects, Say Yes to Education Buffalo, Silo City and Ujima Theatre. Each organization will oversee different aspects of the project, including training teaching artists who in turn will teach high school and SUNY Buffalo State students to create floats and costumes, to staging performances, live music and other events associated with the project’s rollout.

Cave, not to be confused with the musician of the same name, will visit Buffalo about eight times throughout the course of the project. He is best known for his “Soundsuits,” elaborate and often brightly colored full-body costumes that give their inhabitants the appearance of animal-human hybrids straight out of Dr. Seuss. He first created the costumes as a response to the Rodney King beating, setting out to create objects that both disguise and empower the wearer out of discarded materials like twigs and fur. In their finished form, the suits create sound as the wearer moves.

As part of the project, students and artists will create “Soundsuits” for performers to wear. For Cave, who recently completed well-received community-focused projects in Detroit and Shreveport, La., the Buffalo effort promises the ability to draw communities together through art.

“I have found through my most recent work, like ‘Here Hear’ in Detroit and ‘As Is’ in Shreveport, that when we get close enough to actually trust one another, real compassion and consequent change can actually happen,” Cave said in a statement. “It is these types of places, ones with real power ready to explode through the surface, that are most intriguing to me. I feel Buffalo and its Rust Belt history will affect me personally as well as be forever fueled by the work we make together there.”

In her initial conversations with the artist, Gaasch said she stressed many of the issues the city faces.

“We wanted Cave to be aware of all the positive things that are happening, but we also really started with how segregated and how much poverty there is in the city. But we don’t want to focus (directly) on that. We just want to bring different factions of the community together,” she said. “Ultimately, the experience of the performances is going to be very joyful.”

Ujima Theatre founder and Artistic Director Lorna C. Hill said the project “has the potential to bridge the geographic, demographic and economic divides that separate Buffalonians from one another.

“There are too many opportunities to learn hate in all kinds of subtle ways,” said Hill, who stressed the importance of the project to the city’s youngest residents. “This is an opportunity for them to see that what we all agree on is this, and this is loving and this is nurturing, and this is very deliberately designed to feed the best side of who you are. We don’t have enough of those opportunities.”

In a statement, Say Yes Executive Director David Rust gave credit to Young Audiences for helping to improve academic outcomes and student behavior and for spearheading the project.

“Young Audiences is an extraordinary partner, helping us fulfill our mission to serve students, particularly at-risk students, via arts education,” Rust said. “I know this project will be an extension of their ability to significantly change lives.”