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Burchfield Penney builds creative history of Western New York

In two small, white-walled rooms on the second floor of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, a dedicated group of archivists, curators, writers and interns are quietly constructing a new version of history.

During the busiest times, the space is abuzz with activity as a handful of staffers and up to five interns upload letters, photographs, audio interviews and other pieces of ephemera into the center’s rapidly growing digital archives or write biographies of Western New York artists living and dead.

It’s all part of an ambitious and multipronged effort to catalog and digitize the center’s rapidly growing collection of archival material from area artists and important institutions.

But even more broadly, the history these employees and volunteers are writing aims to put the creative culture of Western New York on equal footing with the city’s industrial legacy, with its architectural heritage and with its rich ethnic traditions. And as they meticulously drag the region’s artistic life into the light, one tattered piece of paper and 35 millimeter slide at a time, they are making a stronger argument for the central role art plays in our lives.

In the view of the Burchfield Penney’s staff, the material they are cataloging and digitizing is not just inconsequential flotsam and jetsam from the cultural pursuits of decades long past. It is a way to honor and legitimize those pursuits.

Or, as Burchfield Penney curator Scott Propeack said of the area’s rich creative culture: “It’s not an afterthought. It is the thought.”

Chief among the center’s various history-mining projects is its effort to digitize and make publicly accessible the entire archive of its namesake, watercolor painter Charles E. Burchfield. That project recently received a major boost from a $150,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Studies. The grant will allow the center to hire more paid interns to expand the immense amount of material that is already online from the archives to include all of the artist’s 25,000 sketches, 10,000 pages of journals, his notated indices of his paintings and box upon box of correspondence.

That years-long effort is on display through June 19 in “Finding Aid: Making Sense of the Charles E. Burchfield Archive,” an exhibition that shows off Burchfield’s uncommonly meticulous effort to preserve his own work for posterity. That effort, true to the artist’s magnanimity, seems driven more by a concern for the work of future archivists than by an unchained ego.

One of those future archivists is the Burchfield Penney’s Heather Gring, whose enthusiasm for its various projects is contagious. She has been fostering the effort to bring the Burchfield archives online and speaks with equal fervor about the center’s newly acquired and similarly gargantuan Artpark archive, along with its efforts to chronicle the lives of living and dead artists through written biographies, portraits and audio interviews.

For Gring, the center’s various efforts to unearth the buried lives and legacies of local artists who would otherwise be forgotten send a signal about the worth of the artist in society.

“We get these big, romantic stories of the artists who made it,” Gring said, “but we don’t hear about the artists who are in our community and the day jobs they had to have to support their art, and the compromises they had to make. I see this as a way to help people who want to learn more about this potential life choice to understand how other people have navigated it themselves.”

In addition to the Burchfield and Artpark archives and its ongoing biography project, the Burchfield also holds the collections of 11 other local cultural organizations and several important local artists. According to director Anthony Bannon, the center considers it the collection of record for 12 internationally regarded artists because it collects not only artwork, but correspondence and other objects related to those artists’ careers.

All of this, Bannon said, is in the service of demonstrating that the Burchfield is a mature institution concerned not merely with the day-to-day planning of exhibitions and events, but with an eye toward defining the role of culture in history and in society.

“We believe that culture is useful in the creation of civic policy,” Bannon said. “Let’s stop thinking that culture is something for sophisticated delectation. Let’s utilize the presence of all these things we’re taking about, how we’re paying attention to the archives so the stuff can be studied, so you can take something home, so you can learn how you might function in the world and how we as a community create culture, how we talk about ourselves to ourselves. And then ... how we take that to City Hall and say: This is who we are.”