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After legal ordeal, Brose returns to CEPA Gallery

Lawrence Brose, the Buffalo filmmaker and arts administrator whose career was sidelined by a federal court case that dragged on for six years, has returned to his position as the executive director of CEPA Gallery.

Brose, who served as CEPA’s executive director from 1999 to 2010, officially began his tenure as the new interim executive director of the downtown photography gallery on June 28. He is operating under a one-year contract that will be subject to renewal pending periodic reviews by CEPA’s board.

Brose’s appointment is a long-awaited punctuation mark on his own legal ordeal, which began with federal child pornography charges in 2010 and ended in 2015 with a plea deal to a minor obscenity charge. And CEPA Gallery supporters, staff and board members also hope it will usher in a new era of stability for the organization, which has been in fiscal turmoil since last fall and fired its former director, Sean Donaher, in May.

“I’m elated,” Brose said of his return to the director’s chair on the second floor of the historic Market Arcade on Main Street. “There’s a lot of love in the room.”

In addition to love, there’s also now a good deal more financial stability, according to CEPA’s newly elected board president, Biff Henrich. Henrich, a local photographer who has been involved with the organization since the late 1970s, said CEPA has paid off the lion’s share of the debt that led to its fiscal crisis last year. The exception is a line of credit that the gallery is paying down gradually.

Brose’s legal troubles began in October 2008, when he was visited by U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement officers investigating a tip from German authorities that led them to the computer in Brose’s loft apartment. He was later charged with possession of child pornography, but after a long and expensive legal fight supported by members of the arts community, those charges were dropped.

Brose pleaded guilty in 2015 to a minor obscenity charge, in effect admitting that an unsolicited email from a Yahoo group he subscribed to contained one image prosecutors believed to be child pornography. The plea deal effectively ended his battle with federal authorities and was widely viewed across the cultural community as a victory for Brose.

“I just don’t want it to be construed that Mr. Brose pled to a child pornography charge,” Assistant District Attorney Michael DiGiacomo told The News last year. “He pled guilty to, as the charge speaks for itself, to obscenity and possessing obscene materials.”

Like many longtime CEPA supporters and Buffalo arts community members, Henrich watched in dismay as Brose was forced to resign his position in 2010 after building CEPA into a model cultural organization. Asked about the board’s decision to bring Brose back on an interim basis, he dispelled any doubts about lingering negative effects of Brose’s hard-fought legal battle.

“When he was waylaid, he had my support from the beginning. I thought personally that this was a raw deal,” Henrich said. “I think that’s been proven out. Now it’s all behind us. I don’t think it should be a problem for anyone. If it’s a problem for somebody, then they have the problem. We don’t have the problem.”

As for Brose, returning to his old routine of placing calls to community figures and firing off emails to board members feels “like riding a bike.”

The task now, Brose and Henrich agreed, is to rebuild the organization.

The first step was to pay down the debt, which CEPA did with help from a successful fundraising auction earlier this year. The second is to rebuild the board, of which only seven members remain in the wake of last year’s crisis. Brose hopes to increase that number to 19.

He also is turning his attention to raising money for the gallery’s West Side Lots public art program, which aims to create art installations for empty lots on Buffalo’s West Side.

Asked what it was like to be back in his old chair after the pain and drama of his six-year absence, Brose just cracked a smile.

“It’s like coming home.”