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For a divided region, arts provide a bridge

On the south wall of the Burchfield Penney Art Center hangs a photograph by photojournalist Brendan Bannon that illustrates the stark divides of American life.

Shot from an upper floor of the International Preparatory School on Porter Avenue, the photograph depicts the school's all-refugee soccer team practicing on a field in front of the school. Beyond the field, a triangular cluster of historic homes stands huddled in the shadow of Kleinhans Music Hall, home to the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

Brendan Bannon's photograph of an all-refugee soccer team from the International Preparatory School is on view in the Burchfield Penney Art Center's exhibition "Home."

Brendan Bannon's photograph of an all-refugee soccer team from the International Preparatory School is on view in the Burchfield Penney Art Center's exhibition "Home."

In the background, the corporate headquarters and government buildings of downtown tower over the scene. And out of view, to the south, lie the empty grain elevators of the Old First Ward, the battered City of Lackawanna, suburban Orchard Park and finally a landscape that gives way to the rural roads and farms of Trump Country.

The farther we venture from our place on that east-west line -- whether we start from that soccer field on the West Side of Buffalo or from a farm outside of Springville -- the less we seem to understand about each other.

In the wake of the recent presidential election, in which the divisions that separate red and blue America were laid painfully bare, it is clear that conversation across those divides has never been more difficult.

But as Bannon's photograph demonstrates, one area those conversations are still possible -- one place where they are required to take place -- is in the arts.

"Our communities, as in most of America, are plagued with misunderstandings of each other," said Burchfield Penney Chief Curator and Associate Director Scott Propeack, who co-curated "Here!", the exhibition in which Bannon's photograph appears. "How do we take on the topics that are so pressing at this time? We display artwork that celebrates connections, but does not shy away from conflict."

With a collection of graceful groupings, "Here!" makes a series convincing arguments for the power of art to serve as a bridge between communities whose connections have frayed.

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Milton Rogovin's quartet of portraits shows Buffalo friends Johnny Lee Wines and Zeke Johnson over several decades.

Two sets of portraits by Milton Rogovin Buffalo residents from the Lower West Side over several decades. Photo courtesy of the Burchfield Penney Art Center.

One set of portraits by the social documentary photographer and working-class champion Milton Rogovin chronicles the relationship of two black friends over many decades. Directly below it is another famous Rogovin set featuring an Italian grandmother, who shrinks over the decades as her grandson grows.

We understand immediately what Rogovin wants us to understand: The black men and the Italians are the same. They are the same because they love one another. The only detectable difference is in the amount of melanin in their skin.

The attempts at cross-cultural bridge-building continue throughout the exhibition: A picture from the archives of the Buffalo Challenger of a black Buffalo police officer posing and smiling and three young black boys; photographs of black and white women and their infant children; and meditations on the industrial decline that transformed Buffalo's identity and economy.

In this undated photo from the the Challenger Community News archive, a Buffalo police officer poses with children from his squad car. In this undated photo from the the Challenger Community News archive, a Buffalo police officer, in his squad car, poses with children.

Elsewhere on Buffalo's diverse cultural scene, curators, artistic directors and others are taking stock of this moment to reassess how their work can be used to bridge divides that now seem wider than ever.

For Road Less Traveled Theatre co-founder and artistic director Scott Behrend, whose company is producing Sam Shepard's "True West," the election renewed his resolve to bring disparate cultures together in his theater.

"We have a responsibility to continue to shed light on what's happened in our country, and what's going to be happening," he said. "A big part of that is continuing to tell stories that are going to illuminate our own communities doubts, hopes, fears and needs."

In "True West," two brothers that New York Times critic Ben Brantley described as "different to the point of grotesqueness" go to war with one another over suburban and rural values. Each makes tentative and sometimes violent attempts to see the world from the other's perspective, coming to a strained resolution -- a kind of personal Cold War between irreconcilable political perspectives.

Matt Witten, Christina Rausa and David Mitchell in Road Less Traveled Production of 'True West'

Matt Witten, Christina Rausa and David Mitchell in Road Less Traveled Production of 'True West'

What Shepard is expressing in the play, Behrend said, is "the duality of our country right now, and how we're trying to come to grips with both sides of our national personality."

"Both sides are going through a complete reassessment or breakdown of who they are, who  they want to be and in this case who we want to be as a country," Behrend continued. "The future is still unclear. And I think in a democratic society we have to continually investigate both sides of our duality."

For many Buffalo arts organizations, the work of bridging racial, economic and educational divides begins within their own communities.

That is the case for Buffalo Arts Studio, whose Mexican-born director Alma Carillo said that this has been the central goal of her organization for years.

"I think the arts are very important in bridging communities," she said. "We focus not only on approaching people who are already art lovers or enthusiasts, or museum-goers, gallery-goers and art-makers, but also people in the community who have not felt that those spaces have been welcoming to them before or haven't spoken to their experience."

"Ray of Life," a mural sponsored by Buffalo Arts Studio and created by Buffalo Artists Augustina Droze and Chuck Tingley to honor murder victim Jerald Goldsmith, is on view in Masten Park.

Carillo pointed to projects such as its "Ray of Life" mural in Masten Park, which was created by Buffalo artists Augustina Droze and Chuck Tingley in response to the 2014 murder of Jerald Goldsmith. And she said BAS works with local organizations representing marginalized communities, including Journey's End Refugee Services and Aspire, which represents Western New Yorkers with disabilities.

"A lot of the perceived differences exist because people don't know all the similarities," Carillo said. "When people come to see an exhibition here, they're encountering people and artists from different communities... We don't pretend to be the experts but the humanity that brings us all together is there, and it just makes it easier to be more understanding and more caring of your neighbor."

The difficulty for many urban arts organizations, however, is in appealing to audiences from the opposite side of the political spectrum: How can they ever hope to bridge the gaping divide between urban and rural communities if urban and rural audiences remain separate?

That's not a problem for the Springville Center for the Arts, which draws members of all political persuasions through the doors of a former Baptist Church on Main Street for art exhibitions and theater performances.

"We do not service a particularly racially diverse population, but but when we think about diversity in terms of the programs and who we're reaching, we really do try and be conscious about creating a diversity of audience," Wochensky said. "Our mission is to service all segments of our community... In the wake of the election, we'll be thinking about it more."

Wochensky's politically if not racially diverse audience recently converged on the center for a student reading called "Ripples of Hope," which included passages about human rights abuses from around the world.

It was an opportunity, he said, for people from different backgrounds to face the issues that divide them.

"This [was] difficult material, sometimes with a real political aspect to it, but the audience which was made up of many parents from all walks of life, really enjoyed the program," Wochensky said. "Contrast that setting with your typical political conversation, and you can see how putting the conversation in an art medium does sometimes make it easier to listen something you may find uncomfortable hearing otherwise."

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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