Anthony Bannon, a former Buffalo News critic and filmmaker who guided the Burchfield Penney Art Center through two major periods of growth, will retire from his post as director of the institution on July 1.
Bannon's departure, which he announced to the Burchfield Penney's board Wednesday afternoon, will cap off the center's yearlong celebration of its 50th anniversary.
"It seems like just the right time," said Bannon, 74. "I think it's an ideal circumstance, a good way to go out on a high at the end of the anniversary year."
The Burchfield Penney board plans to conduct a national search for Bannon's replacement, according to a release from the center.
Bannon served as director of the Burchfield Penney (then the Burchfield Art Center), from 1985 to 1996, when he left to lead Rochester's George Eastman House (now the George Eastman Museum). He returned to Buffalo in 2012, intent on transforming a middleweight regional institution and its new building on Elmwood Avenue into a nationally recognized research center and laboratory for regional culture.
More than any other figure in the institution's 50-year history, Bannon is responsible for the Burchfield Penney's status as a major regional museum and a nexus for the cultural community of Western New York.
"Museums in the past have been thought of as a repository for the cultural DNA of their communities. True enough," he said in a 2012 interview. "We're going to create culture here."
During the second phase of his directorship, Bannon and his staff did just that.
Under his leadership, the center launched a series of cross-cultural partnerships, new public programming and often experimental and unorthodox exhibitions that expanded the mission of the center well beyond collecting and exhibiting visual art.
"He put us on a larger artistic stage with institutions from around the country and artists from around the country," said Don Metz, the center's associate director and head of public programs. "Our reputation grew because of that vision."
SUNY Buffalo State President Katherine Conway-Turner praised Bannon in a statement.
“His wonderful leadership has raised the profile of the Burchfield Penney and expanded the reach of the center through a number of new community partnerships and education programs," Conway-Turner said. "We look forward to formally celebrating his career this summer at the BPAC’s 50th anniversary gala in June.”
Soon after Bannon's arrival, the center launched a series of initiatives aimed at increasing attendance, spotlighting the creativity of Buffalo's arts community and promoting the work of the center's namesake, the prolific watercolorist Charles E. Burchfield, on a national stage.
From 2012 to today, according Burchfield Penney Chief Curator and Associate Director Scott Propeack, the center's budget, attendance and staff each increased about 12 percent. The center also doubled its attendance from the African American community, in part thanks to exhibitions such as "McAllum Tarry: Intersections" and other events aimed at bridging disparate communities.
Among Bannon's first moves were to launch a partnership with Alfred University's Center for Electronic Arts, a residency project that brought new artists to Buffalo, a series of popular quarterly festivals each based around a theme and the acceleration of a long-planned project designed to catalogue the artistic history and output of Western New York.
In 2013, Bannon and the center's staff initiated "The Front Yard," a permanent video and sound installation featuring three steel projection towers casting an endless stream of images onto the building's zinc-plated facade.
The standout exhibitions of Bannon's tenure include a major survey of the comics artist Spain Rodriguez that sent reverberations across Buffalo's arts community and the recently closed "Blistering Vision," a highly regarded exhibition that positioned Burchfield as an important figure in the American environmental movement.
Asked to sum up his approach to leading the institution, Bannon told a story about Kodak founder George Eastman attempting to photograph a charging rhinoceros.
Eastman, accompanied by a faithful employee armed with a gun, held out until the very last moment before instructing his companion to shoot the charging rhino dead. The lesson of the story, Bannon said, was simple: "You've got to trust your staff."
Burchfield Penney staffers praised Bannon's leadership style, which they say gave them unusual amounts of freedom to experiment and support for ideas that might have been difficult to sell to the board or to funders.
"His encouragement and support for trying things that other people wouldn't try was essential to us when it came to projects that were outside a simple museum practice," Propeack said.
A prime example of that, Propeack said, was the center's wildly unorthodox art barge project, which involved constructing an enormous model of an art-filled barge in the center's grand East Gallery.
"Tony was behind that project from the moment he heard about it and was out encouraging participation with funders and other museums," Propeack said. "He spoke about that project every time he went anywhere."
That free-ranging approach could sometimes backfire, and Bannon's projects were not always universally supported. There were murmurs of criticism about "The Front Yard," from neighbors as well as trustees, as well as concerns about Bannon playing favorites with the staff, but these eventually died down.
When he leaves in July to pursue several long-simmering writing projects, Bannon will leave behind an institution that functions less like a traditional museum than a living laboratory for the region's cultural community.
"Tony understands that a museum is more than just paintings on walls, Metz said, "it's about understanding the art community as a whole and the history of the arts as a whole."
Highlights of Bannon's tenure
"Spain: Rock, Roll, Rebels & Revolution"
This groundbreaking exhibition on the career of comics artist Spain Rodriguez, co-curated by Don Metz and hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center Executive Director Edmund Cardoni was planned before Bannon's arrival, but the new director embraced and promoted it with enormous enthusiasm. "We have needed to overcome assumptions about what is appropriately art, and what is the surmounting value of culture," Bannon wrote at the time. His full-throated support of this boundary-breaking show was a sign of the many unorthodox ideas and projects that would follow.
When Anthony Bannon returned to the Burchfield Penney Art Center in 2012, one of his first major efforts was to create a series of mini-festivals designed to bring the entire Buffalo arts community together around a common theme. These cross-cultural extravaganzas, which focused on issues ranging from poetry to avant garde music to meteorology, coincided with the M&T Bank-sponsored free Fridays events at the center, quickly became some of the most popular cultural events in the area.
"The Front Yard"
In 2013, under Bannon's leadership, the center launched a permanent exhibition designed to run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. With the homey title of "The Front Yard," it involved the radical retooling of the building's eastern lawn to accommodate three stainless steel towers with laser-cut patterns based on Burchfield paintings. The towers each contained a high-power digital projector, which cast a constantly changing program of video work onto the side of the building at night. During the day, a sound installation plays.
Among Bannon's goals for the Burchfield Penney was to increase the institution's national recognition. He did this in part by gaining admission for the museum into the American Association of Art Museum Directors, a national group dedicated to improving museum leadership. And during his tenure, the center earned re-accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums "with distinction," a grueling process that both signaled and accelerated the Burchfield Penney's national ambitions.
Since 2012, according to a release, the Burchfield Penney has acquired more than 30 works by Charles Burchfield, 200 photographs by Marion Faller, 100 photographs by David Moog and works by important Western New York artists Philip Burke, Ellen Carey, Harold Cohen, Seymour Drumlevitch, Alexander Levy, Robert Logo and Steve Miller. In addition, the center welcomed an enormous archive of materials from Artpark and made strides in organizing and making accessible its deep trove of material about the life and work of Burchfield.