In early February, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery announced plans to transform a 300-foot concrete wall in the historic heart of the East Side’s black community into an outdoor gallery featuring portraits of black leaders.
The project aimed to turn a wall of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority’s Cold Spring bus facility at the corner of East Ferry Street and Michigan Avenue into a work of art.
But gallery officials got a harsh wake-up call later that month, when dozens of black East Side residents gathered in the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library to decry the gallery's selection of a non-black artist to document the history of a black community.
"It's like having a family album," said Buffalo artist John Baker, one of dozens of established black artists in Buffalo who were initially passed over for the project. "Who knows the family pictures better than the family?"
Now, after fierce backlash from black East Side residents frustrated with decades of outside projects and proposals that have treated their input as an afterthought, a chastened Albright-Knox has expanded the project to include three local black artists.
In addition to the work of Chuck Tingley, the Vietnamese-American artist originally chosen to complete the project, it will feature portraits by Baker, Julia Douglas and Edreys Wajed. And the controversy has spurred the formation of the Western New York Urban Arts Collective, a newly formed group of more than 50 visual artists led by Baker and committed to increasing visibility and opportunities for Buffalo's underexposed black artists.
The controversy began shortly after the project was announced on Feb. 1, when members of the East Side's black community took to Facebook to question why the community's dozens of visual artists were not considered for the commission.
At a Feb. 16 public meeting about the initiative in the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, community activist Dorothy Hill and artist Renee Brown complained to gallery leaders about the project's exclusion of black artists. Hill, the former president of the Langston Hughes Institute and board member of the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor, had a stern message for Albright-Knox Deputy Director Joe Lin-Hill and public art curator Aaron Ott at that meeting.
"This is unacceptable," she recalled telling them. "To have an African-American heritage corridor, and you're going to hire an artist who's not African-American? Would you really do this in any other section of the city?"
Despite those complaints, the gallery stuck to its plan, which it presented at another community meeting in late February. And that's when community members took the gallery to task.
"You've got 29 panels, you're talking about black history, it's a historical project, and you have not one black artist participating," said Baker of the gallery's decision to commission Tingley without first reaching out to the black community. "It just seemed like the community itself was left out. Whatever artist did this project, you become a part of history too. It's like, now we don't even get a chance to be a part of our own history."
For Hill, the gallery's initial approach resulted from a mixture of "ignorance and arrogance."
"Sometimes when you don't know, you just don't know," she said. "They didn't realize the magnitude of what they were saying and doing and how they were really marginalizing and diminishing a whole culture."
Ott, who initiated the project, said that the backlash helped gallery leaders understand shortcomings of their plan.
"It hasn't been easy, but it has been one of the more significant learning experiences of my career," Ott said of the heated public meetings that led the gallery to revise the project. "I think people on the East Side have a right to be frustrated. It's part of the dialogue that's in the city right now, not just about public art, but about equity on the East Side."
Despite hurt feelings early on in the process, many involved in the discussions praised gallery leaders for listening to the concerns of East Side residents and changing the project to suit them.
"Based on the meeting at the Merriweather Library, I think the Albright-Knox Art Gallery got the message loud and clear that it was insult to the community to say, 'This is what we're going to do, and this is who we've hired to do it,' " said Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant. "When you try to improve a community, you have to have that community's input and concerns and ideas for what you're doing."
Eva Doyle, a historian, columnist and East Side activist who will be part of a panel of local and national historians who will select the subjects of the portraits, echoed Grant's comments.
"We have seen this happen many times before, and people really had had enough," Doyle said. "They just deliver it to you on a platter and say 'Here, this is it.' But we did get the message across: We really don't want that to happen to us anymore."
Ott, who oversees the Albright-Knox's publicly funded Public Art Initiative, said the kind of dialogue this project spurred is essential.
"The community's voice was enlightening to me. It's humbling to have people get riled up about this kind of creative public culture. And it's exciting, because it shows that people care," Ott said. "I think it was necessary for us to hear that. I don't think we would have understood the nature of the issue without that passion being shared."
And for Baker, the newly elected president of the Western New York Urban Arts Collective, the story looks like it will have a happy ending.
"I think the project right now is creating a relationship between the art community and the minority community that's been lacking for a long time," he said. "Put it this way: It's growth that I've been looking for for the last 20 years. I think it's going to be really good for our city when it comes to fruition."