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Gerald O'Grady, 87, made UB's Center for Media Study 'the place to be'

Nov. 30, 1931 – March 26, 2019

When Gerald O’Grady came to the University at Buffalo in 1967 to teach medieval literature, his focus was changing from the distant past to the future.

A popular professor at Rice University in Houston, he was invited to lead a class there that surveyed and discussed movies. Those students, he soon discovered, were far more attuned to the topic than the ones in his classes on Chaucer.

Influenced by media theorist Marshall McLuhan, he recognized that visual communication – through film, video and computer images – drastically changed the way people see the world and interact with each other.

“Literacy’s been with us now since the 19th century and is pretty much accepted to be a universal thrust,” he told an interviewer in the 1970s. “My own theory is that we should move towards what I call 'mediacy.’ It’s a political issue: One cannot participate in society unless one can use the channels or codes of communication that are current in the time that one lives.”

He went on to create and preside over a haven in Buffalo for media scholarship and experimental artists in film, video, photography, sound and digital images that was renowned around the world.

Two of the video artists – Woody Vasulka and Peter Weibel – summed it up in a 2004 book they co-edited, “Buffalo Heads: Media Study, Media Practice, Media Pioneers, 1973–1990.”

An MIT Press blurb for the book declared: “In the 1970s and 1980s, the Department of Media Study at (UB) was the place to be. It was there, in 1973, well before any other university had a program explicitly devoted to media art, that Gerald O’Grady founded a media study program that is now legendary.”

He left UB in 1994 for a post at Harvard University, but returned here often, notably for a four-day festival of his work in 2015 at the Burchfield Penney Art Center.

A celebration of his life will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday, June 8, at the Burchfield Penney, 1300 Elmwood Ave.

He died March 26 in Cambridge, Mass., where he had lived since the mid 1990s. He was 87.

Survivors include a brother, Jack, and nieces and nephews.

Born in Framingham, Mass., the second of three boys, he attended Boston College on a basketball scholarship, earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1953 and a master’s degree there the following year. He completed his doctorate in English at the University of Wisconsin in 1958, then did three years of post-doctoral study in medieval literature as a Marshall Scholar at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, in England, working with C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Beryl Smalley.

Returning to the U.S. in 1961, he taught for a year at the University of Illinois, then was an assistant professor of English at Rice from 1962 to 1967, where he received the Nicholas Salgo Distinguished Teaching Award and was voted Outstanding Teacher on Campus by members of the senior class in 1966.

Under sponsorship by philanthropists and art patrons John and Dominique de Menil, Dr. O’Grady established a media center in Houston at the University of St. Thomas and oversaw its relocation to Rice.

In a narrative of his career, he wrote: “I introduced film and video study to different elementary and junior high schools every morning, to high schools in the early afternoons, taught seminars to college undergraduates in the late afternoons and opened a screening center for adult audiences which operated seven evenings a week, beginning my career as a film programmer.”

Seeing only a few programs in film production at the college level nationwide, he wrote, “I began to explore curricula for the establishment of historical, interpretive and culture studies in the field of media. I visited over 100 campuses to observe beginning courses and programs in film or cinema study and, to better understand existing institutional structures, taught seven courses at five different universities each week for the next three years, traveling more than 5,000 miles each week between Buffalo, Austin, Texas; Houston and New York City.”

While at UB, he established and directed three organizations devoted to media.

He started the Educational Communications Center, which united media production for 128 departments and managed public radio station WBFO-FM, a foreign language lab and a studio providing engineering and business courses on cable TV.

On the academic side, he set up the Center for Media Study, which offered degrees in film, video and digital production, as well as media interpretation.

There he brought together such notables as avant-garde filmmakers Hollis Frampton, Tony Conrad and Paul Sharits, documentary maker James Blue, video artists Vasulka and Steina, and Viennese action artist Weibel to teach and expand the frontiers of their art. According to a former student, Seth Feldman, now a professor emeritus at York University in Toronto, he also served as a mediator who united their independent-minded personalities.

He also founded a nonprofit organization, Media Study/Buffalo, which gave access to workshops, equipment and exhibition space in the former Mars Hotel on Delaware Avenue in downtown Buffalo for people in the community who wanted to make and enjoy film, video, photography, music and digital art.

Among those who found inspiration and support there were the founders of two local centers of cutting-edge art – Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center and CEPA Gallery.

Through Media Study/Buffalo, he produced and hosted programs for public television and the Learning Channel that introduced independent filmmakers. He also was project director for two prize-winning public television documentaries on the Depression (“America Lost and Found”) and the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair (“The World of the Fair”).

His local film programming included a showing of the four-hour version of French director Abel Gance’s 1927 film, “Napoleon,” at Shea’s Performing Arts Center in January 1982. Lost for many years and then restored, it included such innovations as strapping a camera to a horse for a chase scene and splitting the screen into three parts for a triptych finale.

In addition to his own articles, he arranged publication of award-winning books that accompanied exhibits at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and other museums.

Through those years, he also organized conferences and academies, delivered more than 100 lectures and served on the media panels of the New York State Council for the Arts, the New York Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, helping them establish guidelines to support artists and scholars.

He received the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Administration in 1980.

“Gerry worked 14 hours a day,” Sarah Elder, professor and director of graduate studies in Media Study whom Dr. O’Grady hired in 1989, told Isabella Nurt from the UB student newspaper The Spectrum earlier this year. “He was older than a lot of (faculty), but he would run circles around us.”

His personal life, on the other hand, was as ascetic as a monk’s.

“I remember going to his house, the upper floor of a two-story duplex, furnished with not much more than a cot, a table and piles of hundreds of books,” said Feldman, his former student, in an email. “And then there were his sleep habits, or lack thereof. He had this trick of falling asleep during someone’s talk, then waking up at the end and asking the most intelligent question.”

At Harvard, he was a Ford Foundation Fellow at the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research, where he researched films of the civil rights movement, and was a visiting scholar in the Department of Afro-American Studies.

After leaving Harvard in 1997, he was a consultant to media programs at schools in the U.S. and abroad and was a visiting professor in Germany.

Anthony Bannon, retired executive director of the Burchfield Penney, observed that Dr. O’Grady fostered numerous artists and art curators who have gone on to impressive careers.

“These leaders continue to pass along a passion for and belief in new ways of making sound, image, word and meaning,” Bannon told The Buffalo News in 2015. “A good number of artists, too, were influenced by the liberation of this new way of seeing and using image and sound.”

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