How to Build a Rust Belt Art Boom

As the director of the Helsinki Art Museum, which is owned and operated by city government, Janne Sirén was required to provide art for the streets and parks of the Finnish capital. So when he moved to Buffalo, New York, in 2013 to become the director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, he asked to meet with their public art curator.

They didn’t have one. Most U.S. museums don’t.

Sirén quickly changed that, hiring Aaron Ott, who had previously worked on art projects for various Chicago-area institutions, as the first-ever curator for the Albright-Knox’s public art initiative. The 156-year-old museum is now five years into an ambitious program that’s been injecting life into the Western New York region’s parks, neighborhoods, buildings, and other infrastructure through paint, plastic, steel, cloth, and whatever else their international cast of commissioned artists want to work with.

Buffalo isn’t exactly known as a hotbed for adventurous contemporary public art—at least not we did last year, which was a project I conceived and crafted with one artist, Chuck Tingley, in mind. But when we started holding public meetings we really got a lot of pushback on the East Side was a concept brought to us by partners in the neighborhood who wanted to celebrate its diversity. They asked if we could work with artists who dealt with text and language in order to welcome people to the neighborhood. You want to find artists that can handle such a task and be comfortable in that environment, so we selected Ernel Martinez and Keir Johnston, two African American artists from Philadelphia whose work is steeped in community activism and the kind of dialogue that becomes evident in their work.

They worked on parachute cloth, which is a 5-by-5 canvas that you canticle up into wallpaper in order to make a huge mural and you can paint them on a table or on the ground before you have to get up 40 feet to install a final piece. We had these painted at the Central Library downtown and at Broadway Market on the East Side, and brought in an audience to physically touch and produce the work in ways they never could have done before. Then the artists finished it on the wall. Down the street, we had a Polish artist, Wojciech Kołacz, (a.k.a. “Otecki”) to create Work and Play. It was a great opportunity to tailor that piece to the flavor of the neighborhood. Buffalo is home to the second-largest Polish population in the U.S., and the East Side was historically home to a lot of the Polish immigrants in the city. That legacy is still visible.

Otecki’s Work and Play, 2018, at 617 Fillmore Avenue in Buffalo. (Tom Loonan)

We’re always trying to respond to different spaces with different types of artists. There are some artists we love and have been in conversations with since I got here but haven’t quite found the right fit for them yet.

I recently saw Stephen Powers’s nostalgic billboards downtown on his Instagram. How did that collaboration come about?

My coordinators and I sit around weekly to talk about the projects that are upon us and projects that inspire us. Stephen’s name came up and I dug the work so we started thinking about what we could do with him. He’s a mural artist, a designer, a sign painter—he’s got all these ways in which he can produce. So we started thinking about how work and his skills could would look in our landscape.

I saw the work he did with the D.O.T. in Manhattan where he made these little signs and hung them up for just a handful of weeks and I loved them—they’re disruptive in the landscape but in a heartfelt and gentle way. If we got him to do a lot of these signs we could really spread them throughout Erie County. I think it was important to a lot of our partners to make sure that we are out in the county audiences, not just the city. I thought if we could get him do 100 signs, we could put 60 in the county and it would be like a giant scavenger hunt that would take three days to find them all.

Zach Boehler, our project coordinator, was a little nervous at first because he thought 100 was going to too much to ask of Steve; he wanted to ask for 40. We ended up meeting with the artist and things were going really well—he was digging our concept—so he asked how many signs we were thinking of doing and I said, “100?” And he said, “I like 101!” It was a great moment where you see an artist excited about our initiative and how they can contribute.

We didn’t want Stephen to be presented as a sort of mythic mastermind designer in his own studio delivering artwork to us, so we’ve asked the public to respond to a series of questions that the artist has posted and come together in meetings. We took him over to the West Side Bazaar for lunch and we took him to various bars. It’s through those types of interactions where the work is really born. We wanted what he came up with to be responsive.

Stephen has the biggest heart in the world. I love his worldview. Sentimentality can get really saccharine and distasteful, but he’s authentic about it and it really works. There are five billboards up now downtown. They’re these kind of negative elements about the city’s reputation but with a “let’s look at the bright side” twist that reorients people in the public landscape. I’m really excited about watching that project grow.

Have there been examples of a non-local artist coming here for this program and then making new, unexpected connections for other projects?

We’ve employed a number of artists to help us execute pieces and that has resulted in gigs elsewhere for them. As a curator, I rely on colleagues all around the U.S.; I call people in other smaller, Midwestern cities especially that are actively trying to produce the same way we are and share those assets. Seeing an artist like Bunnie Reiss come in from Los Angeles and talk to young artists here means a lot, whether it turns into an opportunity for someone to produce with her on another project outside the city, or whether it inspires them to produce their own mural.

There hasn’t necessarily been a lot of contemporary public art in Buffalo—at least not in a sustainable sense—prior to this initiative. So there are a lot of artists out here who see this as an opportunity to be active in their own community. Max Collins was certainly doing that here before I arrived, as were a number of others, but as people begin to recognize our work they’re requesting more of it and by name. These artists aren’t supposed to just be seen in galleries—they should be celebrated in our public spaces.

Jessie and Katey’s Noodle in the Northern Lights, 2016, at Shea’s 710 Theatre. (Tom Loonan)

For a piece like Jessie and Katey’s Noodle in the Northern Lights, what’s the museum’s role when the mural is starting to deteriorate? Is there a protocol in place for preservation?

Any mural is temporary, we call them “long-term temporary” because we do hope that they last and we use materials made to last for a minimum of 20 years.

That wall faces a busy street but it should still last for quite some time. We used Sherwin-Williams right out of the bucket for that piece, using colors that weren’t mixed so we could match them more easily.

The Shea’s 710 Main Theater was our funding partner on that one. They helped produce it, so we asked them to help us maintain it for a period of five years. A car actually ran into the wall a couple of months ago and punctured the cinder block, so 710 patched it up— they had to, it’s their building—and we had the buckets of paint in our basement here at the museum, so that wasn’t hard.

After a work has lived its expected lifespan, it’s the owner’s responsibility. So in the case of this one it’s on 710 to determine whether or not to repaint it to its original glory. They have a list of all the paint we used, so they could do that on their own or paint a new one.

We generally like to see those murals stay up for 10 years but I’m only asking people to sign five-year contracts for now since it would be disingenuous for us to come in and ask someone to sign a 10-year contract just as we’re getting started. We’re creating partnerships where the people across the table trust us and we trust them and we work together to maintain those pieces during their lifespan. There are works out there that may be more permanent. Jim Hodgess Look and See [a large sculpture made of perforated stainless steel], which we just moved from our courtyard to the Richardson Olmsted Campus, is indestructible but it will still be in conservation for its lifespan. The paint will fade, it’ll get touched up, and then be good as new. We first installed that piece in 2006, it’s in our collection, so we have a responsibility to that one. Something like the 710 mural is co-produced and ultimately the property owner’s responsibility.

Is there any ambition or fantasy you have for this project that you haven’t come close to fulfilling yet?

There are artists out whose work I find deeply inspiring and moving, and there projects in other locations that I think would be great for our audiences in Western New York. We’ve been very conscious about growing at a sustainable rate and not trying to get too far ahead of ourselves before imploding on a big project, or being stuck with a maintenance conundrum that pulls us underwater.

In my office I have the the actual and the predicted budget for Millennium Park [in Chicago]. They initially estimated Cloud Gate would cost $9 million, but the final cost was $23 million. It has an annual budget of $100,000 just to polish it—that’s basically my annual budget. So sure, I’d love to bring a bean-like thing here—I don’t know that Anish Kapoor needs another one—but we can do many other things that will gain recognition regionally, nationally, even internationally. We’ll grow into that with our partners. It’s just a matter of matching ambition with something you can responsibly provide.

Robert Indiana’s NUMBERS ONE through ZERO are at Wilkeson Pointe on Buffalo’s Outer Harbor in conjunction with the exhibition Robert Indiana: A Sculpture Retrospective, at the Albright-Knox from June 16 to September 23, 2018.

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