Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), Fireflies and Lightning, 1964-65; watercolor, graphite and white charcoal, 40 x 54 inches; Purchase made possible with funds from M&T Bank, an anonymous donor, William P. and A. Laura Brosnahan, the Vogt Family Foundation and the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation, 1998
Robert G. Wilmers and the Burchfield Penney Art Center
Monday, December 18, 2017
The Burchfield Penney Art Center joins the Western New York community in mourning the death of Robert G. “Bob” Wilmers, who served as chief executive officer and chairman of M&T Bank from 1983 until his passing on December 16, 2017. During the past thirty-four years, Mr. Wilmers has overseen philanthropic projects that widely benefitted the arts, education, and culture of our area. His dedication to creative partnerships saved struggling organizations and strengthened growing, established institutions. As the Museum for Western New York Arts, the Burchfield Penney Art Center has been fortunate to received support from M&T Bank for exhibitions, programs, and an innovative collection development program.
In one celebration, the Burchfield Penney Art Center honored Mr. Wilmers’ leadership and M&T Bank’s ongoing commitment to the museum with the 2013 Esprit de Corps award for years of generous support of major exhibitions, inventive programs, new acquisitions, and the capital campaign for a new building. M&T’s vision also launched the free, monthly public program known as “M&T Second Fridays” and The Center’s artful presence downtown with curated exhibitions at One Fountain Plaza.
In a pioneering program, M&T Bank and Burchfield Penney Art Center began a unique collaboration in 1987 to support the arts in Western New York. This partnership in collection development was inaugurated with an initial gift of $5,000 from M&T Bank. Together, the Center’s staff and art committee worked with bank officials to select art for the “M&T Bank Collection at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center.” Both institutions benefitted with exhibitions of the new selections, first at the Center and then in public space at M&T Bank. Approved by Mr. Wilmers, this collaborative project was spearheaded by then-Executive Vice-President Harry R. Stainrook and Marketing Assistant Mary Ahrens from the Trust & Investment Services Department, and Burchfield-Penney Art Center Director Anthony Bannon and Charles Cary Rumsey Curator Nancy Weekly. Between 1987 and 1999, the museum purchased 82 works by contemporary regional artists, including many who were not yet represented in the collection. Importantly, in 1991, using funds accumulated for two years, the partners selected exclusively minority artists with African-American, Asian-American, Latino, and Native American heritages to provide more equitable representation in the collection. In 1993, works reflected artists’ interpretation of Buffalo’s industrial heritage.
Starting in 1998, the collaboration was redesigned to promote the arts downtown by establishing a satellite gallery for the Burchfield Penney Art Center in the M&T Center at One Fountain Plaza. Annually, specially curated exhibitions of Western New York art have been organized for presentation in the M&T Center. The public display of art in a busy, attractive, business center promotes the area’s cultural history in an entertaining and educational way. This satellite location links the arts downtown with the uptown Elmwood Museum District and provides exposure to a wider array of viewers.
Acting swiftly, M&T Bank also facilitated the museum’s acquisition of Charles E. Burchfield’s masterwork, Fireflies and Lightning. The year was 1998. Brigitte Spiro, who with her husband Harry were major Burchfield collectors, alerted us to the upcoming auction of this significant painting being sold by actress Julie Andrews and her filmmaker husband, Blake Edwards. Since the museum had no acquisition funds to consider bidding, then-Council Chair Peter Fleischmann sprang into action, securing a substantial promised loan from M&T Bank, approved by Mr. Wilmers. Luckily, the hammer fell at our maximum possible bid and we were able to purchase one of Burchfield’s greatest transcendental landscapes, thanks also to donations from the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation, the Vogt Family Foundation, William and Laurie Brosnahan, an anonymous foundation, and an anonymous donor. Fireflies and Lightning captures the essence of a youthful memory in “that rhapsodic summer of 1915” of “lightning bugs” flying at dusk over the Little Beaver Creek in Salem, Ohio. As the sun begins to fade, colors grow muted, and a flash of silent heat lightning in the north evokes “the great vastness of the sky” filled with emerging stars that echo the luminescent fireflies.
Burchfield Scholar, Head of Collections & Charles Cary Rumsey Curator