To be sure, during his second directorship, his more earthbound initiatives and priorities carried plenty of weight. He was intent on amplifying the Burchfield Penney's national and international reputation, which he did with the establishment of the International Center for Watercolor and the museum's artist residency program. His focus on the heyday of Buffalo's avant-garde art scene in the 1970s, in which he played a vital role as a Buffalo News art critic and later as a filmmaker, was a near-constant presence at the center.
And Bannon used his considerable clout in the museum world to promote the Burchfield Penney as the primary research center for those interested in the work of its namesake, Charles E. Burchfield, among other important artists.
But Bannon's enthusiasm for the strange and unexpected, his instant embrace of unorthodox ideas that pushed the boundaries of what a museum could do, is what defined his two-part tenure at the center.
It was an enthusiasm he cultivated during his time as a News critic dedicated to beating the offbeat bushes and testing the untested. Much to his credit, Bannon was an early and ardent supporter of Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center when other mainstream writers were immune to its nascent genius.
"His training as a journalist made him absolutely, totally responsive to everything – theater, music, movies," my colleague Jeff Simon said. That training, paired with his wide-ranging curiosity, prepared Bannon to transform the center into an institution as polyglot as its leader.
He carried that curiosity with him into the Burchfield Penney directorship in 1986, taking the baton from its original director Edna Lindemann. He carried it through his career as a photography scholar, penning important works on the photo-pictorialists of Buffalo and monographs on various American photographers.
When he again arrived in Buffalo after 16 years as director of the George Eastman House (now the George Eastman Museum) in 2012, Bannon brought with him a kind of erudite evangelism for the untapped potential of the American museum.
Bannon, who speaks with the calm and considered cadence of a preacher, is evangelical in his belief about the international import and the utter singularity of Western New York's artistic culture.
"Both museums and universities are places where propositions are turned around, in which we place ourselves in positions of vulnerability, in which we say, 'I don't know the answer, I want to learn,' " Bannon said at the time of his re-appointment. "I come to you because I wanted to be surprised. I want to be challenged. I want to be knocked off my feet. I want to be threatened by new ideas."
At the Burchfield under Bannon, the threat of new ideas was everywhere. It came in the form of musical performances and poetry readings during the series of quarterly festivals he launched. It came in the form of rigorous exhibitions based on the writing and musical affinities of Burchfield. And it came in public events the center hosted in its auditorium, including an appearance last year by controversial artist Ashley Powell, who stirred debate with a provocative public art project at the University at Buffalo.
There are few better characteristics in a leader than curiosity and the willingness to take risks. Bannon was far more likely to entertain a new idea than to dismiss it, far more likely to throw his full weight behind an inspired notion instead of letting its progenitor sink or swim by themselves.
"Tony was instrumental in helping the museum grow in very valuable ways during his first tenure, and turned it up a notch or two during his second tenure," said longtime Burchfield Penney curator Nancy Weekly. "I suspect Tony’s accomplishments during his second term have made him proud. He loves this place."
Bannon's second departure from the Burchfield Penney will not be easy for those addicted to the unpredictable, all-inclusive modus operandi of this institution. Here's hoping that his replacement has half his fervor for promoting the cultural import of Western New York, half his heart and half his career-defining curiosity.
Read more at www.BurchfieldPenney.org.