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Tony Bannon featured in La Lettre de la Photographie

Monday, May 14, 2012

Anthony Bannon : l'adieu à Kodak by Richard Huntington in La Lettre de la Photographie
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Anthony Bannon is not one to follow other people’s scripts. Dismissing the cautionary message in Thomas Wolfe’s 1940 posthumous novel, “You Can’t go Home Again,” Bannon is coming home again to Buffalo, New York, the city where he grew up, studied, and first honed his skills as filmmaker, critic, and arts administrator. The return also has a remarkable symmetry to it: After 16 strikingly productive years as executive director of Rochester’s George Eastman House of Photography and Film, Bannon comes home to Buffalo to assume the position of executive director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, the very institution that he helped transform from a small, hermetic gallery to a major regional museum during his first directorship there, from 1985 to 1996.

Anybody who knows him or has worked for or with him recognizes Bannon as an idea-man of the first order. During his first stint as Burchfield Penney director, staff members would watch him arrive at work and proceed to unburden his pockets of multiple scraps of paper on which he had jotted down -- along with names, phone numbers, schedules — reminders of fresh ideas that had been stirring around in his head the night before. Many of these ideas never bore fruit, but the ones that did were often of the institution-building variety— big ideas that encompassed new approaches, novel solutions, even risky applications. But a heap of good ideas is not what makes one a visionary, a word that has often been used in describing Bannon. Bannon merits the “visionary” designation by his ability to merge, clarify and restructure his ideas — to jerry-rig them, if necessary — in order that they may function freely and productively in the real world.

An excellent example of this kind of reshaping and adapting of a raw idea happened in the making of a 2009 Eastman House exhibition called “Not Forgotten.” The underlying idea was simple: get people into the museum and give them a reason to a have an emotional connection to the place. It happens that Rochester’s per capita murder rate is as high as any in New York State. Bannon knew that behind these grim statistics was a world of grief. To get to this grief the museum commissioned a local photographer by the name of Will Yurman to photograph relatives of victims. The resulting exhibition became, as Bannon describes it, “a gather place for grieving relatives.” Civic leaders came; the public came; the news media paid attention. It gave cold statistics an emotional dimension. “The museum is a wonderful neutral gathering spot,” Bannon says. “You get over any elitist connotation by doing something that gives the public the license to enter. We did exhibitions on [photographer] Gordon Parks and [filmmaker] Spike Lee and they didn’t come. But for “Not Forgotten” they did. The subject gives permission.”

At 69 and on the verge of retiring, Bannon has made a surprising move by accepting this late career challenge —surprising anyway to those of his colleagues and associates who saw his stellar achievements at the Eastman House as the apogee of a life’s work. It certainly wasn’t that he had more to achieve. He left the Burchfield Penney in great shape. He succeeded in bringing in important new collections to the Burchfield Penney, none more important than the multiple gifts — including major paintings by the museum’s namesake Charles E. Burchfield — from the late Lockport collector and eccentric Charles Rand Penney. Bannon saw to it that these extraordinarily generous gifts were honored by adding the Penney name to the museum in 1994. The Roycroft Collection at the Burchfield Penney, probably the most comprehensive collection of these late 19th/early 20th century craftsmen anywhere, was secured by Bannon during his first tenure. He also established key endowments and community partnerships that to this day remain at the core of the museum’s operation. It was during Bannon’s watch that the Burchfield Penney gained national accreditation by the American Association of Museums.

At the Eastman House the record is equally impressive. Bannon established the first permanent school of film preservation. Its graduates presently work in the world’s leading film archives. He oversaw the digitization of the collections which led to the worldwide dissemination of the famed Eastman House images. He secured the Merchant/Ivory and Technicolor Collections, among other important acquisitions. Exhibitions mounted during his 16 years were often designed for wide public accessibility — a history of burlesque in Buffalo, for example — making them the most well-attended affairs in the museum’s 65-year history.

As his many successes with collectors, arts administrators and civic leaders demonstrate, Bannon has a well-developed ability to persuade without seeming to persuade. A case in point is his relationship with Charles Rand Penney. Over time Bannon established a genuine friendship with Penney and was always sensitive to the collector’s sometimes fragile feelings. He was patient, kind and accommodating. He says that he never once asked Penney to donate his collections to the center. Instead, he simply set out possibilities. That was enough: ultimately, Penney donated 1,485 objects, completely transforming the museum’s acquisition profile in the process.

Bannon says that it was the 2010 inaugural address of Buffalo State College President Aaron Podolefsky that first spurred his interest in returning to Burchfield Penney, which from its inception in 1966 has been associated with the College. In that speech, Podolefsky described a crucial role for the center in the college’s efforts to improve the quality of community life through the arts.

“That was the magnet for me,” Bannon says. “I saw the opportunity to work with President Podolefsky to help in creating civic policy … that is attractive to me —getting my hands dirty in the right way.”

The “right way” is finding cultural springboards that will actually affect social discourse or, better, social behavior. Bannon believes that art has the power, when applied correctly, to make significant changes in how we live and act. It’s a grandiose assumption, but one that Bannon says he knows will work if there is aggressive team effort behind it. The cultural slant of the Burchfield Penney already offers futile ground for such efforts, he says. “My doctorate degree [from the University at Buffalo] is in English with Cultural Theory as a concentration. I was ready to retire; I wasn’t interested in any other institution. The Burchfield Penney I saw as being about culture cast broadly— about architecture, design, crafts —the Roycroft Collection is huge, the largest in the country—about film, painting.”

The collection does, however, have gaps that need to be filled. The electronic arts, for example, need attention, and Bannon plans to begin collecting in that area. And he envisions some overall adjustments in the way works of art are collected and exhibited. He feels that the museum is sometimes unnecessarily restricted by its regional designation. He wants to continue to focus on Western New York, to champion its artists. But, he says, “You can move from the local experience to larger concerns. You can match up ideas that evidence themselves locally and find their application on a national level.” One of Bannon’s strategies will be to appropriate some of the international cache of artists connected to Buffalo, be it current artists or those from the past. Bannon is especially interested in those notable artists who were here at Artpark, the Lewiston facility, during its glory years as a nationally-recognized outdoor sculpture park. He is already gathering material for a possible Artpark archive at the center. Another possibility is to bring work by individual Artpark artists, whenever possible, into the collection.

In his new role, in addition to serving as Executive Director of the Burchfield Penney, Bannon will be an Associate Vice-President and Research Professor at Buffalo State College. His annual salary will be $170,000. He succeeds Ted Pietrzak, who before he retired in 2010, oversaw the building of a new $33 million facility set prominently on the edge of the Buffalo State College campus across from the internationally acclaimed Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Unlike his first go-around as director, Bannon will now have at his command an expansive, beautifully appointed museum with generous exhibition space and state-of-the-art systems.

Bannon, with his wife Elizabeth Stewart, will move into an historic house — once owned by Joseph Ellicott, the man who first laid out the village of Buffalo— in Williamsville, a popular suburb northeast of the city. Coming home again always has some feelings of nostalgia attached, but Bannon shrugs them off. As he told Colin Dabkowski, arts writer for the Buffalo News, the paper that launched Bannon’s career as art critic back in the 1970s, he finds this new experience in his old hometown absolutely uplifting. “It is heartening. It is lovely to have people say, ‘So nice to have you come home again.’” Sorry, Thomas Wolfe: You can go home again, after all.

Richard Huntington
Richard Huntington, a painter, printmaker and writer, is Critic Emeritus at The Buffalo News. He was a contributing reviewer for such publications as High Performance Magazine, ArtNews, and Art New England. He is author of a number of catalog essays, including “Jackie Felix: Stories Only Half-told,” for the retrospective exhibition, Storyboard: The Sexual Politics of Jackie Felix, held at the Burchfield Penney Art Center (2012); and “Falling Beams, Exploring Heads: A look Back at Artpark” for Artpark:1974-1984, an exhibition in the University at Buffalo Art Galleries, Buffalo (2010).
In 2010 his paintings were included in the international biennial Beyond/In WNY: Alternating Currents, organized by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.