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Displacement: Barge Prototype in Buffalo Spree

Friday, September 19, 2014

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It’s a cargo of ideas. It’s a boatload of culture. It’s a way to bring art to the public and confront them with it. It’s like the biggest Ikea project ever.

These are some of the definitions floated by the organizers of the Burchfield Penney Art Center’s barge project, which involves both a barge prototype built inside the museum and a real historic barge—the Day Peckinpaugh—that will make its way down the Erie Canal loaded to the gills with Western New York art and artists.

“There are so many entry points,” says BPAC curator Scott Propeack, “but I think ultimately we’re all trying to communicate with a broad public.”

Like so many other brilliant concepts, the art barge was born from a conversation in a bar. Propeack happened to be chatting with D. Olivier Delrieu-Schulze in the Essex Street Pub one night. Delrieu-Schulze, a multi-disciplinary artist, has taught in the University at Buffalo’s Department of Media Study and in the Baltimore public school system, and participated as curator and artist in a number of other intriguing projects. Delrieu-Schulze is very interested in the Erie Canal, and studied its history before coming to Buffalo. He wonders if people in New York City realize how important the canal was to their city’s development, and thinks a dynamic artwork/artist exchange between Buffalo, Manhattan, and the towns and cities in-between could start an important conversation. This is why Delrieu-Schulze proposed a floating art project to the BPAC curator.

Propeack is equally interested in seeing how powerful the outreach of such a project could be. The original notion involved a simple pontoon construction, but it soon became more ambitious. “I said, ‘let’s go gigantic,’” Propeack recalls.

Gigantic is what they got when they found that they could borrow the New York State Museum’s Day Peckinpaugh, which was built in 1921 to carry wheat, flax seed, rye, sugar, and—in the early years pig iron—up and down the barge canal and Great Lakes. During WWII, it carried coal along the east coast, and later it returned to canal service with loads of sand, gravel, and, finally, concrete. It was retired in 1996 and saved from the scrap yard in 2005 by a consortium of museums and preservation societies. With a length of 249 feet and width of thirty-nine feet, the barge is among the largest boats to operate on the canal system, where the maximum area available for vessels in a lock is 300-feet-long by forty-three-point-five-feet-wide. It also has a fourteen-foot-deep hold.

It is only fitting that this historic vessel, already designated as a floating history museum, expands its purpose to become a mobile art museum as well. But we’re getting ahead of our story.

Before the Peckinpaugh travels between Buffalo and Brooklyn (via the Erie basin, Niagara River, Black Rock Canal, Erie Canal, and the Hudson) in 2016, first a gallery-based barge entitled Displacement: Barge Prototype will do the job of representing the basic concept. The gallery-based barge is 100 feet long, thirty feet wide and sixteen feet high and just about fills BPAC’s East Gallery, the first time a single installation has dominated this challenging space. Displacement Barge Prototype contains two galleries within in, one for rotating display, called the Shuttle, and another entitled Restricted Use. It carries a full cargo of artists; a preliminary list includes Alan Bigelow, Scott Bye, A. J. Fries, Julian Montague, Gary Sczerbaniewicz, Katherine Sehr, Shasti O’Leary Soudant, and many others. Artists will be added throughout the project.

The gallery barge is designed by Erika Abbondanzieri of Watts Architecture & Engineering, with modifications by artists Scott Bye and Julian Montague. As Propeack notes, “We want it to look like it doesn’t fit in the gallery.” Its massive outlines were not yet filled in at press time, but it was already casting a big shadow in the space. When completed, visitors will be able to visit galleries on two levels. As exciting as the gallery barge is, however, we can’t wait to see the real thing wend its way down the Erie Canal. Watch for updates in upcoming issues of Buffalo Spree magazine and on this website.