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Burchfield Penney Announces New Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiatives

Monday, November 2, 2020

The Burchfield Penney Art Center announced that it will dedicate significant resources and institutional energy to a series of pivotal Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives that will both build upon its longstanding efforts, and break new ground.  The Center, in support of the world-class State University of New York system and SUNY Buffalo State College’s commitment to being the most inclusive higher education system in the country, will accelerate its work at every level to build a culture that meets our goal of being truly reflective of the community we serve.

Spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement, widespread national protests for equality and social justice in response to police brutality, and a legacy of institutional discrimination stretching back to their very founding as institutions, art museums nationwide have used this period of reckoning and reflection to examine their core values and service to a diverse public.

Burchfield Penney executive director Dennis Kois notes, “The reality is that if we truly want to fulfill our missions as museums, the directors, staffs, boards of directors and supporters of American museums must begin by acknowledging a historic reality: that museums in America arose from a desire to assimilate immigrants of all types by telling specific stories to validate the dominant culture. Stories that highlighted western art over the art of all other cultures. Stories that presented art history as a march from ‘primitive’ art to refined art in the western tradition. And stories which excluded or minimized art that did not support these narratives. Museums do have a race problem, and despite our field paying lip service to diversity in museums over the past 40 years, real change has been sluggish.” Kois said, “While the Burchfield Penney has done a better job than many American art museums presenting and collecting the voices and creativity of diverse communities, there is a lot further to go. The moment is now to advance our work and build a more equitable institution from top to bottom.”

Since Kois’s arrival in 2018, the diversity of the Burchfield Penney’s board of directors has doubled from 10 percent to 20 percent (from 3 of 32 BIPOC [black, indigenous, and people of color] members in 2018, to 6 of 30 in 2020), making the Center’s board the most diverse of Buffalo's major cultural institutions as of 2020. “We see this as a positive step forward but remain committed to leading the way toward a Board that fully reflects our region,” said Kois.

In September 2020 the Board initiated the formation of a permanent standing committee for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) “The formation of a DEI board committee will help ensure our diversity goals and values will have a clear and strong voice at the highest level of the organization,” notes Burchfield Penney board chair Shelley Drake, Western New York regional president of M&T Bank. “As René F. Jones, M&T Bank chairman and CEO and also a Burchfield Penney Trustee has said, ‘As a company, we embrace diversity and believe in the power of inclusion,’” said Drake. “Social justice isn’t the responsibility of any one person or company—it’s a goal for the world and we’re on a journey to make sure we do our part to celebrate all of the people that make up our communities.” 

Buffalo State College President Katherine Conway-Turner added, “The Burchfield Penney’s initiatives represent a laudable dedication to diversity, equity, and inclusion and reflect Buffalo State’s longstanding and ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusion, as well as our efforts this year to create more opportunities to expand programs and projects that celebrate social justice. 

“Recently, I assembled a working group that will lead us in the process of developing a permanent social justice outdoor space—a landmark dedicated to the ideals of social justice and Buffalo State’s perpetual commitment to it," Conway-Turner said. "This project will dovetail nicely with the art center’s DEI initiatives. The time has come to capitalize on our collective desire to make all parts of the campus as diverse and welcoming as possible.” 

Additionally, the Burchfield Penney is one of 10 Buffalo cultural institutions that have banded together to pursue funding for cross-organizational DEI training for both board members and senior staff, ongoing DEI workshops, and a commitment that their collective DEI work will remain an ongoing focus in the years ahead. More information on this shared vision to diversify and train boards of directors—by cultural organizations representing a cumulative 300+ seats in our community—will be released in the coming weeks.

Finally, the Center’s renewed commitment to DEI also calls for a stronger curatorial vision and presence for projects that reflect the breadth and depth of artistic practice in our region. Upcoming examples include:

  • An installation on the exterior of the building will present work in direct response to the ongoing national discussion of race and privilege.
  • A new exhibition opening this winter co-curated by a diverse group of young working artists in the community.
  • The Center’s recent launch of a new Under-Represented Artist Fund (URAF) to seed projects, exhibitions, commissions, and acquisitions.

“In addition to regional support for creating institutional change, we’re actively engaged in national-level, competitive grants to further our efforts,” said Scott Propeack, Burchfield Penney deputy director. “Diversity of voices in all areas of our programmatic activity is the ultimate fulfilment of our mission. Representation of the art and artists of our region is only achieved when we reflect the work of a broad range of artists and include the voices of curators from the communities we serve. Our goal is to reflect and celebrate culture by being of the community…not just in it.”

The Center will continue to collaborate with Buffalo State College’s faculty and students to advance programming that advances its DEI efforts and supports open, meaningful conversations about those things that set us apart. In summer 2020 in collaboration with Dr. Ron Stewart, chair of SUNY Buffalo State’s sociology department, the Burchfield Penney presented a virtual panel discussion on race relations with local emerging community activists. The goal was to support awareness, collective healing and social change, and the online event was live-streamed by hundreds of attendees. Additionally, the Buffalo State College communication department’s Beyond Boundaries, Dare to be Diverse programming has presented panel discussions on the topic of diversity since 2014.

“We understand that Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work is challenging. It is ongoing. It requires uncomfortable conversations for institutions and their leadership,” believes Kois. “We pledge to learn and grow, and will hold ourselves accountable to its success.”