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A year of strength-building for Western New York’s cultural institutions in the Buffalo News

Friday, December 27, 2013

A year of strength-building for Western New York’s cultural institutions
It was a year that showed us sign after sign of growth in the arts, theater, music and food scenes, and the trend is poised to continue


In 2013, as Buffalo’s economic engines began to sputter back to life and its static skyline took on a new shape, the rhythm of the region’s cultural life seemed to accelerate in tandem.

Western New York’s vibrant arts, theater, music and food scenes – bellwethers and beneficiaries of the region’s ongoing revival – saw a rush of new blood and welcomed plenty of promising startups. At the same time, some traditional organizations struggled to find their footing. But more than any single headline about a new festival or museum director, endangered movie theater or sold-out mega-concert, the standout story of 2013 was about cultural institutions growing into their potential and fulfilling old promises.

The food trucks that began to roll onto the scene four years ago grew into a bona-fide cultural phenomenon. The desire for new, large-scale street art and legal graffiti, until recently only whispered about, became a full-throated demand. Larkinville and Canalside have grown into proven and consistent draws.

In Western New York’s arts, entertainment and dining scenes, 2013 has been an exercise in strength-building. Here are the year’s top 10 stories:

1. A grain elevator revival
The long-dormant, century-old concrete structures that line the Buffalo River have been on the minds of local artists and entrepreneurs for years, but this year they drew more attention, activity and investment than ever before. In May, the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation announced that the elevators near Canalside will be illuminated year-round beginning in late 2014. Silo City, the industrial complex owned by local businessman Rick Smith, has hosted more events and installations than ever, including an outdoor theater production involving a helicopter. And in October, developers announced a plan to spend $15 million creating a brewery and entertainment complex around the Wheeler-GLF site near General Mills.

2. Movie houses redefined
Big changes arrived on the local cinema landscape this year, a possible signal that years of competition from better-financed corporate rivals was finally taking its toll.

Fans of the historic North Park Cinema let out a simultaneous sigh of disappointment in May when Dipson Theatres announced it would no longer screen films there. But just a few days later, hope arrived in the form of a proposal from its owner and a local developer to turn the theater into the art house cinema to beat all art house cinemas.

In November, more bad news arrived when Dipson announced it may have to stop showing films in downtown’s struggling Market Arcade Film and Arts Center because the theater cannot afford digital projectors without an infusion of public money. Plans are now afoot to keep the theater in operation, with no clear resolution in sight. Meanwhile, in August, AMC’s Maple Ridge 8 theater added new reclining seats that must be reserved in advance in its latest attempt to set itself apart from the competition.

3. Changes and growing pains on the music scene
Last year ended sadly for many local music fans with news that the charming dive and storied performance venue Mohawk Place was closing. But this year, the Buffalo music scene welcomed the Waiting Room on Delaware Avenue and, more recently, Buffalo Iron Works – both examples of a desire to meet a growing demand for live, local music. In Clarence, the country music spot Howdy’s returned to the scene as well.

Meanwhile, as the development of the waterfront rapidly evolves, the landscape of free local concerts that have come to be synonymous with summer in Buffalo do so as well. Bad weather resulted in a significant loss for Buffalo Place’s free Thursday concert series at Canalside, while the promising outer harbor venue suffered from access and parking problems.

4. A new era begins at the Albright-Knox
In January, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery announced the appointment of its 11th director, the Finnish-born Janne Gallen-Kallela-Sirén. In his first few months on the job, Sirén has launched several new projects and exhibitions, including an ambitious yearlong show celebrating the gallery’s purchase of a major painting by German artist Anselm Kiefer and a plan to hire an Erie County-funded public art curator, announced in September by Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.

5. Food truck phenomenon
In 2010, Buffalo was home to one lonely little food truck known as Lloyd, dispensing made-to-order tacos to the curious few. Three years later, News Food Editor Andrew Galarneau says he lost count of the number of currently operating food trucks after 16. Many of them gather on Tuesdays during the summer months at Larkinville for the Food Truck Rodeo, a cultural event at which food is the main attraction.

6. Buffalo follows BPO to Carnegie Hall and beyond
Wherever the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra goes, Buffalo’s loyal fans are sure to follow. In May, hundreds of them trailed the orchestra to New York City’s Carnegie Hall, where they helped break an attendance record as the BPO played Reinhold Gliere’s daunting Symphony No. 3. Back home, under the baton of Music Director JoAnn Falletta and oversight of Executive Director Dan Hart, the organization remains an exemplar of fiscal health at a time when many orchestras in American cities much larger than Buffalo have struggled to stay afloat.

7. Larkinville comes into its own
The urban development known as Larkinville began, as more than a few good ideas have, inside the head of Buffalo developer Howard Zemsky. It became a reality in 2012 with the help of preservationist Tim Tielman and many others, drawing curious crowds to after-work concerts and arts events in the pristine adult playground. But in 2013, Larkinville truly came into its own, outgrowing its novelty status and becoming a bona fide destination for concerts highlighting local music, plenty of offbeat art events and the weekly Food Truck Rodeo.

8. CEPA Gallery goes to Washington
The smile on Jose Lagares’ face as he accepted an award on behalf of CEPA Gallery from first lady Michelle Obama in December threatened to overtake the entire East Room of the White House. It certainly spread across Buffalo’s cultural community, which was proud to see one of its many long-standing visual arts institutions being recognized for its work with local students. Lagares, a young photographer who hails from Puerto Rico and attends Lafayette High School, went to Washington, D.C., with CEPA Education Director Lauren Tent to accept a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award.

9. A street art renaissance
The number of street art projects and murals ballooned in 2013, including the launch of developer Mark Goldman’s hastily organized Allen Street Street Art Collective and the growing organization Community Canvases. New murals appeared on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and on Grant Street, with a new consciousness about contemporary street art dawning across the region.

10. Burchfield Penney makes its mark
At the beginning of 2013, Burchfield Penney Art Center Director Anthony Bannon announced an ambitious series of new initiatives, including a sprawling digital database chronicling the artistic history of Western New York, an artists’ residency program and a series of quarterly festivals celebrating the depth and breadth of the center’s activities. To those labor-intensive commitments, Bannon and his team added “The Front Yard,” a constantly running outdoor sound and video installation that opened in October and is one of the most striking additions to the museum district since the Burchfield Penney’s current building opened in 2008.

Honorable mentions: The Buffalo theater scene expanded its bulging ranks this year with the addition of the Buffalo Public Theatre, Raíces Theatre Company and the Second Generation Theatre.

Shea’s Performing Arts Center President and CEO Anthony Conte successfully shepherded the 710 Main Theatre through its first productions by local companies since 2008, while overseeing Shea’s continued success and joining a small group attempting to keep the Market Arcade Film and Arts Center open.

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, still in the midst of a major renovation that will turn it into a boutique hotel and museum, opened its sprawling and meticulously landscaped south lawn in September.