When We Paint Our Masterpiece

Take a drive around Buffalo and, if you have any distant memory of the city, you’ll feel good about saying one thing: This place looks a lot better than it used to.
Park space has been groomed or established; new office buildings, housing and courthouses have been constructed; historical entities have been salvaged and rehabbed; cobblestone streets have been implemented; and access to the waterfront has been improved. With a little exploration, you can now find portions of the Outer Harbor without packing a map and a hacksaw. Just last weekend, I touched the base of the Buffalo Lighthouse, a structure I’d seen encased in fencing for decades. By even the most pessimistic standards, you can admit things are progressing past the decades of empty promises.
But, as elected officials preside over this city’s positive developmental direction, will they finally recognize and respect the role of Buffalo’s undervalued creative community in that direction?
Sure, they’ll recognize this cultural sect as important, but not indispensable. If they were recognized as such, funding debates wouldn’t break out during election seasons like this past one. For a region who regularly touts its cultural entities to outsiders and residents alike, how could any of our creative resources be deemed expendable by the region’s politicians or taxpayers? These resources populate local museums and art galleries; they fill pages in newspaper boxes and magazine racks; they construct statues for parks and town squares, and they stretch visions to corners of canvas on sides of Cobblestone District buildings. Buffalonians who’ve left this city have used the acumen acquired on these streets to host gallery shows, draft novels, or play vampires in Sarah Michelle Geller television shows. They’ve even used the inspiration shoveled from these sidewalks to record songs about flavors, slides and superfreaks. In any case, these creative resources have the ability to give Buffalo something no parking garage or property tax can provide: an image.
A city’s image can be formed by a variety of things, such as food, weather or historical events. Memphis has barbecue; San Diego has sun; Boston has the American Revolution. Currently, Buffalo’s image outside the 716 area code has been cultivated with a mixture of wing sauce, exaggerated snowfall, and Super Bowl losses. Residents and displaced Buffalonians know the history, benefits and unpublicized intricacies of this city, but outsiders or prospective tourists–ones local leaders and businessmen are clamoring for–are content to grasp onto the aforementioned trio. Until an interior movement is fueled and utilized to repackage Buffalo in a way that’s impossible to ignore on a national level, those three items will always be the most common things associated with this city. Well, those things and Niagara Falls, a natural wonder located in another city.
This movement starts and rolls on the backs of Buffalo’s creative community. This a city packed with artists of every shape and style, ones who’ve made Allentown and Elmwood Village two of our most recognizable neighborhoods. They’re doing their job there, acting as the city’s eclectic advertising and marketing department, albeit without the funding. With allocated financial support, their artistic talents could be utilized toward urban renewal or recreation in other sections of downtown.
Graphic designers, painters, performers, sculptors, musicians, and writers fill seats in Spot Coffee and barstools at Founding Fathers. They’re walking their dogs down Richmond and smoking American Spirits off Bidwell. Many of them are up until all hours of nights working on projects whether the city or county wants them to or not. During the day, some are working at their craft within non-profits or galleries; others are in unrelated professions that afford them the time and means to create or perform. They’re not simply looking for a government handout; they’re looking for reasonable support to assist their community-enriching endeavors, and compensation for their involvement in these efforts. And, in every instance, they’re excited for the opportunity to display the substance of these endeavors for a large audience.
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This is where urban development can be augmented by a city’s underappreciated creative class.
If you drive down such streets as Genesee, Franklin or Oak, there are a number of dilapidated buildings, not ready for redevelopment but clouding the intriguing view of those being developed. Their exteriors have been worn down by time and weather, and they’re currently only advertising their depreciation. If you walk down Main Street, you’ll see small parks or squares that exist underutilized or empty. Their benches are splintered or their fountains are inoperable. When city officials see these spaces, maybe they see lost causes. If they’re concerned with pursuing a multifaceted image transformation for this city’s downtown core, maybe they should see these spaces as tremendous opportunities to be tapped by Buffalo’s hungriest assets.
If the city and county think of aiding cultural organizations or artists as a luxury, maybe they’d be more acceptant about the associated costs if they considered these entities as freelance laborers. Their work can do as much to re-imagine Buffalo’s downtown landscape as a courthouse or refurbished hotel can. And maybe some traditional residents don’t think of artists or cultural groups as blue-collar workers; maybe they think of them as eccentric, tattooed dreamers living outside societal norms. This is patently ridiculous, and a public shift in thinking is needed.
Buffalo-jump-1.jpg
If it can be implemented, the city and county could consider generating a program that solicits artists or art groups to create Buffalo-themed art–according to the street, neighborhood or history surrounding either–in these aforementioned spaces. Whether through compliance (of city or county-owned property), suggestion (to private property owners) or direct action (with derelict owners’ property), these parcels could be utilized for the city’s and the creative community’s gain. With every painting crafted over brick and sculpture bolted into concrete, local artists can act to construct a bold identity for Buffalo, one of turning crumbling facades and empty squares into startling murals and sidewalk galleries. A drive down previously vacant streets will take a bit longer; a walk by empty storefronts will be a bit more fascinating. And, all of the sudden, a block of ignored possibilities becomes a desired urban commodity for residents and tourists alike.
Am I the first guy to suggest that Buffalo should enable its
art community to use artifacts of the past to design its future? Of course not. I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last. This idea will keep coming forward in numerous variations until an encompassing reality blooms from this concept, one that’s been on the consideration shelf way too long. At some point, some forward-thinking city official will prioritize funding–or help to generate outside sponsorship–dust it off, and commit to its perpetual existence.
Until that time comes, Buffalo will continue its gradual resurgence through reconstruction and rehabilitation. Its artists will remain hard at work, generating the same electric urban undercurrent they’ve delivered for decades. They’ll open studios on Main and sell jewelry on Elmwood. They’ll perform alt-country originals inside Mohawk Place and publish Queen City-inspired stories in literary magazines. Cultural groups will continue to be driven by love, not money, and they’ll try to ignore the annual debates about their funding or relevance. What they do isn’t a choice as much as it’s an infectious calling. They absolutely have to do it.
If local leadership ever come to fully respect the rarity of this work ethic, they just might harness the creative force that could inconceivably transform Buffalo’s regional and national identity into one that dwarfs the tired rust belt jokes. By properly funding these artists’ gritty ingenuity, they’ll not only turn this city into a better version of its predecessor, but into one no Buffalonian ever imagined.
(Author’s note: This post was written while listening to Sam Roberts Band’s Love at the End of the World, The Band’s Cahoots, and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass.)

Mike Farrell recently started The Farrell Street Blog - an educated ramble on topics such as sports, music and his return to the mean streets of western New York. He may also mention things about his novels “Running with Buffalo”, or the yet-to-be released “When the Lights Go Out.”

Lead photo: Tifft Nature Preserve

Photos: queenseyes

About the author  ⁄ bluedevil

23 comments
whatever
whatever

About "inconsistent"... if someone ever says 'no' about one idea for govt spending proposal and 'yes' about any other, then ok it's inconsistent. To be consistent that way would mean always yes for every govt spending idea ever suggested [fill in any joke here about Albany or D.C.]

Or always no could be consistent too.

Given that pretty much anyone's views by that definition are inconsistent and are subjective which goes without say, what can make debates more interesting is what objective reasoning people use to decide when yes and when no. One way could be to say yes/no according primarily to if the spending is in an urban or nonurban area.

For another example, some argue that in our system there should be a big difference between targeted taxpayer funding (not purchases) being given as gifts to politician-selected private entities like a few developers or a few theater groups, etc. compared to funding of publicly-owned things like police, public schools, roads/bridges, snow plowing, fire fighting, etc.

In a very different system such as nations where businesses & arts/culture are all publicly owned by govt, that distinction won't exist.

There's a parallel between that and our separation of religion & govt, compared to nations in which religion & govt are combined. That doesn't mean as a people here nobody considers any particular religion "important", just that govt shouldn't give taxpayer $ to it.

What's so awful about looking that way at private sector things such as a select few upscale housing projects like Paladino's, or live theater groups, or non-polular music orgs like the BPO, or restaurants, bars, ...?

I'd wonder are there any types of things you'd say govt $ shouldn't be spent on even if it happens in an urban area? There must be, but what are some examples and the reasoning for them?

whatever
whatever

arm>"I was going to bring up subjectivity"

See, I knew.

Of course all political arguments are subjective on all sides - even the sides you favor.

Everything Obama advocates about spending & taxing are subjective, but I'd bet you don't try to dismiss or minimize his views for that reason the way you seem to be trying about those you disagree with.

Same goes for views of Poloncarz, the "Occupiers", Cuomo, BR writers, and so on - all subjective as are mine (unless any of them favor spending for any & all possible ideas ever proposed - which seems unlikely)... yet I've never noticed you calling them out for subjectivity.

The Kettle
The Kettle

Whatever> "Of course it's subjective (saving Arm from having to say it)."

I was going to bring up subjectivity while you were arguing government services that you don't like, in this case funding of the arts, ought to be funded privately while services you like should receive taxpayer money.

Seems inconsistent and subjective, especially for someone who fancies himself as consistent and objective, but I was going to stay out of your discussion.

PaulBuffalo
PaulBuffalo

Besides, future of humanity might depend on moving to other planets if Republicans are allowed to melt us all here with carbon they keep burning while everyone else begs them to stop.

Thank you for pandering to a few of my sensibilities. Have a good evening.

whatever
whatever

No, even if it stayed open the public $ to SA would be wasteful. Point about closure was the set of arts/culture orgs will always evolve - some end, some start - and customers (not politicians) should make choices based on what they like.

SA's customers very likely didn't stop attending arts/culture stuff after it closed. There's a big market for all that.

So, even if some of the few arts/culture orgs who Erie Co politicians have selected for subsidy past years have become truly dependent on taxpayer $ and can't survive without it (which seems not so, btw - those few all survived a year and might get a chance to try the same thing next year - depending on Collins veto)…. then others who start and grow would fill the void, attracting customers from any who close just like some perhaps attracted people who used to attend at SA.

whatever
whatever

Opps, forgot questions.

paul>"stop spending taxpayer dollars on medical/scientific research, space exploration, etc?

Are you in the Ron Paul mold of not spending on anything but the common defense? Where is your libertarian line in the sand?"

Much more than for arts/culture, some things are more feasibly owned by govts than only private owners. Of course it's subjective (saving Arm from having to say it). And some things change as history marches (post office seems moving toward end some day). Others might always make sense for public ownership (police). As for streets, who knows what might happen with technology. Maybe eventually streets can be privately owned or at least more strictly user-funded.

Space exploring would've been delayed many decades if govt had stayed out of it, but it would have happened. I don't have a strong feeling either way about govt hurrying it along. Separate from long dist exploration, satellites helped with many big public/human needs that couldn't have happened as fast privately (communications, arms treaty verification, weather detection, etc). There wasn't a similarly good or better private sector alternative to develop those as there is for things like corp welfare to Paladino-Croce-Termini, or to a few arts/culture groups, and so on.

Importance isn't the distinction. Cars are more important than space ships, but GM/Chrysler bailouts were dumb.

Besides, future of humanity might depend on moving to other planets if Republicans are allowed to melt us all here with carbon they keep burning while everyone else begs them to stop. So maybe good if govt doesn't delay inventing space travel asap!

PaulBuffalo
PaulBuffalo

Even with years of public subsidies, Studio Arena eventually closed.

Because it closed it proves that public dollars were wasted? Sorry, faulty logic. Studio Arena, in its prime and with the assistance of public dollars, produced some of the best theatre in the country. Certainly, it was internationally recognized and it was a catalyst for activity downtown. At the time, a public investment paid off.

You don't acknowledge the importance of quality in your argument about quantity. I'll let you return to your lite beer.

whatever
whatever

"I don't think you'd have a difficult time finding a variety of beverages even in the worst of times."

Nor would anybody here 'have a difficult time finding a variety of' arts & culture, regardless of whether the few dozen govt-selected groups in question start receiving taxpayer $ again.

I suppose I should say when now not whether, after the election result. But none of them disappeared in the past year while Erie Co funding wasn't provided, and it still might not be provided in the coming year depending on a veto or override. The private sector fundraising of those groups grew, reportedly. And that doesn't even mention all the arts & culture that never received any public $. How much govt funds for example has to be given to Nietzsche's or acts that play there every night of the year? Zero, you say? Hmm. How is that possible? At the larger end of the spectrum, how much govt $ is handed to Regal cinemas? None? How can they keep doors open?

Whether some of you will admit it or not, by far most arts & culture here large and small happens within the private sector (for-profit & non-profit). Just like with corporate welfare to some in the 1%, there's claims from some of what gloom & doom would happen if a relatively few arts/culture recipients weren't chosen by govt for public subsidies. Doesn't add up. Even with years of public subsidies, Studio Arena eventually closed. People who used to buy tickets for that now are likely choosing some other cultural stuff from the very wide variety available. There's no scarcity.

PaulBuffalo
PaulBuffalo

I don't think you'd have a difficult time finding a variety of beverages even in the worst of times. On the other hand, cultural organizations provide a singular experience that cannot be measured as simply as the pint for which you thirst.

Toss out your beer for a moment: do you think the government should stop spending taxpayer dollars on medical/scientific research, space exploration, etc? Are you in the Ron Paul mold of not spending on anything but the common defense? Where is your libertarian line in the sand?

whatever
whatever

Yes, Paul, it looked like you were being snarky and making a point with which I disagreed - all at once. Congrats for multitasking.

Hopefully my two comments communicated that there isn't total overlap between everything that any or even all individuals consider important vs. what taxpayer $ should be spent on, and that there's a difference between the private and public sectors.

I'm getting thirsty at the moment, but no matter how important that is to me I promise to not suggest Erie County start subsidizing a few government-selected beverage businesses among the many here. The private sector can provide them, even though it's important.

whatever
whatever

Yes, Rand, you and I agree on all of that.

Although I don't see why if I didn't agree with you in opposing public spending items B and C then you'd really suddenly disagree with me in opposing spending item A?

As it turns out, it sounds as though we both disagree with public $ gifts for private stuff, but not everybody is as consistent. I'll accept even partial agreement with me when it happens (rare on here!)

The Boss
The Boss

Not that easy Rand...The City/County own properties like Coca Cola Field, R. Wilson Stadium, Sheas, Klienhans, kind of hard to say they should not invest in these buildings and the long term viability of the tenents that use the them. These are not just athletes and artists being propped up by government dollars they are employment of hundreds or thousands of local residents that in return spend paychecks and payroll taxes locally.

Rand503
Rand503

I would agree with you if you also agreed that gov't should not be subsidizing or spending any money at all on sports teams or real estate developers and their wants and desires.

PaulBuffalo
PaulBuffalo

Whatever, obviously, my snarky comment was in response to what you consider important. Because you don't value arts/culturals, you don't think your taxes should cover expenses for those organizations. Your argument of encouraging artistic freedom by denying funding is a good attempt to camouflage your views, though.

whatever
whatever

Paul, although city/county politicians do spend some taxpayer $ to construct publicly-owned roads/bridges which everybody equally owns and may use any time they want for any travel purpose, then spends to maintain them for public safety…

it's my understanding politicians aren't supposed to spend taxpayer $ for privately-owned roads of private sector (for-profit or non-profit) groups.

Examples are all around us. Around L.A. no doubt there's roads owned by arts/culture organizations such as movie studios, and on grounds of mansions owned by arts/culture practitioners, none of which are given taxpayer $. Around WNY, private roads of Mighty Taco drive-thrus, or on private golf courses, or on land owned by the WNY Catholic diocese and perhaps other religious organizations, or… on and on.

In all those examples, roads are indeed funded by business models (perhaps even your idea of mug sales happens in some small way, but certainly sales of products/merchandise and services), and in some cases by voluntary fundraising (collection plates, bingo, lawn fetes, etc.).

PaulBuffalo
PaulBuffalo

Everything in life that's important doesn't necessarily have to be paid for by government and taxpayers.

Ticket pricing, merchandise sales, and other creative (pun not intended) ways of monetizing can supplement donations as well.

Great idea. Start with city/county roads. Buy a mug: fix a pothole. You'd be okay with that, right?

whatever
whatever

Farrell>"If they were recognized as such, funding debates wouldn't break out during election seasons"

I couldn't disagree more. Similar to how there's supposed to be separation of church and state, there's no reason we couldn't have separation of arts and state.

That doesn't mean churches and arts aren't considered important, but they're highly subjective topics (which religion? which art? etc) and there's no need to force taxpayers to fund certain ones and not others.

Everything in life that's important doesn't necessarily have to be paid for by government and taxpayers.

The successful fundraising effort this past year by some arts and culture organizations around here after county funding cuts proves the point that voluntary donations can be raised. Ticket pricing, merchandise sales, and other creative (pun not intended) ways of monetizing can supplement donations as well.

An extra benefit is there'd never be worries about the government removing or threatening to remove funding for any art or culture that's complained about by any portion of the public. So it would help encourage artistic freedom.

AKBuffalo
AKBuffalo

I like the direction we're taking here with the arts as change agent for Buffalo, but I think if we're relying solely on the arts to make Buffalo a destination, we're reaching in the wrong direction.

My hope is that Tourism (bolstered by the recent success of the preservation conference and continued support from Toronto and Southern Ontario), Education, and Medicine will transform Buffalo. I get really tired of the same stupid snow and wings comments. Guess what, it snows in the Northeast and we all have wings, but let's stop defining (actually, pigeon-holing) a city because of these things.

I see the arts more in conjunction with the progress we're making in these other areas. So that when people come to Buffalo to visit the Albright-Knox, they come back because of the Elmwood Village or Canalside (once it's the destination it's promoted to be)).

The arts should compliment the progress we're making in other areas, but we also need to do a much, much better job of promoting our history. One of the richest cities 100 years ago, and I can't find a historical trail that directs people through that history. That's a shame and a big failure on our tourism bureaus. Start there and use the arts in conjunction to build a rich experience for both locals and out-of-towners.

buffloonitick
buffloonitick

if you really are a doctor then take two aspirin and call yourself in the morning.

The Boss
The Boss

One huge change over the past few years is our Hotel selections from The Mansion, Hampton Inn and Embassy all new rooms, these properties did not replace other rooms and they are running higher than national occupancy and commonly sold out completely. And now Lafayette is next. I wish the County Executive race would have addressed Tourism budget, it is currently half that or even less than cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland and the like. Tourism is a growth industry for Buffalo and we need to feed it.

grad94
grad94

i like your chops as a writer, mike, but i think you can greatly condense your essays without sacrificing your argument.

DOC
DOC

Big word in this article is the first word of the third paragraph, "BUT." This is a thinly-veiled rant and way too long an editorial for my liking. I'm tired of stories that initially inoculate the reader with some good news then give the bad news ad nauseum. It's so predictable. I need to feel good about my city today and this ain't doin' it.

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