Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Aaron Ott, the first-ever curator of public art at Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery, talks about leading an uncommon cultural initiative across Western New York.
As the director of the Helsinki Art Museum, which is owned and operated by city government, Janne Sirén was required to provide art for the streets and parks of the Finnish capital. So when he moved to Buffalo, New York, in 2013 to become the director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, he asked to meet with their public art curator.
They didn’t have one. Most U.S. museums don’t.
Sirén quickly changed that, hiring Aaron Ott, who had previously worked on art projects for various Chicago-area institutions, as the first-ever curator for the Albright-Knox’s public art initiative. The 156-year-old museum is now five years into an ambitious program that’s been injecting life into the Western New York region’s parks, neighborhoods, buildings, and other infrastructure through paint, plastic, steel, cloth, and whatever else their international cast of commissioned artists want to work with.
Buffalo isn’t exactly known as a hotbed for adventurous contemporary public art—at least not since Green Lightning, an infamous downtown installation that drew the ire of then-mayor Jimmy Griffin in 1984 for its perceived vulgarity before being dismantled and relocated to Chicago. But Ott’s team has already delivered a few instant hits. Casey Riordan Millard’s Shark Girl sits on a bench by the city’s Inner Harbor, accommodating selfie-seekers from across the region. New “emotional wayfinding” signs by Stephen Powers (a.k.a. “Espo”) tap into the region’s love-hate relationship with itself and are sure to fill up local Instagram feeds. Robert Indiana’s Cor-Ten steel NUMBERS ONE through ZERO provide photogenic pop art in the verdant Outer Harbor while the museum itself hosts a retrospective on the recently deceased artist.
But the program, funded with city, county, and private money, stretches well beyond Buffalo’s most visited parts. In a city neatly segregated by its street grid, murals by London-raised Shantell Martin and Wrocław-based Wojciech Kołacz bring contemporary, internationally identifiable murals to the city’s East Side—the hub of black culture in today’s Buffalo, laced with the lingering traces of the Polish community that has mostly resettled in the suburbs. Closer to Main Street, four local artists have transformed a bus depot wall into a tribute to 28 civil rights leaders. And in a section of the West Side that has been the center of Buffalo’s Hispanic and Latinx community since the 1960s, a mural by artist and activist Betsy Casañas celebrates the neighborhood’s identity.
CityLab recently caught up with Ott to talk about the origin of the program, the planning behind each commission, and the power of public art to change the community conversation in Buffalo.
So this is for forever?
That’s my hope! The Albright-Knox, it’s such a big part of Buffalo. We’re the sixth-oldest museum in the country. Period. We’re the oldest museum dedicated to modern and contemporary work. We’re essentially the oldest museum in America that’s not encyclopedic, so people are really familiar with us as a cultural beacon. But the public art initiative is now only on its fourth year. In the long history of the institution, we’ve started something that’s only taken up a wee little bit of it, but people have responded well to it so far.
It’s been humbling to see how excited the public is for the work we’re doing. Since we have a campus expansion coming up, my hope is that during the construction period we can be more active in the community by having great art outside the museum’s walls.
We have great partners, which is critical. It’s not just about relying on other institutions or individuals to help us manage the work—we also share financial obligations. Placing the Robert Indiana numbers at the Outer Harbor was larger than my annual budget. Having the assistance of a number of people in the community—in this instance, the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation—to help make that financially feasible allows us to do the kind of work that we’re really excited about.
Besides Helsinki, are there other case studies you looked at for public art programs?
It’s a bit novel for a museum to be doing this in the States. There are museums that have programs that present as public. Newfields in Indianapolis has 100 acres of space that serve as a garden of sorts for sculptures. The Walker in Minneapolis has a newly expanded sculpture garden and a big hill that they program with performances. There are places like the High Line and anything Creative Time and the Public Art Fund have done, which aren’t necessarily museum-affiliated projects but are museum quality.
There are all kinds of different models to do something like this, but we took what we liked and what we thought could be applied to our own situation. We wanted to figure out how to craft a public-private partnership using the assets and expertise of this museum, not just in terms of the collection but the people we have and our relationships with the art world. It’s a network that’s been developed over a century and a half. You can’t create that from whole cloth.
When did public art start appearing?
I got here in April 2014. Because the Public Art Initiative didn’t exist yet, one of my first tasks was to go out in the community and meet stakeholders, individuals, and organizations that wanted to partner with us, because that was going to be the only way we could make it as successful and broad-based as we wanted it to be. Through those conversations we established how we might want to begin. It took a couple of months to figure it out.
There were a couple pieces that we launched all at once. In late August and early September of 2014 we placed a couple of things that were concurrent with each other. We did Matthew Hoffman’s You Are Beautiful project, which included 44 billboards placed throughout Erie and Niagara counties as well as a sticker campaign. We also had a temporary, performance-based mural with a Providence group called Tape Art where people from the public would come and meet the artists and build it with us on the facade of the Central Library downtown.
I wanted to do something that was sculptural and long term with Shark Girl, something performative and ephemeral in Tape Art, and something built, like billboards, with You Are Beautiful because no one would think of such a mundane space as a canvas for culture and fine art. From the beginning, we wanted to establish the initiative as something that wasn’t for any one particular audience. This region has a diversity of audiences, and that we’re going to answer with a diversity of artwork.
The individual pieces seem to usually match up with the site one way or another…
I try! I don’t want to do Plop Art, I want to bring assets to people in the community. You’ve got to work with what you have, and we try to take advantage of the spaces we have to work with. We want to tailor the art as best as we can so that the experience is robust for the public and encourages them to come back.
I also try and work with artists where the work itself is not predetermined. Even a work like Shark Girl—this sounds silly because it’s a static sculpture—it’s interactive by its very nature and it begs to be shared in a number of ways, but especially social media. And the stories people tell about that work are not the narrative that I would share—it’s not necessarily even the narrative that the artist would share—but both of us really love the way in which it has captured the public’s imagination. We don’t have a leash on that work anymore. In a traditional gallery space you get to dictate the conversation and the context with wall text and the presumptive gravitas of the organization. Not having that is scary for some curators, but I love it.
Have you been surprised by how people have either embraced an individual piece or made one part of a bigger, local narrative?
You’re always going to be surprised by whatever narrative emerges, but you’re never surprised that a narrative emerges.
There were certainly times where I was surprised by the public in ways that have been great learning experiences for me. Foremost was the Freedom Wall we did last year, which was a project I conceived and crafted with one artist, Chuck Tingley, in mind. But when we started holding public meetings we really got a lot of pushback about the selection of that one artist as a denial of opportunities for other local artists, especially artists of color. That was a great way to recognize the way in which a lot of these projects necessitate more community conversation than I had originally allowed.
A moment like that is educational for me as a curator but also a great moment for the community to come together and try to figure out the best way to produce something that is reflective of a broader community.
We were able to make amendments to it based on public feedback and add other artists, and it ultimately became a love fest. I remember the day Chuck started painting, I asked him how he was doing and he said that strangers were coming up to him in tears and telling him about how much of an impact the project already had on them. These kinds of projects affect people.
When we were installing Amanda Browder’s pieces around the city, another local artist, Max Collins, was part of our group helping us install. He said, “This is the best thing ever. Seriously, when you go into the Albright-Knox and you see a great exhibition, it’s not like people are screaming at you about how much they love it.” You don’t go into something like a Robert Indiana retrospective and see people screaming “This is the best!” even though it really is a great show. But when you’re outside and you’re up on a building creating change in people’s communities—change that people want to see and be a part of—people will literally roll down their windows and scream at you. It’s a wild, emotional, and gratifying experience.
Especially with the neighborhood-specific pieces, are the artists engaging with locals from day one or are they presenting a thought-out plan?
It depends on the project and the location. The Welcome Wall on the East Side was a concept brought to us by partners in the neighborhood who wanted to celebrate its diversity. They asked if we could work with artists who dealt with text and language in order to welcome people to the neighborhood. You want to find artists that can handle such a task and be comfortable in that environment, so we selected Ernel Martinez and Keir Johnston, two African American artists from Philadelphia whose work is steeped in community activism and the kind of dialogue that becomes evident in their work.
They worked on parachute cloth, which is a 5-by-5 canvas that you canticle up into wallpaper in order to make a huge mural and you can paint them on a table or on the ground before you have to get up 40 feet to install a final piece. We had these painted at the Central Library downtown and at Broadway Market on the East Side, and brought in an audience to physically touch and produce the work in ways they never could have done before. Then the artists finished it on the wall. Down the street, we had a Polish artist, Wojciech Kołacz, (a.k.a. “Otecki”) to create Work and Play. It was a great opportunity to tailor that piece to the flavor of the neighborhood. Buffalo is home to the second-largest Polish population in the U.S., and the East Side was historically home to a lot of the Polish immigrants in the city. That legacy is still visible.
We’re always trying to respond to different spaces with different types of artists. There are some artists we love and have been in conversations with since I got here but haven’t quite found the right fit for them yet.
My coordinators and I sit around weekly to talk about the projects that are upon us and projects that inspire us. Stephen’s name came up and I dug the work so we started thinking about what we could do with him. He’s a mural artist, a designer, a sign painter—he’s got all these ways in which he can produce. So we started thinking about how work and his skills could would look in our landscape.
I saw the work he did with the D.O.T. in Manhattan where he made these little signs and hung them up for just a handful of weeks and I loved them—they’re disruptive in the landscape but in a heartfelt and gentle way. If we got him to do a lot of these signs we could really spread them throughout Erie County. I think it was important to a lot of our partners to make sure that we are out in the county audiences, not just the city. I thought if we could get him do 100 signs, we could put 60 in the county and it would be like a giant scavenger hunt that would take three days to find them all.
Zach Boehler, our project coordinator, was a little nervous at first because he thought 100 was going to too much to ask of Steve; he wanted to ask for 40. We ended up meeting with the artist and things were going really well—he was digging our concept—so he asked how many signs we were thinking of doing and I said, “100?” And he said, “I like 101!” It was a great moment where you see an artist excited about our initiative and how they can contribute.
We didn’t want Stephen to be presented as a sort of mythic mastermind designer in his own studio delivering artwork to us, so we’ve asked the public to respond to a series of questions that the artist has posted and come together in meetings. We took him over to the West Side Bazaar for lunch and we took him to various bars. It’s through those types of interactions where the work is really born. We wanted what he came up with to be responsive.
Stephen has the biggest heart in the world. I love his worldview. Sentimentality can get really saccharine and distasteful, but he’s authentic about it and it really works. There are five billboards up now downtown. They’re these kind of negative elements about the city’s reputation but with a “let’s look at the bright side” twist that reorients people in the public landscape. I’m really excited about watching that project grow.
Have there been examples of a non-local artist coming here for this program and then making new, unexpected connections for other projects?
We’ve employed a number of artists to help us execute pieces and that has resulted in gigs elsewhere for them. As a curator, I rely on colleagues all around the U.S.; I call people in other smaller, Midwestern cities especially that are actively trying to produce the same way we are and share those assets. Seeing an artist like Bunnie Reiss come in from Los Angeles and talk to young artists here means a lot, whether it turns into an opportunity for someone to produce with her on another project outside the city, or whether it inspires them to produce their own mural.
There hasn’t necessarily been a lot of contemporary public art in Buffalo—at least not in a sustainable sense—prior to this initiative. So there are a lot of artists out here who see this as an opportunity to be active in their own community. Max Collins was certainly doing that here before I arrived, as were a number of others, but as people begin to recognize our work they’re requesting more of it and by name. These artists aren’t supposed to just be seen in galleries—they should be celebrated in our public spaces.
Any mural is temporary, we call them “long-term temporary” because we do hope that they last and we use materials made to last for a minimum of 20 years.
That wall faces a busy street but it should still last for quite some time. We used Sherwin-Williams right out of the bucket for that piece, using colors that weren’t mixed so we could match them more easily.
The Shea’s 710 Main Theater was our funding partner on that one. They helped produce it, so we asked them to help us maintain it for a period of five years. A car actually ran into the wall a couple of months ago and punctured the cinder block, so 710 patched it up— they had to, it’s their building—and we had the buckets of paint in our basement here at the museum, so that wasn’t hard.
After a work has lived its expected lifespan, it’s the owner’s responsibility. So in the case of this one it’s on 710 to determine whether or not to repaint it to its original glory. They have a list of all the paint we used, so they could do that on their own or paint a new one.
We generally like to see those murals stay up for 10 years but I’m only asking people to sign five-year contracts for now since it would be disingenuous for us to come in and ask someone to sign a 10-year contract just as we’re getting started. We’re creating partnerships where the people across the table trust us and we trust them and we work together to maintain those pieces during their lifespan. There are works out there that may be more permanent. Jim Hodges’s Look and See [a large sculpture made of perforated stainless steel], which we just moved from our courtyard to the Richardson Olmsted Campus, is indestructible but it will still be in conservation for its lifespan. The paint will fade, it’ll get touched up, and then be good as new. We first installed that piece in 2006, it’s in our collection, so we have a responsibility to that one. Something like the 710 mural is co-produced and ultimately the property owner’s responsibility.
Is there any ambition or fantasy you have for this project that you haven’t come close to fulfilling yet?
There are artists out whose work I find deeply inspiring and moving, and there projects in other locations that I think would be great for our audiences in Western New York. We’ve been very conscious about growing at a sustainable rate and not trying to get too far ahead of ourselves before imploding on a big project, or being stuck with a maintenance conundrum that pulls us underwater.
In my office I have the the actual and the predicted budget for Millennium Park [in Chicago]. They initially estimated Cloud Gate would cost $9 million, but the final cost was $23 million. It has an annual budget of $100,000 just to polish it—that’s basically my annual budget. So sure, I’d love to bring a bean-like thing here—I don’t know that Anish Kapoor needs another one—but we can do many other things that will gain recognition regionally, nationally, even internationally. We’ll grow into that with our partners. It’s just a matter of matching ambition with something you can responsibly provide.
Robert Indiana's NUMBERS ONE through ZERO are at Wilkeson Pointe on Buffalo’s Outer Harbor in conjunction with the exhibition Robert Indiana: A Sculpture Retrospective, at the Albright-Knox from June 16 to September 23, 2018.