Long Story Short: The show must go on
Illustration by JP Thimot
When a washout isn’t a washout
It hadn’t rained significantly for weeks. Afternoon showers had failed to materialize as forecasted. That evening, July 16, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (AKAG) was holding its sold-out Rockin’ at the Knox outdoor concert event, featuring musical artist Beck. The warm-up band, Hollerado, had finished performing in the overcast, balmy evening air. It took another thirty minutes to get set-up for Beck. The band hit the stage to thunderous applause and launched into an elaborately staged concert featuring huge LED screens, whose frenetic flashing images often looked like animated versions of Op Art from the AKAG collection.
Three songs in, there was a thunderstorm. If it had simply rained, the band may have continued performing for a drenched audience. It worked for the Goo Goo Dolls fourteen years ago, when they played in front of City Hall in a downpour, and even got an album out of the deal. But according to AKAG Director, Janne Sirén, the police chief makes the call. Lightning is the deciding factor. So, the concert seemed to end, despite Beck’s promise to return. A three-song concert.
A good chunk of the crowd streamed out of the parking lot venue. The rest stood hopefully in the rain waiting for the skies to clear. A half-hour later, the new moon peeked out of the clouds. It took an additional twenty-minutes to squeegee off the stage and reset the instruments. But the show did go on. With another storm predicted, and the evening getting late, the band packed as many songs as they could into the next forty-five minutes. Winds began to pick-up, even blowing Beck’s trademark hat off into the darkness (briefly interrupting his solo acoustic song). Other than the storm, the band seemed to be following a planned set, with a couple impromptu deviations. They sounded good, though as is often the case, the vocals were buried under the roaring instruments. Beck expressed his admiration for the fans who hung in through the storm. It wasn’t Woodstock, but it was memorable.
Two more Albright-Knox Art Gallery-related stories were in the news last week. By now, most people know that the museum is planning a desperately needed $155 million restoration and expansion. It recently unveiled a second proposed design, after the first draft met with widespread disapproval. On paper, the new addition looks a little like a crystal ziggurat, with a winding elevated glass walkway leading to the 1904 building. Just about everyone gives the proposal a qualified thumbs-up.
But this is Buffalo
In a thoughtful July 10 Buffalo News editorial, architect Adam Sokol argues that we lack the civic leadership to build truly great architecture like we once did. Why? In a nutshell, bureaucracy, minus any mandate for design excellence.
So it was no surprise that when the museum requested a necessary amendment to a 1900 city land use agreement—as was done to allow the 1959 Bunshaft addition— Common Council members first required clarification as to how the AKAG will meet goals for diversifying the workforce (that clarification may come tomorrow). After that, there will be an environmental review, and a site plan review by the city’s Planning Board, then proposed Green Code variances (and presumed objections) before the Zoning Board of Appeals. There will be public comments, which sometimes force design changes (public comments completely scotched the earlier concept). And this is for a project that is largely privately funded. It’s a wonder that anything but mediocre office and apartment buildings ever get built in Buffalo anymore.
Most sentences starting with the words Donald Trump end with something controversial, but here’s one that doesn’t: Donald Trump has appointed Buffalo Fine Arts Academy member and former president Charles Banta to the National Endowment for the Arts advisory board. The BFAA is the organization that runs the Albright-Knox, so local reaction to the choice centered on how the nomination could boost the museum and the region’s visibility.
The real benefit of Banta’s nomination is that he will presumably be a strong advocate for NEA funding and continued progressive programming. But the current BFAA president, Alice Jacobs, is quoted in the Buffalo News as saying, "I can think of no one better to represent the tremendous cultural diversity of Western New York on a national level." At that, we wonder what is meant by “cultural diversity?” Or for that matter, “Western New York?” Banta’s active engagement with art in Buffalo is largely confined to the walls of the AKAG. If you’re looking for someone at the NEA who has firsthand knowledge of Buffalo’s cultural diversity, that would be Jax Deluca, who was appointed to the position of NEA Media Arts Director in 2016. Deluca knows the breadth of art in Western New York from her experience as executive director of Squeaky Wheel, media arts professor at Buffalo State College, and arts supporter as a board member of the Arts Services Initiative of Western New York and the Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance.
Both Banta and Deluca are excellent choices for NEA positions. They are more than just cheerleaders for WNY.
It was a good news/bad news situation as the first students graduated under the nonprofit Say Yes to Education program, which provides free tuition for Buffalo students attending New York State colleges and universities. When it was announced six years ago, Say Yes promised an opportunity for all Buffalo students to attend college regardless of economic means. It would, educators and families thought, level the playing field and become a path to a stronger local economy led by a more educated workforce.
What’s the good news?
According to a report in the Buffalo News, more than a quarter of all Buffalo graduates who enrolled in college that first year have earned either a bachelor’s or associate degree. This is an improvement from previous years; more students are going to college, and more are graduating. The number of Buffalo graduates attending college jumped by eleven percent the first year of Say Yes, but declined slightly in subsequent years. Still, it remains slightly above the average for urban districts nationwide.
So what’s the bad news?
The dropout rate for those attending college is nearly fifty percent. Students are not entering college prepared for the rigors of higher education. Many drop out after the first year, and that number has grown each year of the program. Students in Buffalo are currently about sixteen percent less likely than the national average to make it to their sophomore year. Only twenty-seven percent graduate in four years, with sixteen percent achieving a bachelor's degree. That’s compared to forty percent nationally. These figures are not final though. It takes students up to six years to complete a bachelor's degree according to national statistics, so we won’t have the final figures on the first Say Yes class for another two years.
What are some of the reasons for this?
Only about sixty percent of Buffalo students entering college receive money from Say Yes. Tuition for the remainder is completely covered by financial aid, which speaks to the level of poverty in the city. Poverty has been linked again and again to lower student achievement. In college, it’s not always a matter of academic deficiency that leads to a high dropout rate. Some students struggle to pay for textbooks; others leave to take a job to help their family. Free tuition doesn’t suddenly erase the devastation of generational poverty. Impoverished students often have no support system to help them through tough patches.
So what’s the solution?
If only there was a silver bullet solution. There isn’t. But Say Yes recognizes the need for mentoring and career guidance. The program has added these things and is seeing some success. Erie Community College, SUNY Buffalo State, and Medaille College are offering summer “bridge” programs to get students ready for college. But more is needed.
On the same day that the Buffalo News reported on the data collected by Say Yes, there was another article on the Viewpoints page, written by two former City Honors Students. In the article, Donald Grant and Shaun Nelms attribute their success at escaping the “extreme poverty and other challenges” that surrounded them in the Langfield projects and Masten Park, to the “education and support” they got from City Honors School. They believe every child deserves the same opportunity.
City Honors was designed as a rigorous college prep school for gifted children. Black children represent a disproportionately small and shrinking percentage of children attending. The authors suggest that the admission process might be culturally biased, which is likely true. But the larger problem is that many black students are educated in schools that are underfunded, and rife with social problems resulting from many decades of systemic segregation and poverty. Address these things, and provide all students with well-equipped, fully staffed schools, and in a couple decades more students will be prepared for college. (Yes, it takes that long.)
Of course, segregation and poverty are not going anywhere soon in Buffalo, and educational needs are not being met. That’s why representatives of Say Yes agree that the path forward will be challenging, and progress slow.
Ketchup with the times
Remember when you had to squeeze ketchup out of a bottle? Or tear those little packets with your teeth and squeeze out the red stuff? Or pump a dispenser (which can be messy)? Well no more, at least at one French fry stand at the Erie County Fair.
Jim Staub has been serving up French fries at the fair under the name Jim’s Fries for twenty-five years. The rest of the year he’s James Staub of Hamburg’s Staub Precision Machine. He and his brother Tony built a robot that dispenses and serves ketchup, and it’s going to be on duty at the Erie County Fair. They named it Molly, because humans love to anthropomorphize robots, even ones that consist only of a single arm.
From its red and yellow canopied ketchup booth, Molly picks up plastic serving cups to the sound of carnival music, places them into one of three ornately designed carnival-themed holders, pumps out some ketchup (sparing fairgoers this onerous task), then slides the cups down a ramp to customers.
It took a lot of engineering trial and error to get Molly to work perfectly. But it’s really a modern spin on a very old idea. The concept of automation goes back to ancient times, and the French and Swiss took it to new heights in the nineteenth century, when highly articulated automated figures called automatons performed all sorts of fantastical tasks. The difference is that today’s robots are powered by electricity rather than stored kinetic energy (i.e., a spring). People always marvel at machines that perform tasks associated with human behavior.
This is going to sell a lot of French fries.
Artist and educator Bruce Adams is a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.
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