Art and industry
A taste of paradise
A painting by Peter Stephens hangs in Delaware North’s Patina 250
Stephens painting by kc kratt; O’Leary-Soudant image by Shasti O’Leary Soudant
A couple months ago, artist David Butler posted a buoyant Facebook message describing activity around his studio in the Great Arrow Building on Great Arrow Street. “Amy T. Kempf is building twelve-foot-high arched opera flats; next door, someone is making pottery; on the other side, [Candace Keegan Masters] was seen earlier carrying canvases into [her] studio; to the west, J. Tim Raymond is painting a beautiful set at Subversive Theatre; Seth Tyler Black is pulling and organizing props at Buffalo Props for the next film; and nearby a welder and carpenter are blasting music, making stuff. The creative vibe is intense—you can feel it.”
Among the comments: “Sounds a bit like paradise to me.”
To Buffalo’s art community, affordable studio space has been one of the benefits of working in a postindustrial rustbelt city. Paradisiacal artist enclaves flourish within repurposed factories, schools, and warehouses. But that might be changing. Next to the Great Arrow building, on Elmwood Avenue, the Pierce Arrow Administrative Building was recently sold to be converted into residential apartments. Neglia Dance Studio has already left, and several soon-to-be displaced artists are looking for space. As Buffalo undergoes an economic revival in which aging architecture is increasingly renovated into blue chip real estate, low-cost studio space could turn into paradise lost. It’s happened in other cities, notably New York, where artists were forced far outside Manhattan by skyrocketing prices. Thankfully, we have a number of building owners and anchor-tenants who view artists as vital components—the secret sauce even—of their business.
First and foremost among art/industry proponents is Elgin Wolfe. In 1989, Wolfe arrived in Buffalo from Toronto with visions of transforming a 650,000-square-foot former windshield wiper factory, located on a neglected section of Main Street, into a viable commercial enterprise. The building would eventually become today’s thriving Tri-Main Center, but to get started, Elgin needed to secure an initial tenant. That’s when artist Joanna Angie proposed renting a large chunk of space for her newly formed nonprofit Buffalo Arts Studio (BAS). This unique mix of studio and gallery space became the anchor tenant of what was then a virtually new concept in Buffalo—the “mixed-use” business center.
Art can bring dynamism and visibility to a workplace, and BAS turned out to be a valuable asset to the fledgling Tri-Main enterprise. “Artists brought immediate activity,” says Elgin, “both within the building and as a presence in the parking lot, particularly in the evenings and on the weekends, which was a huge help with our vision of a multi-tenant community.”
Jessica Edwards, director of marketing and community development for Tri-Main, spoke about this at the 2016 Arts Services Initiative of Western New York Spark Awards, where Elgin was honored for Arts Integration. “Buffalo Arts Studio’s vibrancy led to many people visiting Tri-Main,” she notes, adding that the welcoming environment Elgin created for artists and cultural organizations attracted more of the same.
From there, it spread to other businesses. “[At present] Tri-Main attracts the most innovative and creative companies from all industries in the region,” says Elgin. He attributes this to the “very friendly environment” created by artists and arts organizations that changed perceptions about mixed-use centers, and brought in other tenants. It’s an atmosphere that still exists today.
After Tri-Main became a thriving success, the art community could have been squeezed out by rising rents. That wasn’t the case. “To this day,” says Elgin, “Tri-Main Management works with artists and cultural organizations to provide an affordable and workable space.”
Some years ago, a young artist named Sarah Myers was looking for studio space. Someone directed her to John McKendry, owner of Hi-Temp Fabrications on Perry Street in the Cobblestone District. “I called him up,” says Myers, “and he told me to come down.” There was no mention of the cost, but she went to check it out. McKendry showed her around the entire building, pointing out the business operations, and his own art collection. Myers finally asked, “OK, but how much?” His response was as matter-of-fact as it was unexpected: “Free.”
“The building at Hi-Temp on Perry Street has been in the family since 1966,” says McKendry. His mother, Grace McKendry, was an art educator and member of the Buffalo Society of Artists. He often assisted in hanging her painting exhibitions, which instilled in him a deep appreciation for art and artists. “I began giving out studio space to artists about fourteen years ago,” says McKendry, explaining that his good friend, artist Courtney Grim, suggested that they clean out the unused fourth floor of the Hi-Temp building and turn it into a gallery. Over time, this became the go-to place for area artists doing large-scale installations, one-night dance or theater events, or student exhibitions, including University at Buffalo BFA exhibitions, Buffalo State photography exhibitions, and Villa Maria, City Honors, and South Park High School shows. McKendry believes it’s important to provide opportunities for burgeoning artists.
The Cobblestone District is booming today, and McKendry recently sold the Perry Street building to a developer. He’s looking for a new, smaller facility for his business. But there’s one requirement; he wants 10,000 extra square feet so he can continue providing for area artists.
Fotini Galane’s wall drawings at Patina 250
Work by Ani Hoover at Patina 250; Shasti O’Leary Soudant’s Weeping Wall at 500 Seneca
Not every art-friendly business can offer studio space, but there are other ways to support the art community. Among them: buying regional art at fair market prices. Jerry Jacobs Jr. is co-CEO of Delaware North, a Buffalo-based hospitality and food-service giant with 55,000 employees on four continents. His company’s global headquarters is the primary tenant of the spectacular building at 250 Delaware Avenue.
Delaware North has incorporated significant works of art by regional artists into its interior design (see accompanying article). As a major local employer, Jacobs sees this as a responsibility, to help the art community thrive, affirming, “Through dips, and now this exciting revival in Buffalo’s economy, the local art scene has consistently been the cornerstone of our community. So much of our cultural identity has always been intertwined with the arts.”
Several major works—some site-specific—were installed in Delaware North’s corporate boardroom, Jake’s Café, and the restaurant, Patina 250. “It’s a beautiful addition to our restaurant. We want Patina 250 to feel warm and sophisticated, and these works help us set that tone,” says Jacobs, who believes there is value in supporting local art and artists that extends beyond the physical boundaries of his business. “The local economy is too interconnected for a business to only focus on their industry sector,” he notes. “You have to look at the big picture in Buffalo, and, when you do, you’ll realize that the arts play a major role in attracting people to our region. So when the arts thrive, we are all in a better place.”
It’s Jacobs’s hope that restaurant patrons will be inspired to own local art, and he has plans to add more regional work to the building. “We have some of the best artists in the world, so the benefits are clear,” he sums up. “They make our city a more beautiful place.”
When Sam Savarino approached lenders with his idea of renovating a decrepit former box factory in an impoverished neighborhood into an upscale residential and office complex, the response was often less than enthusiastic. “We had a lot of lenders tell us in effect, ‘Get lost,’” says the contractor and property manager, but he also found that some lenders consider it part of their mission to invest in struggling neighborhoods. “It’s not just jobs and residences; it’s bringing life, retail services, and—the component we talked about—bringing art to the community,” he continues. “It’s part of what we sold to the historic and brownfield tax credit investors, and to our project lenders.” Partly because of this promise to bring art activity into the neighborhood, the funds were made available, and 500 Seneca underwent a spectacular renovation.
Various art-related projects are now in the works. There will be an exhibition area in the lobby and another in a high-ceilinged former boiler room. There are plans for a live/work space for an artist who will act as a liaison to the art community. On the surface, there’s no apparent financial benefit to any of this. The gallery and studio are rent-free and artists are paid for their work. But Savarino sees a more intrinsic value: “It all goes in as part of the mix, and we do it, not because we are magnanimous or we’re the Medicis or something, but because it makes the building a better place to be.”
A dazzling, twenty-foot tall, site-specific atrium sculpture by Buffalo artist Shasti O’Leary Soudant dominates the fifth floor atrium. Artist Tina Dillman has created a text-based mural, part of her Our Desires series, consisting of phrases hand-written directly on the walls. An exhibition of Marshall Scheuttle’s bleakly dispassionate photographs titled Borderland is being presented by the ground-floor contemporary art space curated by CEPA. And—full disclosure—a painting by this writer hangs outside Savarino’s business office. It includes over thirty flying nude figures. This willingness to push artistic boundaries sets 500 Seneca apart from most business buildings, which lean toward safe art. “We find that when you introduce people to art, you might have controversy, you might have a lot of discussion, but it’s part of the vibe of the building,” says Savarino, “and it’s valuable.” The building’s receptionist, he continues, “cannot wait to tell people about the work. I see people who ask questions, and then excitedly bring other people in to tell them about the art.”
If these business leaders were the paradigm, the arts would be woven into the fabric of daily life. Butler’s artist paradise would be incorporated into every business. “If everybody did their part a little bit ... ” says Savarino, leaving the sentence unfinished. “It certainly makes the building a better place to be, and it’s a good part of the life of the building and appreciated by everybody. It introduces a lot of people to the idea of having art in their life.”
Artist, educator, and arts activist Bruce Adams writes frequently for Spree.