A conversation about Buffalo’s public art
Bruce Adams is an award-winning writer and educator who is a frequent contributor to Buffalo Spree. He’s also an artist who has painted murals in Buffalo, in partnership with Augustina Droze. His artwork is held in private and public collections, including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Burchfield Penney Art Center, and the Castellani Art Museum.
Alma Carrillo has been the executive director of Buffalo Arts Studio since 2016. Born in Mexico, Carrillo has lived in Austin, Texas, and Providence, Rhode Island, where she worked at the Steel Yard, an industrial arts center and public art manufacturer. Her interests include making art and spaces more welcoming for both audiences and artists.
Ian de Beer is an artist currently working predominantly as a studio-based painter, though he is well-known for his work in the public sphere—both as a graffiti writer and muralist. His personal history is conceptually linked and intertwined with his current practice. He has served time in prison for some of his graffiti work.
Aaron Ott was appointed as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s first curator of public art in 2013. As such, he leads the gallery’s Public Art Initiative, a unique partnership supported by Erie County and the City of Buffalo. Through the initiative, Ott has managed more than twenty public art projects and installations around Erie County, including Casey Riordan Millard’s Shark Girl and The Freedom Wall (2017).
Why is public art important in general? What are the benefits for artists and the public?
BA: The people and the city benefit when the city is perceived as exciting and progressive; public art is part of creating that image. Public art makes the community stronger as a whole. Imagine you’re a company trying to select between close-to-equal cities, but one bursts with visual excitement, the sense of joy and whimsy that much public art brings. Public art has an impact on how people feel about a city.
Works like Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor, in Chicago, for example (nicknamed “the Bean”) can help create a city’s identity. Buffalo is in its infancy in terms of public art. I hope that public art’s importance will help create an identity for Buffalo as the vibrant art community that we know it to be. For artists, it’s another opportunity to help sustain themselves professionally.
AC: Art in public spaces is a way of democratizing art and giving accessibility to more people. In a lot of spaces, like galleries and museums, the art is not as accessible because those places are perceived as elitist or they’re literally inaccessible—to people with other abilities or who may be challenged economically. So, instead of people coming to the art, public art comes to the people.
For artists, it’s a form of expression, communicating whatever message they want or need to communicate. It’s also a way for more people to recognize their artwork, and for them to receive compensation. We work hard on getting funding for the artists, seeing that they get a fair stipend.
ID: There is no place in the world in which public art doesn’t exist; since that’s the case, it must be important. We cannot seem to exist without it. Without going off on a philosophical tangent, I’d like to point out that “the public” comprises all different people, including artists. I prefer to consider the interplay between people in and of society as opposed to thinking of each as separate entities.
AO: There are numerous benefits: for the public, public art helps to celebrate creative culture, recognizing how we share spaces. Visible public art is also meaningful because of the ways that people relate to it over and over.
The Albright-Knox is a global institution, with an incredible collection; people who visit recognize that right away. But you can’t see unless you visit; public art is right in the community. The audiences in front of public art are vastly larger than those inside the gallery. The fact that our communities are asking for more public art shows how much people want it.
Are you aware of public art programs in other cities that you think Buffalo could learn from, and how?
AC: We look at other Rust Belt cities, it’s different in Buffalo or Pittsburgh than, say, in Tucson. We also research best practices for training programs for our next generation of community muralists.
ID: As a condition of my parole, I am not allowed to travel to other cities, so my knowledge of their public art programs is limited. From what I can see on the internet, it seems like our local program is pretty similar to other cities’. Right now, I think everyone is doing the same thing; it will be interesting to see how long this sustains.
AO: Comparisons or touchstones are difficult, because of our novel public/private initiative. There are public art providers that we look to, like the Association for Public Art in Philadelphia—it’s the nation’s oldest public art producer. We also look to similar-sized cities, like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, to see how they’re effecting change; what works in their landscape can be informative. Others are also looking at us, and what we’ve done in such a short amount of time; the Public Art Initiative painted our first mural only four years ago.
Do you think effort should be made to preserve murals?
BA: I’ve experienced problems with my own murals, not due to anything we did—the surface fell off. Even the most “permanent” murals, which are prepared and applied properly on a good surface, will eventually fade or peel. Murals require commitment and ongoing maintenance. That could mean repainting it occasionally. There’s nothing sadder than seeing a crumbling mural wall.
AC: It depends. Some murals are site-specific and decorative, some are more cultural or historic touchstones, which maybe are meant to last longer. There should be efforts to protect them as long as they are up. The resources have to be there to maintain them.
Also, some artists may not think their work is a twenty-year mural—we don’t need to keep every single one. Something like the Freedom Wall will become a cultural point of pride. That was an amazing moment for the Albright-Knox.
ID: If a mural is exceptionally good, or the artist has died, and funding is available then, yes, the work should be preserved. Some murals are awful, though, and, in those cases, I’d prefer they get painted over or perhaps just removed. It’s important to know your history so you can make well-informed decisions. I once painted over a mural that was about fifteen years old, by a local artist I respected. I called the artist and asked his permission, even though I already had permission from the building owner.
AO: All murals are sort of both long-term and temporary. The Buffalo climate in particular makes it hard to avoid fading. We work with artists and other partners to use the best materials to protect and maintain the work, but a mural will never have the kind of perpetuity that you see in art within a museum.
A mural’s lifespan is considered on a case-by-case basis; sometimes artists see the spaces that they work in as ripe for other artists—when the mural at 710 Main was completed, the artists said they were looking forward to what it would look like in ten, twenty, thirty years—how it would reflect the city’s growth and change.
What or who do you find exciting locally in the public art space?
ID: I’d list the names of some local graffiti writers whose new work excites me, but I’m not sure they deserve the honor of having their name in print yet. I see everything though, so keep it up, fellas.
I used to really enjoy the sculptures that were on the Albright-Knox lawn, specifically the Tony Smith and Franz West sculptures. I love the Jaume Plensa. I enjoy seeing these tile-collage pieces that are mushed into the pavement near major intersections. My favorites are the ones that say “House of Hades.” Although I’m not sure what it means, the mystique calls for further investigation. I think my own murals are pretty good. The first one I did, for which I did not get permission, was likely my best. It sits in decay now, with other graffiti scribble accumulating over the top of it. That is ideal.
How much curation is happening with public art? Do you think it should be curated or just happen organically?
BA: With any curation, there’s a balance between pleasing and placating the public. A lot of public art around the country was initially met with public disapproval. Curators have to have the courage to put up important work even if the public doesn’t initially accept it.
AC: A lot of work just coming out is being chosen by businesses. It doesn’t have to be “curated”—it’s good that there are different voices and community ownership. It would be good if there were an app or tool that would help people find all these amazing things. Also, we wonder what’s the long-term plan? Goals? How are those being applied? We’re thinking about artists who are working now, and the diversity of the next generation of artists.
ID: If “public art” happens organically, it’s either illegal or installed on private property owned by the artist. I don’t like submitting proposals, appealing to boards, and allowing curators to impose their influence on me. If I weren’t already on parole, I likely wouldn’t even ask permission. I have a strong urge to make what I want the way I want it; I naturally try to evade or eliminate any obstacles in the way of that. I find that the best—though not the most popular—artists share this trait. I’m currently working on a mural for Shakti Yoga. That came together quite organically, as an exchange between me and the owner.
AO: I love that there is more going on than just what the AKAG is doing. We’ve proved that there is an audience and a desire for that art, but the AKAG should not be a monolithic voice. We want to sustain the momentum, to learn more and work more with diverse communities. We don’t have the bandwidth to produce everything that’s being requested. I’m thrilled to see different entities taking it on. We’re looking forward to more.