Dennis Kois of the Burchfield Penney Art Center
The new director considers the future
Photo by kc kratt
Name: Dennis Kois
Current title: BPAC Executive Director
After a search that lasted nearly two years, the Burchfield-Penney Art Center (BPAC) announced that Dennis Kois (pronounced like Koi), would be the museum’s new director. Koss career highlights include stints as executive director of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Boston and of The Grace Museum in Texas, before joining the Milwaukee Public Museum as President and CEO.
Kois comes highly recommended by others in his field, including Elizabeth Dunbar, director Syracuse’s Everson Museum of Art, who says he has a “track record of elevating the programs and collections of regional museums and, in the process, of launching those institutions on a national stage.”
During a long, free-wheeling conversation, the new director was accessible and forthcoming.
You’ve worked for several other institutions, including one in your hometown, Milwaukee. Did you have other offers before coming to the BPAC? If so, what about Buffalo attracted you?
I had other offers, but I made a specific choice to come to Buffalo. Recently I was having a drink with Scott Propeack (BPAC curator) and Rene Jones (M&T CEO), and we were talking about what makes Buffalo unique; how it’s just the right size. Lots of interesting people are rubbing shoulders in unexpected ways, and unusual alliances and ideas can find a life in those interactions. In a Boston, or even Milwaukee, things are stratified in a way they just aren’t in Buffalo. It’s part of Buffalo’s secret sauce.
What about the BPAC itself?
The other attraction that brought me here is the world-class nature of the [Charles] Burchfield collection. I think we can sometimes forget what’s in our own backyard. It’s an incredible, irreplaceable resource for Buffalo to have this stellar collection here.
The BPAC is a regional museum. What does that mean to you, and how do you define the region?
To me “regional” is as much about art and artists that reflect a local culture and sense of place, than something tied to a specific geography. We’ve always drawn the line at the Canadian border, for example, which seems odd, given we have a lot of archival evidence that Charles Burchfield corresponded with and exchanged ideas with the Group of Seven painters in and around Toronto. That’s a show I would like us to organize with our neighbors across the border, for example; it’s still very much regional while refuting the notion that region is defined solely by lines on a map.
The BPAC is a $40-million-dollar museum. Can you maintain a regional focus and still bring in adequate funding?
Without question. The community is incredibly passionate about a museum that is—literally—theirs. The artists they see here are their neighbors or friends, and Charles Burchfield is part of our fundraising story. And, we’re incredibly lucky to have Buffalo State College behind us, which makes a lot of things possible that otherwise would be tough to achieve. The museum itself is remarkably well maintained.
The Albright-Knox Art Gallery (AKAG) is expanding. Buffalo has a limited pool of funding sources. Has the AKAG squeezed the juice out of our local funders?
That’s a worry I’ve heard expressed before in a lot of cities when there’s a large, successful fundraising campaign. I’ve never found it to be true. Major capital projects grow the pie for everyone. The Albright-Knox’s success is good for us, and for all the culturals in Buffalo. There is still plenty to go around.
The BPAC seems to suffer from a “dearth of staff,” posted positions that were never filled, current staff assuming multiple responsibilities. Is it your hope to increase the staff?
That’s fair, but every arts organization is understaffed! I’d turn that problem on its head. Maybe it’s not that we need more staff, it’s that we need to be more thoughtful about what we choose to do with the staff we have. Like a lot of museums, we suffer from “not-for-profititis”—this belief that we must do everything, for everyone. We hate saying “no” to any worthy idea. But eventually, organizations keep accreting program and mission, and they end up doing a lot of things, but nothing particularly well. The hardest part of strategizing for museums isn’t deciding what to do; it’s deciding what NOT to do. I think you’ll see BPAC become more intentional about how we spend our precious resources—and why—and do those things with excellence.
What significance do regional museums have in a global art world?
Let’s start from the reality that the art world in the era of art fairs has become incredibly homogenized. You can buy the same artists in New York, Istanbul, LA, London, Dubai, and Tokyo. And that leads to a kind of collective myopia, where we can end up thinking that this crowd-sourced process of market selection validates what’s great, and what’s not. But I think the pendulum is swinging back the other way. Just like we’ve all grown to understand there’s value in local food, local architecture, local culture, I think we’re seeing the same realization dawn, belatedly, in the art world.
That said, I want to be clear; it’s just as big a mistake to ghettoize regional art as it is to disrespect it. I would like to see BPAC do much more work connecting regional artists to the wider artworld, to gallerists, curators, and other artists, whether that’s by bringing guests into Buffalo, say, to guest curate a show or biennial, working on group shows with peer museums across the country, or bringing in the occasional show of an artist from outside the region that is allied with some of Burchfield’s interests or gestalt.
I’m not interested in a simplistic definition of a regional museum as only being about showing work from the region. I think what matters is that we not only show it, but that we do something to support the artists who make it and be a part of helping them build a sustainable career from it.
The AKAG is expanding. Hotel Henry is open, with more plans for the H.H. Richardson complex on the way. What role should the BPAC play in relation to these nearby organizations?
I couldn’t be more excited about these changes and what’s happening in Buffalo, and the construction of the Burchfield was one of the first dominoes to fall in that chain when it opened a decade ago. All the great things that have come online since—Larkinville, Canalside, the redevelopment of the Richardson complex, the excitement of the new AKAG museum, to name just a few—we want to be a part of supporting the renaissance that’s taking place. Rising tides lift all boats.
Do you see ways you might integrate with the BPAC?
To be decided! But [AKAG director] Janne [Siren] and I are already talking more, which is a great start toward collaboration.
What role if any, do you see the BPAC playing in a regional biennial, now that— at least for the time being—the AKAG is no longer leading with Beyond-In Western New York?
Whether a biennial is the right mechanism to support regional art and artists in an intentional way, I’m not yet sure. It could be, and it was as key part of what we did in Boston for New England artists at the deCordova. The deCorodova Biennial became, for many of the artists included, the first major museum project on resumes that are now chock full of solo shows, awards, and major exhibits at top-tier institutions and galleries. I want BPAC to be moving regional artists forward in the same way we did at deCordova.
On the BPAC website, there’s this quote: “Dennis understands and embraces the culture of our region. He understands who we are, where we have been and where we want to be…” Okay, where do we want to be?
Good question (laughing). That was a quote from our Board Chair, Gina O’Neill, and I love her enthusiasm. I still have so much to learn about the local culture here and what makes this community tick. Ask me again in a year!
How much influence will you have on programming?
Within the bounds of respecting the expertise of the staff, a great deal. It will take some time to appear—museums plan shows several years in advance—but I definitely will be a part of reshaping the overall program. At deCordova I implemented many new initiatives, including launching the first embedded preschool at a contemporary art museum in the US. Many of those were ideas that were generated by my staff, but ultimately, I was making the call on what moved forward, when and how. I expect I’ll have a similar role here over time.
Do you imagine any ways the BPAC might be more effective in telling the story of our artistic history and legacy?
There’s certainly an opportunity to tell that story in exciting ways. For example, this fall, manager of exhibitions Tullis Johnson along with chief curator Scott Propeack are organizing a large and long-planned history of painting show, that will trace the arc of painting in Western New York over a century. I think those kinds of shows will always be an important part of our mix.