Public art transitions in WNY
From monuments to murals
Newspaper Reader, by J. Seward Johnson, entrance to Rich Products, One Robert Rich Way
Photo by stephen gabris
Buffalo’s most important public art collection is the bones of the city itself—its historic architecture and park system. This is the legacy that we need to protect first. Without this infrastructure, outdoor sculpture, murals, and other additions to the streetscape lack their necessary context. Indeed, a 1897 book called The Art of Buffalo is completely about architecture, and the 1979 inventory of public art belonging to the city of Buffalo includes dozens of buildings such as City Hall, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the History Museum, and many others. It makes sense, when you consider that buildings have been used throughout history to commemorate and celebrate the institutions they represent. Many of Buffalo’s buildings are ornamented by sculptures, notably the Saint-Gaudens caryatids on the 1905 Albright-Knox, but there are phenomenal sculptural details throughout the city’s inventory of institutional structures.
Monuments and more
The early decades of Buffalo’s official public art practice—besides municipal edifices like City Hall—were devoted to placing symbolic sculptures throughout the city, commemorating events, accomplishments, and (mainly) men. The first of these was a bust of Mozart given by the German Singing Society in 1896. Many others are tablets and plaques, but there is a large inventory of figurative sculpture, with quality ranging from “meh” to magnificent. Much of it was created and placed in the 1920s–30s. Major examples worth visiting regardless of their subjects include all three sculptures by Bryant Baker: Millard Fillmore and Grover Cleveland (both 1930) at City Hall and Young Lincoln (1935) on Lincoln Parkway; John Paulding’s American Doughboy (1921) at the Armory on Niagara Street; Charles Cary Rumsey’s contributions, including the Three Graces fountain (1911, replicated in 1987) in Forest Lawn, Pizarro (1910) at the Albright-Knox, and Centaur (1914) at the History Museum; Sahl Swarz’s General Daniel Bidwell (1924) at Colonial Circle; and an edition of John Quincy Adams Ward’s Indian Hunter in Delaware Park (1866).
The practice of commemorating important moments and people with figurative sculpture continues; better-executed recent examples include John Wilson’s Martin Luther King Jr. memorial (1983) in its eponymous park and Toby Mendez’s Theodore Roosevelt (2015) in front of the Inaugural National Historic Site.
Clockwise from top left: Spirit of Life Tree, by Valeria Cray-Dihaan, 85 High Street; Coronation Day, by Kenneth Snelson, Niagara Square; Millennium Buffalo, by Joe Del Monte, 1234 Delaware Avenue; Shark Girl, by Casey Riordan Millard, Canalside; Gut Flora, by Shasti O’Leary Soudant, Allen-Medical Campus Metro Station
Shark girl courtesy of Albright-Knox; Snelson, Buffalo, and Flora by Jean-Pierre Thimot; Spirit by Stephen Gabris
The Albright-Knox Gallery, with its expansive outdoor sculpture project, does more to advance public knowledge of movements in sculpture than any other entity in Western New York. Outside that, Buffalo has a very small inventory of abstract sculpture or anything representing midcentury art movements and beyond. (Midcentury architecture buffs might have a similar complaint.) Probably the best example is Kenneth Snelson’s tubular steel Coronation Day, outside the City Court building. Sisti Park, at Linwood and North, is itself considered a piece of public art and contains two large steel abstract sculptures by Duayne Hatchett. Otherwise, a few examples can be found sprinkled throughout college campuses and corporate locations; it’s clear that a municipal sculpture plan stopped being a priority by the forties.
Treasure underground—the subway
Thankfully, other entities stepped up with public art projects, the most significant being the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which placed twenty-two pieces of art in its Metro Rail stations in 1979. The $1.15 million project includes works by artists Sam Gilliam, Joyce Kozloff, Robert Lobe, Beverly Pepper, John Pfahl, Milton Rogovin, George Sugarman, and others in a remarkable range of media and subject matter. There is no such comprehensive public art initiative in Buffalo’s history, though—sadly—it remains somewhat obscure. Renewed media interest in public art and tours offered by Explore Buffalo have turned a welcome spotlight on these gems.
The twenty-first century brought a series of public art initiatives, including the 2001 Pan-Am Art Across Borders, which placed public art by fifteen local artists (mostly women) throughout the area; Herd about Buffalo (2001), which unleashed a series of artfully modified fiberglass buffaloes; and Art on Wheels (2003), which had a transport theme. Some of these works remain on view; many do not.
Finally: public art gets official
The past decade has witnessed a tsunami of mural proliferation throughout the city, starting with the West Side and spreading with startling rapidity everywhere else. Many of these murals—as well as three-dimensional projects—are part of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s Public Art Initiative, started in 2013 in partnership with the county and city. The agreement between the museum and the municipalities ensures that everybody has skin in the game. High profile projects include Canalside’s Shark Girl (2013), Freedom Wall on Jefferson Avenue (2017), Eduardo Kobra’s magnificent Mark Twain/John T. Lewis mural on Hertel (2019), Shasti O’Leary Soudant’s Gut Flora in the Allen/Medical Campus Station (2017), and Robert Indiana’s massive numbers at Wilkeson Pointe (1980–2001, installed 2019). Led by curator Aaron Ott, there are always several projects in the works, with regular unveilings. Even as the museum closes for construction in November, expect more public art activity than ever.
Public art is the ultimate act of civic beautification. It’s not enough for it to celebrate and commemorate; it also needs to make statements and start conversations. It is part of the lifeblood of the urban streetscape; with this new commitment, Buffalo is getting a fresh transfusion.