Q&A: Frits Abell and the pathology of Buffalo love
Frits Abell is an instigator. He’s a motivator, an impresario, a pusher, and a promoter. He’s also an investor in the resurgent West Side of his hometown, and a Nichols grad who left for Skidmore College with no plans to come back to Buffalo. Except that now he lives here part-time, and also spends time in the other city he loves, New York. If you haven’t actually heard of the seemingly-ubiquitous Abell, you likely are familiar with one of his many projects. They include this month’s echo Art Fair, a juried fine art exposition—now in its fourth year—showcasing the works of local, regional, and international artists. Other Abell instigations are the Buffalo Ex-Pat Network; the social network Blow-Ins and Boomerangs, for folks who are new here or returning to Buffalo; and Preservation-Ready Sites, all on Facebook. There will be more to come—Abell says he likes nothing better than to start things up, see them running, and move on to the next project.
You had a successful career in the arts and business in New York and Boston. You still have family here, but what else drew you back here to live and work?
It was in 2011 that a couple of things piqued my interest in Buffalo. The Statler Hotel was going into bankruptcy and in danger of being torn down—I thought that would have been a mistake. Around that time, I was at a dinner party at my mother’s house here, where there were some guests from old Buffalo families. I realized that none of their children resided here anymore. I wondered where that money was going to—clearly other cities. That was when I started the Ex-Pat Network with some fellow Nichols grads, people from their late twenties into their early forties. We ran a lot of initiatives, threw events, partnered with charities. The mission was to get people connected with each other, and reconnected to Buffalo. I was coming back here about one week every month by then, and, at that point, I decided to focus on a couple of my areas of interest: art and preservation. In 2011, we held the first echo Art Fair in the old Central Terminal, a one-day juried fair that attracted 3,000 people. The next year, we were in the Larkin District over a couple of days, and then last year in the Central Library downtown, where we will be this year, September 5–7. We’ve had the largest jump in new submissions this year. I think it has helped breed more collectors and has raised Buffalo’s profile in the arts world, opening out-of-town collectors and dealers to the assets of this city. Now we are talking about holding it in Buffalo every other year, planning to satellite it out to another city next year.
So, echo is off and running—time to start a new venture?
Well, echo taught me how much I hate events planning—it’s so much work! We have a lot of volunteers who have been great, and people like Gerry Mead and Nina Freudenheim and Jonathan Katz who have been very instrumental in getting this all going. What I really love here is the grassroots and DIY aspect of all this activity. There is a texture, a realness, an authenticity, here in Buffalo. I want to build things here, but hold onto my twenty years of connections in New York. I am also the business partner of Anna Kaplan, director of the Body of Trade & Commerce Gallery, which opened in a renovated space on Niagara Street in June. She is representing four local artists, with plans for others from other cities.
When I was living full-time in New York, I used to stay up late scrolling through Chuck LaChiusa’s Buffalo As An Architectural Museum website. I really see our architecture as one of our absolute best assets, an incredibly rich part of our history. Any national or international coverage of Buffalo mentions this first. It is the soul of our city. And that it could be wrecked without any kind of plan is heartwrenching.
I’ve bought property on the West Side, in the Five Points area, where Rhode Island, West Utica, and Brayton intersect—I’m working on some mixed-use development there.
That should keep you busy. So you’re all set with activities now?
I joined the board of Arts Services Initiative of Western New York, which is an arts council for nine counties. And I’ve launched Impact-Industries, a business acceleration initiative for social ventures. We partner with early-stage entrepreneurs to help with operations, fundraising, and strategies—the underlying mission is to make it social venture focused. Businesses that do well do good. At this juncture, we want to build businesses we feel good about, to create jobs and wealth in Western New York. It’s triple bottom line: economic, social, and environmental.
You are a man of many talents. Tell us about your early days post-college, where you studied economics and German.
I grew up splitting my time between Delaware Avenue in Buffalo and our family farm in East Aurora. When I was young, I appeared in shows at Shea’s and Studio Arena, and performed in school productions. I did a year abroad in college, an internship in Paris with a political agency that was doing a study on the euro. When I first moved to New York, I worked at Flowers, a restaurant just off Union Square, partly owned by Oliver Stone, who showed up regularly with an entourage of models. After about three months, I realized I wanted nothing to do with the restaurant world. I was eventually hired as an associate producer on the PBS show, In The Life, which focused on gay and lesbian issues. This led me into the film and TV world, where I worked on everything from NYU thesis films to Broadway Videos, a Lorne Michaels production company. After a stint as associate producer of a pilot for Montel Williams—working in Bayonne, New Jersey, where everything glowed because of so much toxic pollution—I decided I didn’t want to do this anymore. I next ran the business development arm for the Circum Arts, an arts foundation, and I trained in modern dance with Mary Anthony, who had trained with Martha Graham. I got my first off-Broadway show, the lead in Brigadoon, the musical. My mother and stepfather came to New York and took me out to dinner at the Carlyle after the show—they said this is nice, but what’s next? I was twenty-seven.
So I got a job on Wall Street next, working for an institutional brokerage firm. The founder of the firm, Wally Schubert, had also founded a dot com. He was the first openly gay seat holder on the New York Stock Exchange, and launched the Gay Financial Network, for which I went to work. By 2001, I was president of that company. A group of us eventually spun off a small business consulting division, Velocity Holdings. A few years later, I joined a fellow Skidmore alum in an investment bank, Progress Partners, in Boston, eventually building out its mergers and acquisitions division. In 2010, we opened a New York office, and I went back there. I am really a start-up guy. I like to start things and get them to a certain point, and then get involved with the next project. I’m not really an investment banker. I just played one. Then I worked on some other other deals, and I started thinking more about Buffalo.
And what has inspired you to re-root yourself here?
I feel most comfortable when there is a hybrid model of business and creative. I love the real estate projects, the gallery work, and the business acceleration work. I am exhausted by the art fair work. I am doing exactly what I wanted to do with my life, and I needed to come back to Buffalo, part time, to do it. The barriers of entry are lower here. When I see there is something missing or something I want, I just do it. I love that I can! It’s pretty difficult to do this in New York City.
It can be frustrating here—a lot of the remnants of what kept me away for a long time are still around. The built-in negativity of people, for example. And I would say there is a very territorial and protectionist business environment here. I don’t like mediocrity, and sometimes I feel like people settle here, as if we don’t deserve better, so why even try? Also there is a sedentariness here—New Yorkers are connecting all the time. People hibernate here, and I sometimes miss the New York energy. But it’s getting better. The most important thing is bringing people together. We were fragmented for so long! When I tell people in New York about what I am doing here, they are a little bit incredulous, but then they admit they’d like to do something similar. For whatever reason, a lot of us have this pathological love for this city, and it is incredibly gratifying to be doing what I’m doing.
Former Buffalo News reporter Maria Scrivani writes about local history and people who make a difference.