Inundated with art:
Holly E. Hughes, curator
By Jessica Keltz
A typical day for Holly E. Hughes, associate curator at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, might include taking donors for private tours of the gallery, working away in front of a computer screen, or driving a visiting artist to Niagara Falls.
Another typical day might involve escorting a piece of artwork traveling by climate-controlled truck to Houston or by cargo plane from Switzerland.
Hughes began working at the gallery eight years ago as an unpaid intern after finishing her undergraduate work in photography and art history at Buffalo State College. After she was offered a full-time assistant job, she decided to work toward her master’s degree part-time, graduating from UB with years of experience under her belt.
“It took me four years to get my master’s,” she says. “It was tough because I was inundated with art 24/7, and I felt so exhausted by it. But I think it really helped me too.” As she explains, “I was already thinking about art in a very different way [than other graduate students] because I was working on exhibitions.”
Hughes’s job has taken her to China, Scotland, and to art fairs all over the United States. But one of her best memories takes place right here in Buffalo, where she introduced Spencer Tunick to the Central Terminal, setting the stage for a powerful work of photography.
Hughes recalls that the project’s genesis was in Bodily Space: New Obsessions in Figurative Sculpture, an exhibit she organized that featured Tunick’s work, which most notably consists of photographs of hundreds of nude people posed in unexpected settings. When Tunick came to town for the exhibit’s opening, Hughes said she would take him around town to scout “installations,” plural. “But the only idea I had in my heart was the Central Terminal,” she says.
“When they walked into the building, their jaws dropped,” she says of Tunick and the rest of their party, who saw no need to look anyplace else after viewing the vacant Art Deco masterpiece on Buffalo’s East Side. Hughes later helped recruit participants for the photo shoot and organized the event, which attracted 1,000 volunteers.
Other exhibits Hughes has worked to organize include The Wall, a massive display of contemporary Chinese art that took almost three years to organize and was the largest of its kind in the U.S. when it debuted last fall, and Chuck Close: Self-Portraits 19672005, which ended in October.
A Southtowns native who currently resides in the city, Hughes says people she meets are often surprised that she hails from the area, and she doesn’t understand why. She also has little patience for people who don’t see the beauty in Buffalo that she, and the artists she escorts around town, find all around them here. “If I was giving up on the city, I’d be giving up on who I am and where I’m from and I’m not okay with that,” Hughes observes. When she takes visitors for tours, she says, “I get to show off the city, and they are always in awe.”
Sometimes, Hughes says, long workdays, funding pressures, and constant travel can make her schedule seem grueling. But ultimately, she believes, nothing beats working in an architectural landmark full of amazing art.
“Even on my worst day,when I’m so disgruntled, I pull up and I look at the building, and I’m just amazed,” she says. “I’m surrounded by great art all day. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Jessica Keltz is a former journalist and recent graduate of UB Law who works as Downtown Living Coordinator at Buffalo Place, Inc. In her spare time, she tutors Somali refugee children, skates, and explores the city on foot.
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