Tucked between the West Side’s Massachusetts Avenue and Rhode Island Street, you’ll find one of Buffalo’s most historically significant art complexes: Essex Street Art Center. Since 1969, it has nurtured emerging artists by providing exhibitions opportunities and studio spaces. This early support has led many to national and international acclaim. In the building that once housed an ice packing factory, renowned sculptor Larry W. Griffis Jr. founded Essex as a place for artists to live, create, exhibit, and grow.
In the back corner of the courtyard, you will find 30D Essex Street. This simple open space was the original home of the Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, which remained there until the seventies. The Artist Gallery occupied the space through the eighties and Big Orbit Gallery exhibited work from the nineties until just a few years ago.
Now, the next ambitious community-minded contemporary art venue, the Buffalo Institute of Contemporary Art (BICA), lives within these same walls. BICA was founded in 2018 by Emily Ebba Reynolds and Nando Alvarez-Perez, who have a mission to “use culture to sustain communities through practical engagements with contemporary art.”
Both founders have extensive experience in arts and museum management. Reynolds received her BA in Art History from the University of Colorado Boulder and her MA from the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) in Exhibition and Museum Studies. She has been employed in various capacities at Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art and, in San Francisco, at Asian Art Museum, DeYoung Museum, Legion of Honor Museum, Bass & Reiner Gallery, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. More recently, she was Marketing Director at Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center, and is currently Assistant Director of Community Relations at University at Buffalo Art Galleries.
Alvarez-Perez is a Buffalo native who was deeply influenced by his 2008 Hallwalls internship and his interaction with artist-in-residence Kevin Jerome Everson. He received his BFA in Film Studies from Hunter College and an MFA in Photography from the San Francisco Art Institute (where he met and married Reynolds). He has had residencies at Lightworks (Syracuse) and at Visual Studies Workshop (Rochester) and exhibited extensively throughout the West Coast and Western New York as well as in New York City, Mexico City, and Zurich. He has taught at San Francisco Art Institute, UC Berkeley, California College of the Arts (San Francisco), University of Rochester, and is currently Visiting Assistant Professor in Drawing, Painting, and Photography at Alfred University.
“Our interests and ambitions lie in the ways we can be an institute devoted to developing contemporary art for the working class,” says Reynolds. To this end, they have founded Cornelia magazine, dedicated to reviewing the visual arts in Western New York and Southern Ontario. The couple has also started the BICA School to provide an alternative secondary art education based on readings, critiques, and experiences through interactions with BICA’s connection to artists, curators, and scholars.
Currently on view is an installation of multichannel video work entitled Dawn Chorus Trilogy, by Oakland-based Puerto Rican artist Sofía Córdova. One of the videos from this series has recently been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York. Reynolds describes Córdova’s work as “that (which) simultaneously rediscovers the past’s revolutionary potential, the present’s depredations against the Caribbean, and the future’s cyborgian possibilities in a post-apocalyptic world.”
In addition to Córdova’s videos, an exhibition of photographic work by Kelsey Sucena is in the BICA School Project Space. Sucena is a photographer and writer who describes her work as resting “at the intersection of photography and text, often within the bodies of performative slideshows and photo-text-books. It is centered broadly upon the United States as a site for post-capitalist, queer, and critical reflection.”
The future of BICA and Cornelia is promising but, like many small non-for-profit organizations, funding programming and outreach efforts is a constant challenge. While Reynolds and Alvarez-Perez have been successful in acquiring grants, resources to support staff and operations are harder to come by. Nonetheless, they remain optimistic and envision change as they receive more recognition.
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