Long Story Short: In memory of Nina Freudenheim

A legacy of excellence

An era in Buffalo’s fine art community ended on Saturday, April 10, with the death of gallerist Nina Freudenheim. Since establishing her namesake gallery in 1975, she set the standard by which all other Western New York commercial spaces are measured. That she was able to successfully operate a New York style gallery in Buffalo for forty-five years is an accomplishment in itself, but she notably brought significant artists to Buffalo from around the world, while also promoting local art.

"She was an extraordinary woman," says Peter Stephens, a Buffalo artist with close ties to Freudenheim, "She was my friend, mentor, colleague, and some days, even mom. Her taste, passion, and integrity in everything she did is a model I follow."

When I interviewed Freudenheim for a 2012 article in Spree, she recalled that she had no idea what she was doing when she started. She learned by making frequent trips to New York, where gallery owners in those days would often invite her into their back offices and share the secrets of the trade. It was the right time for a new career. "My youngest child was seven years old and he was going to be in school all day," she remembered.

Family and career

"All of us have learned from Nina’s professionalism," says Sandra Olsen, former director of the University at Buffalo Art Galleries, who became friends with Freudenheim almost from the time Olsen moved to Buffalo in 1978. "But most important for me, and for many others I am sure, was that she was a role model, a woman who successfully balanced her professional career and family life. She loved art and artists, but even more, with a generous and caring spirit, her friends and family."

"Not only will there be a void in the art community," says Freudenheim’s niece, Monica Burgio Daigler, "but there will be a huge void in our family." She was a loving wife to her husband Bob, a mother of three, and grandmother of four. She leaves behind a brother and sister-in-law, and was an aunt to a "family who adored her, her strength, her talent, her giving spirit, and her loving heart."

Influence and professionalism

The Jewish/Italian girl from Buffalo’s West Side and graduate of Grover Cleveland High School was also an urbane sophisticate. Freudenheim had natural grace and refinement which could be a little unnerving to some people. "When I was working at Castellani Art Museum," recalls Olsen, "my relationship with her was intellectually challenging and rather intimidating. She was so knowledgeable and such a smart businesswoman, and I was making inquiries for another smart and intimidating person, Armand Castellani."

"She has brought artists from near and far to Western New York’s notice, and, importantly, has also put that work before the eyes of local museum directors and curators" wrote Spree editor Elizabeth Licata on the occasion of last year’s tribute exhibition, For the Love of Art: A Tribute to Gallerist Nina Freudenheim, at the Castellani Gallery. "Many works in the collections of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Burchfield Penney Art Center, and Castellani Art Museum are there thanks to the networking of Nina Freudenheim."

"One of her most important and long lasting contributions to Buffalo was her role as Director of the 1979 public art program for the Art of the Subway project," recalls Olsen, "The Beverly Pepper at the foot of UB’s South Campus, the Sam Gilliam on a wall overlooking Main Street at the Canisius College station, the Robert Lobe sculpture at Amherst Street, or the Joyce Kozlof mosaic mural at Humboldt Street station have become so much a part of our landscape that it is easy to forget how hard Nina fought to bring these major artists to Western New York."

Kind but candid

Approaching Freudenheim as an artist could be daunting, but once you mustered the courage, she was known for her generosity and warmth. "I look at anyone’s work who comes to me," she said during our interview. "Absolutely anyone. I love looking at new work, and I show regional art a lot." Freudenheim had very particular tastes as a curator. She turned down many artists, including me, but she had a very gentle way of doing it. "Your work is excellent," she would say, "but I can’t do anything with it," making it her inability, not yours, that prevented her from exhibiting the work.

Artist Kyle Butler was twenty-six the year Freudenheim started representing him. "When I was a good deal more inexperienced and irresponsible," he remembers. "Her patience and support played a big role in my development as an artist, as it did with many others." Butler fondly remembers Freudenheim for her frankness "in a way that always seemed refreshingly without the counterproductive diplomacy you often get elsewhere."

A legacy

Like many people I talked to, Butler enjoyed the insightful conversations about art he regularly had with Freudenheim. "I'll miss these meetings, her knowledge and experience, and the calm voice she delivered it all with," he says. But he also has fond memories of the person behind the image. "She had an unpretentious appreciation for oddball restaurants—good food, weird interiors—and once," remembers Butler, "while at dinner with a few artists and collectors after an exhibition, she mentioned that she watched Perry Mason almost every night before falling asleep."

With continuing commitment and know-how, Freudenheim made a big impact on Western New York. "Her legacy lives on," says Burgio Daigler, "in Buffalo and beyond and in our hearts."

Amid the pandemic, city business as (un)usual

A few weeks back we told you how the city issued a demolition permit for developer Nick Sinatra to tear down a one-of-a-kind historical structure at 184 Utica Street, in the Elmwood Village National Historic District, a day after the Buffalo Preservation Board recommended granting it historic landmark status.

The city has faced growing frustration from community members over such incidents related to the massive Elmwood Crossing development project at the former Children’s Hospital site. But the Common Council offered its assurance that every step of the process would include open meetings to allow for community comments.

Common Council seeks input, then doesn’t

On March 16, City Hall was closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Common Council met March 17, without public attendance. At that meeting, an Elmwood Crossing hot button item—the sale of the Gallagher Parking Ramp at 489 Elmwood Avenue—was sent to the Finance Committee so the public could comment. Immediately afterward, the Council announced they were canceling all additional meetings, including committee meetings, until further notice.

To recap: the Common Council sent the Gallagher Ramp item to the Finance Committee meeting for public comment, then canceled the Finance Committee meeting. Still, there was every expectation that a meeting with public input would take place after the pandemic pause.

Ramping up development

On March 31, the Council held a Zoom meeting from councilmembers’ homes. While residents silently watched a livestream of the virtual gathering on Facebook, the Council unanimously approved the sale of the Gallagher Parking Ramp. There would be no public comment. And who bought it? Sinatra and Ellicott, the developers who separately and together own a majority of commercial properties on Elmwood Avenue, and who are snatching up a growing number of Elmwood Village residential properties. With the ramp sale out of the way, Council President Darius Pridgen says his staff will now see what can legally be done to include the public in future meetings.

In an email response to a request for information from bulldog preservationist Daniel Sack, Councilman David Rivera says, "During a discussion that I had with the Administration and OSP [The Mayor's Office of Strategic Planning, a division within the City's Executive Department], I shared the public’s concerns. The administration voiced its own concerns and the Council ultimately decided to discharge the matter from the Finance Committee and later voted to approve the sale."

A bargain price

The cost for the ramp—which seemingly did not go through a sealed bidding process as required by Buffalo’s Municipal Code—was $1.7 million. The median construction cost for a new parking structure in 2019 was $21,500 per space. The Gallagher Parking Ramp has roughly 600 spaces. Do the math. Sinatra and Ellicott got a good deal, though the Buffalo News reports that the cost was "based on the appraised valuation, according to documents filed with the City Clerk's Office."

The question—why? There was no urgency for selling a ramp that won’t be needed for the Elmwood Crossing project for years, and which might have been better kept under city ownership anyway, to control public parking costs. What were the OSP’s "concerns" that they shared with Rivera? What caused the Common council to "discharge" the Finance Committee, which led to the public’s loss of the opportunity to express their concerns? Was there a bidding process? Who did the estimate of value?

The takeaway

Sack requested all information related to these questions under the Freedom of Information Law, but so far Rivera has adopted a pass-the-buck approach to the appeal. Sack was told to figure out which offices where his requests should be sent. But Rivera is the Councilmember privy to most relevant information. Is this any way for an open government to operate? Consider that a foolish rhetorical question.

Car culture: the accidental driver

This is the second in an occasional series of stories chronicling the idiosyncrasies of automobiles and motoring.

True story

This has happened more than once. I’m driving, but my thoughts are somewhere else. I do some of my best thinking in my car. So, I’m traveling along, daydreaming, when I come to an intersection and stop. All very automatic. I don’t consciously think about the signal; it’s just on the periphery of my awareness. I’m waiting, and at some point I decide it’s taking too long to change. This is when I realize I’m at a stop sign.

I glance into my rearview mirror to see if anyone’s behind me. Yup. I wonder what they think I was waiting for. Why didn’t they honk? How long were they watching? Are they laughing? I drive off in what I hope is a self-assured manner, as if a fifty-second wait is normal for a stop sign.

It’s a thing

Apparently, this is not uncommon. Especially among people who are stoned. Not me though. I do it sober. And I’m not alone. I posted about this on Facebook once, and several others acknowledged doing the same. There’s even a T-shirt and a song celebrating the phenomenon. And it’s not particularly dangerous, when you think about it. You could make a case that I’m just exercising an abundance of caution. It’s not like I’m going through a red light.

Which brings me to another story.

Signal altercation

Many years ago, I drove a Chevy van. Once, I was waiting at the excessively long signal at the end of my residential street, when I drifted into navigational autopilot as my conscious thoughts turned to more important things. In my trance-like state, I noted a signal change, and pulled forward to turn. As I did, a car came barreling down on me from the left. Fearing I had unknowingly gone through a red light, I froze, afraid to go forward, and unable to quickly back up. The car came to an abrupt stop, and I sheepishly opened my door and looked directly up at the signal. I had the green light. I flashed an embarrassed grin and continued turning left.

As I did, I noticed a young male get out of the car and yell something, so I stopped. He was holding an open carton of orange juice—from concentrate I assume, this wasn’t a fresh-squeezed kind of guy—which he chucked across three car lanes at the side of my van, something of an easy target. As he got back in and the car drove off, I sat dumbfounded. What had just happened?

It wasn’t until much later that I realized the hominid thought I’d stopped and eyed the signal as a critique on his excessively fast approach. Which, to be fair, was what caused me to think I had run a red light in the first place. It must be tough going through life assuming everyone is as big a dick as you.

Highway hypnosis and unconscious driving

"White line fever," also known as "zoning out" was first mentioned in a 1921 article referencing "road hypnosis." Wikipedia describes it as "an altered mental state in which a person can drive a car, truck, or other automobile great distances, responding to external events in the expected, safe, and correct manner with no recollection of having consciously done so."

You don’t have to drive long before it kicks in either. In my case, just to the corner. One study found that driver’s minds wander seventy percent of the time. Lots of articles claim this is a hazard, but it may not be. When we first learn to drive, all our actions are conscious. Remember how awkward that felt? It’s only after driving becomes routine, with most functions relegated to the unconscious that it begins to feel natural.

It’s a brain thing

A 2016 study by scientists from the University of Houston and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute found that absentminded driving results in slightly straighter trajectories compared to normal driving. An article in Gizmodo titled, Why We Don’t Crash Our Cars While Daydreaming and Driving, says it has to do with a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, which acts like a "sixth sense," protecting us from distractions. Essentially, your unconscious mind does the driving, while your conscious mind deals with other matters. And an article in Psychology Today argues that unconscious driving is natural. You can’t really do it any other way. In fact, I just wrote this article on my way to the grocery store.

Okay, not really. I never got to the grocery store because I was stuck at a stop sign.

Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.

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