Formed in April of 1891, the Buffalo Society of Artists is one of the oldest arts organizations in Western New York. The other being The Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, predecessor and parent organization of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, founded in 1862.
The history of these two organizations is tightly intertwined and reads as a continuing loop of discussions and controversy over issues such as the appreciation of local artists and traditional vs. modern and progressive art. The role of a publicly funded local art gallery and the decisions it makes in promoting and showcasing art of a particular region or genre has been an ongoing debate between the two factions.
Although they enjoyed a close relationship in the early years, the Society’s formation may have come about in direct relationship to a comment by Ralph H. Plumb, then president of The Buffalo Fine Arts Academy that “There is no art in Buffalo”.
Feeling that the Academy was not responding to or representing local artists, the Society looked to change that perspective. Thus began a long history of a complicated and often vitriolic relationship between the Buffalo Society of Artists and the Fine Arts Academy.
The Buffalo Society of Artists enjoyed its greatest success in the period from 1900-1930, with a cordial relationship existing between the local artists and the Albright until 1932, and 1933, when conflicts between then BSA President Alex Levy and the Albright’s President Gordon Washburn irreversibly split the local art community.
One of the arguments between the two was the Society’s contention that the Albright, as a public museum supported by public tax dollars, should support local artists with regular exhibits. This issue had been raised in 1911, as it would be again in the 1970’s.
The other dispute within the Society was over modern art. The progressive modernists were in conflict with the traditionalist of the BSA. This resulted with the modernists splitting away and forming a new society called the Patteran. The Patterans were supported by Washburn, who then created an annual Western New York show at the gallery that would no longer be an exclusive exhibition of the BSA.
These conflicts created a permanent division in Buffalo’s art community.
The BSA has had a reputation from the beginning of supporting the highest degree of artistic development and talent, but also of being too traditionalist. This representation has, over the past decade or so, been slowly changing.
Upon being elected president of the BSA in 2005, Gary Wolfe thought he’d do his duty, and then step aside.
“But when I read the history, I said to myself, this is such a community asset and community presence. I felt that the Society needed to look to the future, think about sustainability. Yes it had lasted 117 years, but the environment and the arts world and so many things have changed over the course of that time. The Society needed to take a look at itself, and say, ‘Where are we going to go from here?'”
With a professional background that included skills in strategic planning and program development, Wolfe introduced concept mapping, in order to take the ideas from the membership of the BSA and create a visual expression of those ideas, upon which strategic planning could be built.
“With 229 artists, you can imagine that we had a lot of ideas!” Wolfe chuckled.
Through many meetings, the Society decided upon three areas of focus that the BSA would build upon: Publicity, Professionalism and Professional Development.
Publicity of ‘what’ was the first focus. “We already had our two shows a year…the spring catalogue show, and the fall show. And that was great. But we needed to do more,” Wolfe said.
“We wanted to acknowledge excellence and encourage excellence in our membership and the art community, which led to our third area of focus, professional development. Encouraging Buffalo artists at whatever level they are at, to move forward in their practice and in their career. This also meant business development.” Therefore, Wolfe and the board of the BSA have been helping artists embrace the business model.
“Hey! We have over 200 small businesses here in the Society, and the model should be as exporters. Because, while some of the market for their product is in our area, much of it is in other areas of the country. We’ve been looking at gaining an economic development grant. If the artists become successful exporters of their work, they are bringing revenue back into this area, which they then spend in this area, so it is, indeed, economic development.”
“In larger markets such as Toronto, Baltimore Cleveland, Pittsburgh, we are more likely to find our niche. The potential is there, but we haven’t tapped it yet. And if we are going to be anything, we need to be supporting our members in moving forward.”
While many BSA members have shown nationally and internationally, this is ground breaking for the membership as a whole.
“Art in this city is relatively cheap. The same piece in a larger market would easily sell for three times as much. Americans will spend a great deal of money on their wardrobes, cars, lawns, and on redoing their house and new carpets, but will then put cheap prints on their walls,” Wolfe explained. “This is an education issue that probably goes back to arts being pulled out of schools, and people not having appreciation or knowing the role of art, or seeing the advantage of it. In many ways, art has become commodified to the point of being just an investment, and people don’t realize the qualitative value of art.”
In many ways, these areas of focus for the Society hearkened back to their roots. But Wolfe and the Society were working on breaking new ground. Reflecting back at their illustrative history, while looking toward the future, the BSA needed to find a way to embrace new media. Media in all manners, such as the Internet, websites, as well as conceptual art such as video media combined with sculpture, with painting and computer technology.
“With the society, we have traditional painters, and are drawing in more conceptual artists. I would love the dialogue to challenge both sides of the equation. The conceptual artists to consider technique and aesthetics in expressing their ideas, but also the traditional artists to be challenged in terms of asking the question ‘what am I really saying? What is this besides a nice landscape or still life?’ Metaphor is extremely important. Not that everything needs to become narrative, but we learn a great deal about how the universe works by narrative. Being connected to the universe, in both a spiritual and physical sense is what art is really a metaphor for. It takes the immaterial and makes it material.”
This, once again echos back to the 30’s when the split between the traditionalists and the progressive modernists. Wolfe enjoys the energy that new members provide, and believes that also energizes the other members. But keeping the Society cohesive is always on his mind.
“That is always the difficult thing. Keeping it cohesive. I think that fact that we are moving forward and that we have differences of opinion that excite people, oddly enough, if we can manage that, it can have a cohesive effect, as opposed to the fragmenting effect that it had in the 30’s with the Patteran. Dialogue is important, not camps. One of my priorities is promoting dialogue.”
The BSA is opening the door to video and installation artists.
“We’re still behind the curve but moving forward. Digital image makers of art are now part of the Society, and we are looking toward drawing in a working partnership with Squeaky Wheel to jury video art,” Wolfe said. “We also need to be looking at affecting and helping the community to appreciate art and showing them the high quality of the local artists. Part of the focus is looking toward what do we want to do educationally in providing workshops or seminars or panels.”
The BSA did a photography project last year with the YWCA. BSA photographers worked with inner city youth, gave them cameras and asked them to go out and shoot what a week without violence would look like. The photographers then helped the kids select images to be juried by an independent panel from the BSA for a show at the Y.
“The winners got digital cameras and printers. It was a great program. To read what the kids wrote about why they shot what they shot brought tears to our eyes.”
The BSA has also been involved in the Seats for Social Justice, working with the Arts Council and Americorps, as well as assisting non-profits such as VOICE- Buffalo in fundraising projects that build community between the organization, the artists and arts patrons.
“The BSA doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Cooperation with other arts organizations has been key, community service has been key.”