Last night’s Erie County budget hearing saw the largest outpouring of civic discontent seen in Buffalo since the days of the Red/Green budget crisis. Folks from all over Erie County began to arrive at Old County Hall by 4:00 PM, and some were there until 9:30. One by one, they approached the microphone to speak about the proposed cuts running the gamut from youth programs, auditors in the Comptroller’s office, security guards, libraries, arts & culture, medical examiners, the cooperative extension, and so on. Not one speaker spoke in favor of the budget. Full video available at WNYMedia.net.
Of the many passionate and cogent appeals to the County Executive (absent) and the assembled legislators, one of my favorites was from noted Buffalo novelist, Gary Earl Ross. With flux capacitor um…fluxing, he whisked us 15 years into the future for a glimpse of the effect of the proposed budget cuts. Here are his comments, reprinted with his permission:
Gary Earl Ross: Dateline BUFFALO October 1, 2025.
Today Erie County Executive Avery Arbogast released his 2026 budget, sending shockwaves through the remains of Western New York’s once renowned cultural community. After years of declining to support groups apart from the Big Three–the Albright Knox, the Buffalo Zoo, and the Philharmonic–Arbogast has withdrawn all public funding for arts and culture and the county’s last remaining branch library.
How was a once proud and diverse cultural community reduced to dust in less than two decades? “Once we had the state’s largest theater community outside Manhattan,” said retired theater critic Anthony Chase. “With 22 companies, we could have been Broadway West. Add to that dance companies, galleries, studios, literary series, programs for kids, well used libraries.”
But in 2010 the cultural bubble burst. Then County Executive Chris Collins withdrew funding for groups he deemed insignificant. With what was called the Bombing Run Budget denying funds to small arts groups and all culturals of color and cutting libraries by twenty percent, Mr. Collins seemed to write off the middle class, minority communities, education, and intellectual curiosity.
Lorna C. Hill, founder of the much missed Ujima Theater, said, “Every cultural was different and responded to calls consistent with its mission. Theater wasn’t just entertainment. It built communities in need of building. Dance taught children about movement and exposed adults to incomparable physical artistry. Just Buffalo’s Babel series brought Nobel laureates and other writers from around the world to Buffalo for readings and lectures. How can you measure the value of all that? And without even token support from local government, outside funding is much harder to come by.”
Said former Buffalo News arts critic Colin Dabkowski, now of the New York Times, “Despite theaters’ having sold 2.2 million tickets the year before, Collins wanted to fund what were then called the Big 10 because he thought they’d bring in outside money. ”
“That vision of cultural tourism lacked the connective tissue of imagination,” Chase said. “So tourists with money come. Then what? Bars with local bands? Imagine visitors on the Underground Railroad Tour seeing a show at an African-American theater–but the Robeson and Ujima were gone. The few visitors who managed to see Mark Twain’s manuscripts despite the Central Library’s drastically reduced hours couldn’t find theater as daring and satirical as Twain because most theaters were closed.”
For all Collins’ posturing about cultural heritage and architectural tourism, the closing of so many libraries left fewer and fewer Erie County residents who could recognize the names Mark Twain, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright. By trying to run the county like a business, Collins followed the timeworn path of outsourcing. He effectively outsourced culture, reducing theater to touring companies of Mary Poppins, Les Miserables, and W, The Musical at the Shea’s and fine arts to the occasional traveling exhibit at the Albright Knox.
Irish Classical, Road Less Traveled, Just Buffalo, Hallwalls, Buffalo Arts Studio–one by one, the smaller arts groups withered and died. Soon the Big 10, long rumored to have been warned off speaking up for smaller groups lest they jeopardize their own funding, were on the chopping block themselves as subsequent executives, following the Collins “business” model, chipped away at the arts. The Big 10 became the Big Seven, the Big Five, and finally, the Big Three.
Even as the cultural side of Western New York slid into the bog, the medical corridor boomed. Now many of those who relocated here to work in bioinformatics or medicine complain about the city’s culture deficit. Some drive to Toronto or Rochester for theaters, galleries, and libraries. Others fly to New York for cultural getaway weekends.
While County Executive Arbogast has said arts and culture must be self-sustaining, he has allocated money to lure an NFL team back to the area, which hasn’t had one since the Buffalo Bills were sold in 2016. Is this an echo of the Collins days, when the county spent $817,000 for each Bills home game, with little or no return on the investment? Moreover, Arbogast has set aside two separate funds for the Convention and Visitors Bureau, one to repair the aging Jumbotron outside the Convention Center so everyone will see how busy it is with model railroad gatherings, ethnic heritage dinners, fashion shows, and senior proms, and the other to keep the long-term lines of communication open between the CVB and it best client, the Ontario Motor Coach Association.
Once named one of the “Top 44 Places to Go,” Buffalo no longer has the intellectual attractions that made it appeal to tourists. Now in rehearsal for a Broadway revival of Sunset Boulevard, Hill said, “When the time is right, you’ve got to be ready for your close-up. But with leadership that knew the price of everything and the value of nothing, Erie County failed to hit the mark.”
Let’s make sure this remains fiction, Gary adds. Amen!
UB EOC Professor Gary Earl Ross is a novelist (Blackbird Rising, 2009) and playwright (Matter of Intent, winner of the 2006 Edgar Award from Mystery Writers of America). His latest play, Murder Squared, will be on stage at Ujima, 545 Elmwood, from Nov. 19-Dec. 12. For info and reservations call 883-0380.