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"Wish You Were Here" in the Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal published a review of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's major exhibition "Wish You Were Here," which documents the creative activity in and around this city during the 1970s. In his review, critic Richard B. Woodward calls the show "an act of civic boosterism couched within an adventurous historical survey."

The review elicited a pair of comments from Edmund Cardoni, executive director of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, one of many institutions which played a vital role in the creative life of the city during the period the exhibition covers (and one, like CEPA and the Albright-Knox, that continues to do so today). Cardoni, who finds the the review condescending, writes:

Predictably for the WSJ (as for most NYC and other big market publications), although we out here in the provinces appreciate the attention, this is a bit condescending, and in that condescension, inaccurate. Mr. Woodward doesn't get the point that it wasn't only about the individual avant-garde artists who were living and working here—though there were certainly plenty of those, in the 1970s as well as both before and since—but the curators, spaces, and institutions that uniquely supported the development and creation of major (even career-making) projects by visiting and Buffalo-based artists alike, the former of whom who came here for the opportunities, synergies, open spaces (in the case of Artpark), and spirit of collaboration they couldn't find in quite the same way in NYC and other acknowledged art capitals (i.e., commercial markets). I have two questions for Mr. Woodward: Should all the usual coverage of the NYC art scene (and NYC's resident artists) in the WSJ, NYT, etc., be viewed as mere "boosterism" of the NYC art scene and its artists? Why not? Should exhibitions, installations, and other artistic productions commissioned or presented by NYC arts institutions but involving non-resident artists from places and times other than present-day NYC itself (i.e., "local artists")—oh, let's say from France or China or the 19th century, to name but three examples—not count in those institutions' favor because the artists themselves aren't really from NYC, but are from "elsewhere," i.e., they may have "exhibited in…the city" [in this case NYC], "but were not based there"? Respectfully, Edmund Cardoni, Director, Hallwalls.

From my perspective, Woodward's review is unsurprising in its attempt to characterize the unique period of artistic activity this show covers as a mere outgrowth of a broader national movement. The review, in essence, argues that "Wish" specifically and Buffalo more broadly, is somehow attempting to make its role in the art world somehow seem more special or important than it actually was or is. This strikes me as a somewhat myopic view, especially for anyone who saw Douglas Eklund's exhibition "The Pictures Generation" at the Metropolitan Musuem of Art in 2009, which convincingly argued that Buffalo, like Los Angeles, played a key role in the creation of a new and influential mode of artistic expression.

Still, it was inevitable that some New York-centric critics would view "Wish," should they deign to consider it at all, as a cute effort by plucky little Buffalo to puff out its artistic chest a bit farther than it ought to. From inside their particular bubble, that view probably seems genuine and obvious.

But the show strikes me as successful because it was put together by an outsider with a somewhat more open mind: the very committed curator Heather Pesanti. She began working on the show while living in Pittsburgh, where she was working as a curator at the Carnegie Art Museum. Starting with the thread of Tony Conrad, she simply followed her own curiosity (and skepticism) through the archives of our storied local institutions and pulled out what struck her as a constantly surprising and long-buried narrative about the creative activity of this region during one decade in the late-20th century.

The idea that, as Woodward writes, that you can simply give artists "inexpensive housing and lots of bars, and they'll make their own weather" is simplistic, if not completely daft. And it also applies far more to today's artistic landscape, wildly variegated and geographically diverse as it has become, than the infintely smaller art world that existed during the 1970s. Back then, as Cardoni writes, institutions played a pivotal role in creating the conditions for creative success here. To me, that point is unavoidable in "Wish," and it means to an extent that what happened here could only have happened here. To others, that reality seems destined to remain invisible.

--Colin Dabkowski


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