Selected Exhibition Narratives
I. Big Orbit 1991-1993
been an art gallery at 30 Essex Street since the 1970s. Known as Artists
Gallery, it played a small but significant role in the Buffalo art scenewith
the usual peaks and valleysuntil late 1990, when it simply ran
out of steam.
In stepped artists Katrin Jurati and Alan Van Every, then renting studio space in the Essex Street Complex. Jurati and Van Every decided to take over the administration of Artists Gallery, revitalizing a mission and identity that up until then had been loosely-defined. In effect, they not only brought the gallery back to life, they gave it a personality.
Jurati and Van Every, soft-spoken in person, had a gift for public relations, particularly for using both traditional and non-traditional ways of communicating with their audiences. Colorful, hand-drawn announcements and newsletters began to flow from the gallery. The pair made strategic use of their connections with the Buffalo arts establishment and their teachers and mentors at the University at Buffalo. They called the gallery Big Orbitactually the suggestion of an Essex Street neighbor, Big Mikebecause the astrological metaphor suggested the connectivity of artists and art spaces, big and small, revolving in the same cultural sky.
Two of the local museum heads were very supportive right off the bat, Alan Van Every recalls. I just happened to be taking classes that semester from Anthony Bannon [then director of the Burchfield-Penney Art Center] and Sandra Olsen [then director of the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University]. Taking advice from these and many other area arts veterans, the pair crafted an ambitious exhibition and event schedule that included poetry readings, film screenings, rock concerts, figure modeling sessions, and regular artists meetings as well as visual art exhibitions. Their enthusiasm and creative savvy was instantly appreciated by other arts groupsthe David Anderson Gallery, for example, donated the proceeds of a yearly event to Big Orbit, while the Burchfield-Penney Art Center collaborated with the gallery on artist projects.
Everything was achieved through the support of our community here, including artists, gallery sitters, interns, our advisory board, our mentors, institutions all around Buffalo, friends, collectors and criticseven a pro bono lawyer and accountant, says Jurati. In return for that support, she concludes, We made a space for artists and art supporters to get together and have a good time.
Although the enthusiasm and the good times may be a vivid on-going legacy of Big Orbits first three years, there was also memorable programming. The exhibitions were an intriguing mixture of established local artists, emerging artists and themed group shows, which often brought emerging and established artist together. Highlights of their programming include early exhibitions by sculptors Patrick Robideau and Kurt Von Voetsch, in group and solo shows, as well as the final exhibition by artist/filmmaker Paul Sharits, who died in 1993. Most memorably, Jurati and Van Every, both sculptors as well as painters, did much to bring sculpture back into the Western New York limelight. Group shows such as Metal and Woodworks combined formal and conceptual treatments of three-dimensional media, as well as used the spacious courtyard adjoining the space to feature larger works.
By the end of their tenure as Big Orbit co-directors, Jurati and Van Every had completed the process for the gallery to become its own 501(c)(3) organization. And another pair of young artists was ready to step in.
II. Big Orbit 1993-1996
Brush and Josh Iguchi were completing their degrees at the University
at Buffalo when they became involved in Big Orbit. Both were working in
photography; Brush was also pursuing an academic degree in comparative
Kat and Allen asked Josh and me if we were interested in taking over in the summer of 1993, when they were planning a move to New York, recalls Brush. When we stepped in, a major goal was to get the gallery on a more solid financial footing. Big Orbit had just received its non-profit status, so it was an ideal moment for increasing the budget through grants and other support, such as corporate and individual giving. We wanted the gallery to operate on a basis other than the purely volunteer.
Thus, the beginning of Big Orbits transformation to an established arts institution. The gallerys most ambitious programming over the next three years reflected a new involvement with official funding sources. Body/Machine, a group show of women digital artists, was funded through the gallerys first grant from the New York State Council on the Arts. Another landmark show, Alert Aesthetics, was the result of an exchange program with the Czech Republic, and was funded by the National Association of Artists Organizations through a rigorous competitive selection process.
In addition to these projects, whichfor the first time in Big Orbits historyinvolved years of planning, Brush cites installations by architect Mehrdad Hadighi and sculptor/performance artist Kurt Von Voetsch as among the most important exhibitions during her tenure. In 1995, Sean Donaher, a printmaker and designer, became co-director of the gallery so that Iguchi could devote more time to art-making. Donaher had actually been working at the gallery since 1993. Big Orbit was now receiving funding from the Arts Council of Buffalo and Erie Countys Cultural Incentive Program, as well as funding from the City of Buffalo.
This funding helped by the combination of Brushs academic background and Donahers background in printing and designmake it possible for Big Orbit to start producing professional-quality publications as well as pay its staff.
III. Big Orbit 1996
five years have witnessed a burst of ambitious activity at Big Orbit Gallery.
Some typical scenarios from the last few years: In April 1998, a performer in a gorilla suit swung from the gallerys ceiling beams, throwing milk and juice all over himself, the gallery, and, sometimes, the audience (Craig Smith: Omatic Activities). In October, 2000, two architects transformed 4,500 wooden pallets into an oval cave inside the gallery and a corresponding huge egg outside in the courtyard (Frank Fantauzzi, Mehrdad Hadighi: Big Orbits). In December, 2000the space having barely recovered from its pallet experiencetwo sculptors built a house inside the gallery, which they then covered with black pigment (Patrick Robideau and Kurt Von Voetsch: A Whole Lot of Chugger behind a Whole Lot of Pat).
When Sean Donaher took over the directorship mid-1996, the transition was barely perceptiblehe had been working closely with the gallery since 1993. But after a couple of years, his curatorial aesthetic began to emerge. It is clearly an aesthetic that encourages artists to push their work to the next level and also one which offers the gallery as an opportunity to be explored to its fullest. During this period, Donaher did not work alone. Martin Kruck signed on as Assistant Director in the fall of 1997, before leaving in 1999 to pursue teaching opportunities. Artist Leah Rico joined Donaher in 1999 as Gallery Manager and then as Associate Directorbefore leaving in 2001.
As Donaher puts it, Ive really emphasized those emerging artists who show an elevated artistic maturity and would most benefit from the exposure a Big Orbit exhibition would providesuch as Jackie Felix, Reed Anderson, Joshua Marks, and Patrick Holderfield. Ive also worked with established artists who were experimenting with innovative new projects or bodies of worksuch as Mehrdad Hadighi, Alberto Rey, Leandro Soto, and Andrew Johnson. Donaher has also added new funders to the roster, including regular support from the new York State Council on the Arts and the County of Erie as well as corporate and foundation support.
In conjunction with exhibitions that questioned the gallerys boundaries and conventions, a new program involving music, performance, and other media was instituted in 1999, under the leadership of Buffalo writer/publisher Craig Reynolds, whose zine, Basta, had been an outlet for experimental writing since 1997. (Seehis essay in this book for a complete history of this programming) Reynolds, sometimes working in conjunction with other presenterssuch as the University at Buffalo and Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Centerhas brought in a veritable explosion of concerts, readings, screenings, performance, and other events, often presented in series, often at satellite spaces. Although the tradition of presenting events such as poetry, films, lectures, and performance in addition to visual art exhibitions had been steady at Big Orbit throughout the nineties, it has never been presented with such ambition and with such a strongly defined programming philosophy.
Ten years after its first exhibition opened on March, 1991, the mission of Big Orbit Gallery remains strong. There has been change: new directors/curators, a trend toward ambitioussometimes massiveinstallations, and the addition of a cutting edge multi-media performance program. But the simple yet essential focus of the gallery, to provide a free-wheeling arena for the best and brightest artists working in Western New York, is as unfaltering as ever.