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Ed Cardoni: Hallwalls Executive Director

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Ed Cardoni: Hallwalls Executive Director

Ed Cardoni is the executive director of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, the cutting-edge, interdisciplinary arts institution that was founded in Buffalo in 1974. He is an outspoken advocate for the area’s arts scene, and a vocal critic of Erie County Executive Chris Collins’ decision to cut funding to local cultural organizations.

How long have you been involved in the arts?

Believe it or not, since I was 15 years old. I ran for a student council office called "Cultural Committee Chairman," and in that capacity I organized silent film festivals and coffee houses in the cafeteria, even a hootenanny, I think. (It was 1970.) We put on concerts in the gym. (I got to meet Chuck Berry that way. We also had the MC5, Canned Heat, Sha Na Na, Harry Chapin, and there are long stories attached to all of those.) I also edited (and wrote most of the content for) a weekly cultural news sheet called "Comin' At You," sort of the ARTVOICE of our high school—but on two-sides of one sheet of legal-size paper—which we ran off in the principal's office. And one time the principal (a Xaverian brother) censored two page-one stories (one by a disgruntled anti-jock, one a satire I had written myself), but with the help of some radical classmates with a mimeograph machine, we published and disseminated the two stories anyway, along with statements against censorship, and we all got called down to the principal's office and threatened with suspension. That's a longer story, too. So the die was cast early on. I majored in acting my freshman year at Brandeis. I quit college for a year and co-founded a theater company in my hometown. Later I reviewed movies for the college newspaper (by then I was at UMass Boston). By senior year (this was the late '70s) I had narrowed my artistic pursuits to creative writing until I moved to Buffalo and got involved with Hallwalls in the mid '80s, then widened them out again, and the rest is history.

Why are culturals worth support from the public?

From the time of cave paintings (ten to twenty thousand years ago), communities of human beings supported the arts. I have no doubt that the hunters whose exploits (and four-legged prey) the cave painters were depicting shared their meat with them so they could stay back in the caves and get their painting done. The meat is long gone, but the paintings remain, as we're all about to see in the new documentary about Chauvet, France, by Werner Herzog, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Then skip ahead a few thousand years and patronage of the so-called "fine arts" came from monarchs, emperors, noble families, and the church. They had all the the dough and that's one of the main things they spent it on, and they were smart to do so (even when artists were irreverent towards their authority), because that's the only way we remember them today: statues, epic poems, Grecian urns, frescoes, tapestries, portraits, musical compositions, tragedies, comedies, histories, lives, odes. As Shelley (with whom I share a birthday, along with Barack Obama and Billy Bob Thornton) wrote of the ruins of the monumental statue of Ozymandias, "Nothing beside remains." Just art. Well, today we're a democracy—or we're supposed to be—so it's government by the people (rather than only oligarchs and elites, as in past centuries) that needs to provide support for the arts. Not all of it, but its fair share. And with full respect for the freedom of speech guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Again, even when it's irreverent and questions authority.

The county executive didn't cut funding to every cultural institution. Why do you think he favored some over others?

I know it can't really be for the reason he gave, which was allegedly because the 10 he funded draw visitors from outside Erie County. Even if that were true (which for the most part it isn't, which I'll get to later), that would be a lousy reason to fund the arts if that's really his sole reason, because the main contribution the arts make is to the residents, the citizens of Erie County itself, the quality of life of our community. The arts should primarily be for the people who live and work and own homes and educate their children and, yes, vote and pay taxes here in Erie County, not for fly-by-night visitors alone. Now, a couple of the 10 funded institutions do indeed draw visitors (as well as Erie County residents) and will do so increasingly in future years and from all over the globe, namely the two Frank Lloyd Wright sites, the Martin House and Graycliff. To a certain extent the Albright-Knox draws out-of-town visitors, but not only them. I'd guess most visitors to the Albright-Knox are members and others who return throughout the year, whenever there's a new exhibition that opens, and people like me who always bring out-of-town visitors there whenever they visit, and the Erie County school children who come by the busload for tours and educational programs. Most people who subscribe to and attend concerts at the BPO are from Erie County itself, and that's how it should be. That's reason enough to fund it. And I guarantee you that the vast majority of visitors to the Zoo—well over 90%—which gets the lion's share of County funding (pun intended), are families from Erie County who visit several times a year. No one comes to Buffalo for its Zoo. Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando, maybe, maybe even the San Diego Zoo, but not ours. When my young nephews visit, I take them to the Zoo, but that's not the purpose of their trip. But again, why not fund a Zoo for the families of Erie County, who pay for it? That's how it should be.

Why do you think Buffalo has such a rich arts scene?

It sure ain't because of government support, and never was, even when we had it. It's because of the dedication and sweat equity of the artists and cultural workers and small business people who support the arts (and who are in turn supported by them), the high intelligence and insatiable voraciousness of our audiences, the many university and college visual and performing arts departments (which provide both faculty positions and an endless supply of young arts students), and the availability of affordable space to live, work, and put on shows.

What do you think the city would lose if smaller galleries and theaters were to go out of business?

A lot of young artists who are moving here and art school graduates who are staying here instead of moving away, including actors, dancers, musicians, and filmmakers. Theater more varied and affordable than only what's available at Shea's, as much as my family and I enjoy seeing shows there. And arts programs in the schools. And the larger institutions that would be left on their own would lose the collaborating organizations and energetic young creative individuals that help extend their missions in the community.

bonus: It feels like the weather might be breaking, at last. What do you like to do in the summer in western New York?

Really? It doesn't seem like it's breaking to me? When did you write this question? Will there be summer?

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