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The submission of WBFO radio host Bert Gambini.

CEPA’s executive director, Sean Donaher, talks about the institution and its upcoming fundraiser

For a decade, Sean Donaher was content to work in the rather long shadow cast by Lawrence Brose, CEPA Gallery’s executive director, whose powerful personality and strongly held aesthetics had become inextricably linked to the institution.

Visions of Greater Buffalo

Thursday, May 19, 6-10pm

CEPA Gallery, 617 Main Street / 856-2717

“I was pretty happy prior to stay in the background and curate, work with the artists,” Donaher says. “Lawrence had a very strong presence across the cultural community, not just in visual arts. When people thought of CEPA, they certainly thought of Lawrence. That was a pretty big strength, I think.”

Then, in November 2009, Brose was indicted in a federal court here on charges that he’d accessed child pornography internet sites and stored images from them on a computer. Brose, whose artwork sometimes includes boundary-pushing erotic imagery, has pled innocent and continues to fight the charges. In the meantime, he resigned his position at CEPA so as to separate the institution from his legal troubles.

Throughout its history, CEPA has promoted its leadership from within, so it was hardly surprising when Donaher was named interim director in January 2010. CEPA’s board of directors wanted to ensure continuity and stability. “We have so many programs, and as with all the other culturals, we’re as thin a staff as can be,” Donaher says. “So to take someone on from the outside, there’s certainly the threat of disruption.”

Donaher made it clear to the board that he was interested in a less temporary appointment. “But I was aware that it was an interim postion, and that it was up to me and the staff to have that tag removed.”

And removed it was, in December 2010, at the end of a successful year for CEPA: Its much anticipated biennial auction went off without a hitch; the gallery mounted several well received exhibitions, most notably last summer’s Art of War show; its educational programs continued to grow; and, perhaps most importantly, CEPA escaped being damaged by the tumult of Brose’s departure.

The submission of Darren Kempner, deputy commissioner for Erie County Department of Environment and Planning.

Next Thursday (May 19), CEPA will mount its fourth Visions of Greater Buffalo show and silent auction, a fundraiser that alternates with the more elaborate CEPA auction. Visions works like this: The gallery staff and board members choose 100 local VIPs (“very interesting people,” Donaher calls them), gives each a disposable camera, and asks each to go forth and take photographs that capture something essential to Western New York.

Donaher explains that the raising money is only one of the purposes for which the Visions concept was designed, and maybe not the most important. “What we were trying to do was really broaden our reputation in the community, really expand out constituency,” he says. By recruiting their “visionaries” from outside the band of likely, arts community suspects—no trained photographers, not even known hobbyists, are invited to participate—the show has drawn new friends and supporters to CEPA, as well as a new audience. The event has also provided a platform for CEPA to promote its diversity of programming, including education programs that reach about 1,000 students each year.

“A lot of alternative arts spaces fight this battle,” Donaher says. “You want to be alternative, but at the same time you want people to pay attention.” Visions, he says, has helped CEPA to do that.

The photographers are limited only by the capabilities of the cheap, single-use camera. (“The only caveat is no people, no pets,” Donaher says.) When the cameras are returned, CEPA staff choose one photo by each shooter to develop, matte, and frame. These are hung in the first-floor galleries at the Market Arcade building, more and more of which CEPA aggrandizes as its programs grow, and auctioned off at a gala opening. The three photographers whose works draw top dollar will be able to direct cash awards ($3,000, $1,500, and $500) to charities of their choice. Donaher hopes that will drive bidding upward.

“The overall quality and the enthusiasm is pretty surprising,” Donaher says. “You’ll get a roll where the person has gone all over Buffalo looking for the right image. When people accept the camera, they seem to be honored and pleased to participate.”

This year CEPA added a new component: public participation. Anybody can upload one photo at CEPA’s website, and those images will be streamed during the opening. There have been well over 100 public submissions so far, Donaher says, and the quality of those images is quite high—no doubt because the public has better cameras to work with than CEPA’s chosen visionaries.

Donaher is so pleased with the way people have embraced this idea that he’s looking for ways to incorporate pubic input in future exhibits—for example, in a themed exhibit planned for this fall, comprising work by three artists related to Buffalo’s grain elevators.

That’s one show in an ambitious schedule Donaher and CEPA’s staff have drawn up for the coming year, even as budget cuts loom at every turn.

“I think CEPA has always been strong,” Donaher says. “Certainly over the past four or five years, CEPA really has solidified a lot of its programming, and a lot of its procedures. The educational programming has been growing, and we’ve diversified our revenue base. We’ve been involved in the collaboration with Just Buffalo and Big Orbit, which has done so much for all three organizations.”

Donaher continues to act as curator. “I don’t think you’ll see too much changing in the exhibitions that we produce. That’s a constant evolution. We respond to what’s current in terms of trends in the art world and how we position photography in the larger art world’s dialogue about visual art.”

He says his focus is on further diversifying revenue and establishing procedures. He’s a budget person, much to his surprise, and is working on board development. Back-office stuff, he says. Stuff that you do now in the hope that it accelerates your hopes for the future.”

One of those hopes, perhaps well down the line, is more and better space in which to work. The Market Arcade building has served CEPA very well, compared to its former location, in shared space with Hallwalls on the fourth floor of an old industrial building on Main Street. The downtown location has increased CEPA’s visibility and opened avenues for partnerships that did not exist previously.But it’s small and not built for exhibitions. Somewhere, Donaher says, are 10,000 square feet space with high celings and lots of open space, just waiting for CEPA.

“Especially when you fold in education, we’ve outgrown this space,” he says. “What we’ve been doing is just snatching up empty space in the bulding when we can. We’ve made that work for us. But we could use triple the space for arts eductaion easily.

“The nature of the space is problematic, too. CEPA has reached the point where the quality of the programming and the artwork far exceeds the quality of the space. And though it seems silly to say, it’s not fair.”

geoff kelly

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