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The Director's Exit

Ted Pietrzak (photo by Rose Mattrey)

Ted Pietrzak will be stepping down from his position as Director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center in October, after 12 years. During his tenure, he oversaw the evolution of the gallery from its location on the third floor of Rockwell Hall on the Buff State Campus to its new 84,000-square-foot home on Elmwood Avenue, next to the college. Here is an excerpt of a recent interview he did with Artvoice. Watch it in its entirety on ArtvoiceTV at

Artvoice: You’ve been here 12 years, so to a lot of people it seems you’ve been here forever. How is it that you came to Buffalo?

Ted Pietrzak: It was a coincidence. Synchronicity or something. I was judging a Buffalo Society of Artists exhibit, and they had me back several times. So I was doing this lecture on a Saturday morning at the Burchfield in Rockwell Hall, and there were 3,000 people there, and Charlie Penney was in the audience. He said, “You should apply for this job. We’ve been looking for two years for a director. You sound good.” Then this courtship started, which was really interesting and tells me something about Buffalo. There’s just this friendliness. I thought maybe being Canadian made me exotic or something. But I realized it was something about the community. Especially when they started referring to me as their director. “This is our director.” It set the tone for the place. It was very inclusive. Very exciting.

AV: How does your location in the city affect your programming and your mission?

TP: We have some unique opportunities because of location. Being across the street from the Albright-Knox, down the street from the Historical Society, in an Olmsted Park area, almost—we have a kind of cultural district that is further defined by the new building. It has a presence. People come here and have a number of experiences. Even children that are bussed in see two museums at least. So there’s a synergy within a cluster of cultural organizations. But also being on Elmwood creates yet another type of synergy where we’ve worked with the Elmwood Village Association to develop programs that really are aimed at Black Friday and that weekend after Thanksgiving, where we offer free programs and really promote the commercial side as well as the cultural side. So it has amazing opportunities and potential that is just now evolving.

AV: When you came here, what was your understanding of the cultural landscape of Western New York. What have you learned about it? Is it a tricky place to get things done?

TP: I hope no politicians are listening.

AV: I guarantee you they aren’t.

TP: I learned something from a friend of mine, a professor from UB. He barraged me with the difficulties of Buffalo. Nothing gets done. There is nepotism. There is corruption. It’s so political. The power is with a few people, and they sort of stifle...I nearly became clinically depressed. But I realized that in order to get something done, you only can count on yourself. You can work within groups of people, but you can’t expect the answers to come from above or below. You need to have the plan, and you need to champion the plan. So it’s a little like guerilla warfare. You’re out there, and you’re not gonna wait for a general to tell you what to do. I had a board that believed in me, and I started developing programs and shaping the staff. I could do something and we could achieve something culturally. I couldn’t think about the bigger problems like who has the power and who doesn’t or the bridge being completed or not completed. I was interested in those things, but I knew that the things I wanted, I needed to control.

AV: But in WNY, and Buffalo in particular, it’s possible for a small group of people to make a tremendous impact. You’ve done that with this building. It’s a remarkable achievement.

TP: Well, I’m very proud of it. There’s a long history of people making an impact and making Buffalo better. Musicians, actors, people that create institutions out of nothing—I mean, it goes back to the 19th century. We had a public library before anybody else did, and the Science Museum. And the Fine Arts Academy was created in 1867. We have a history of contributing to the region. We never do it alone. And I wouldn’t want to do it alone. The reason this building exists is I was responsible for marshalling really good talent, but the talent was there.

AV: Is it tough leaving? Are you at all nervous?

TP: Yes it is tough. To a large degree this place has defined me. I’m proud of the staff and what we’ve done here. The thing is it’s the right time. The place is really on solid footing at this point. It’s got a great foundation and great bones. The staff is top-notch and totally committed. The board is committed and there’s a nice mix of people from different industries and age groups. We have a great membership. Our shop is doing booming business, our programs our critically reviewed nationally. So we’re solid. The tough part was making the decision. So I’m thrilled. What’s around the corner? What are the possibilities?

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