the message of art
Anthony Bannon, '76, takes the helm of a legendary museum devoted to film and photography
When the George Eastman House was in danger of losing its photographic collections to the Smithsonian Institution in the mid-1980s, a howl of protest arose demanding that the collections be preserved at home.
And a remarkable thing happened: $30 million was raised to endow the museum and to build suitable accommodations for the archives and collections.
"Wow! Socko! Shazzam! That's big stuff!" says Anthony Bannon, who, as director of Buffalo State College's Burchfield-Penney Art Center at the time, watched with other regional and national museum directors as the drama unfolded in Rochester, N.Y.
"Rochester said two things: one, 'We care'; and two, 'We stand behind the collections to the extent of putting $30 million behind them to keep them here.' That's something we heard."
Now Bannon, Ph.D. '96 & M.A. '76, who in April of this year took over as director of the George Eastman House/International Museum of Photography and Film, is charged with sustaining that "Wow! Socko! Shazzam!" through the museum's 50th anniversary celebrations in 1999 and with shepherding the museum into the next millennium and the digital age.
With six distinct collections forming the museum, as well as international traveling exhibitions, many cooperative efforts, a School of Motion Picture Preservation and a similar school for photographic preservation and other projects, it will be no mean feat for Bannon. But he is possessed of a scientist's disciplined attention to detail and process, along with an artist's ability to challenge existing structures for identity and meaning. While he plots the institution's course, he can take pleasure in the 50-room colonial revival home of George Eastman, founder of the Eastman Kodak Company. The carefully restored house and grounds provide a fitting complement to collections that include some 400,000 photographs and negatives, 18,000 motion pictures and publicity photos, and 15,000 pieces of camera equipment.
Raised in New England, Bannon started out following in the footsteps of his mother, a nurse, and father, an ophthalmologist, by completing a bachelor's degree in biology and then going on to graduate school. But his life outside of class was steeped in the arts. He soon withdrew from Syracuse University and headed to Buffalo to experience its vital arts scene, eventually landing a position as an apprentice critic for the Buffalo News. "I spent three years writing about Elvis movies and Neil Simon plays," he says. When the arts desk was slow, the paper sent him out to cover news events. "It was a phenomenal way to learn about the city."
Once he finished his apprenticeship, Bannon found his niche: independent film. "Independent film was happening in a big way in Buffalo, and the Buffalo News was encouraging long articles on independent movies."
His interest in the medium deepened; before long he decided to try his hand at working in film himself. With the encouragement of the News, Bannon enrolled in a master's program at UB's Center for Media Study and embarked on what would be an extraordinary journey during a remarkable time in UB's-and Buffalo's-history.
The Center for Media Study and its sister organization Media Study/Buffalo (a not-for-profit media center that closed in 1985) were founded by Gerald O'Grady in 1972. O'Grady was interested in the nexus of science and art and in the artistic potential of new media forms that were being developed at the time in film, video, television and broadcasting, as well as in computer science.
For Bannon, O'Grady's genius lay in his ability to encourage his students to think outside the traditional boundaries of media: A film could produce a still image, for example, which could serve as the basis for another transformation into which, perhaps, sound could be introduced, and so on.
"Through the Center for Media Study and Media Study/Buffalo, there was an exquisite soil out of which Hallwalls and CEPA Gallery grew-where both teachers and students found like-minded people who came together to form organizations that didn't know the difference between students and teachers.
"The function of art is to knock you off your feet. In the '70s that happened in Buffalo."
uring the time that Bannon worked for the Buffalo News, he also organized exhibitions, made films for not-for-profit organizations as a filmmaker-on-loan from the paper, taught, published widely and served as a dramaturge in local theater.
In 1985, D. Bruce Johnstone, then- president of Buffalo State College and later chancellor of SUNY, approached Bannon and "challenged me to put my big mouth to work" as director of the Burchfield Art Center, which collects and exhibits works by artists who have lived or worked in Western New York, including many of the contemporary artists Bannon had come in contact with in the 1970s. He applied for the position and was hired.
During his tenure, Bannon negotiated the gift from collector Charles Rand Penney of 183 additional works by Charles Burchfield-as well as objects of the Roycroft movement, works by regional artists, and crafts works-that resulted in the rededication of the center in 1994 as the Burchfield-Penney Art Center.
Bannon's success in giving the center a more public character led to his appointment in 1994 as assistant vice president for cultural affairs at Buffalo State College. The appointment highlighted his need for further higher education, so Bannon headed back to UB for his Ph.D., this time in the English Department to work in cultural studies with Roy Roussel, currently acting chair of the Department of Media Study.
Once again Bannon found himself on a journey during which he would break categories and think outside of prevailing delineations.
"Roy Roussel is someone who is committed to that generous spirit that doesn't sit well with categories and cages," Bannon says. "He encouraged me to think more about culture and less about art." His work with Roussel has also prompted him to "think less of similarities and think instead of the differences-how a reconceptualization might take place through an assembly of new particulars."
The effect on his professional practice was "certainly enlivening," Bannon says. "The formal vigor that is the consequence of classroom study brings a wide-eyed receptivity and eagerness to creating a workplace that is committed and engaged."
On his current project, the George Eastman House: "The issue is to create an interpretive plan and to be articulate. The importance of the George Eastman House to Rochester is profound in a tacit way. It is an honor that this community-and the extended community-gives to George Eastman and the continuation of his presence here."
Bannon continues to look for challenges to existing structures and is "interested in a way that we can do business that doesn't always summon product answers. We have these things [the collections] and from these things we can lead you to possible answers."
A spirit of exploration is what he wants to bring to the Eastman House. "This is a location for inquiry-a place to challenge the accustomed pathways and see those pathways that endure.
"Being aware is what we're engaged in."
Eve Holberg, M.U.P. '93, is a freelance writer and also director of project development for Rochester Downtown Development Corporation in Rochester, N.Y.