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Invigorating UB's Public Spaces

Pedestals, urns in Founders Plaza first step toward broader public art program

By Sue Wuetcher

Release Date: November 5, 2007

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Pedestals and urns askew from the effects of the wind are featured in Founders Plaza on the North Campus.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A public artwork commissioned by a Cleveland arts group to reflect the effects of wind coming off Lake Erie has found a new home in Founders Plaza on the sometimes windy North (Amherst) Campus of the University at Buffalo in a city that shares Erie's shores with Cleveland.

"For the gentle wind doth move Silently, invisibly" by internationally known artist Brian Tolle features classical pedestals and urns that are askew from the effects of the wind. Installed in the recently restored plaza in October, the installation is on a two-year loan.

The artwork was perfect for UB since it not only enlivens the plaza, but reflects the effects of the wind coming off Lake Erie, says Sandra Olsen, director of the UB Art Galleries and a member of the committee that brought the Tolle artwork to the North Campus. "It is amazing," she said. "It sounds like it was made for us."

Since their arrival, the urns and pedestals have generated a lot of discussion among students, faculty, staff and campus visitors.

"Whether you love it or hate it, it generates a fair amount of conversation and interest, which is precisely what art is supposed to do," notes Robert Shibley, professor and director of the Urban Design Project in the School of Architecture and Planning who is overseeing UB's ongoing master-planning process.

The artwork in Founders Plaza is just the initial offering in what is expected to be a broader public art initiative at UB.

"If we are to be more competitive, able to recruit, retain and expect the best from our faculty, staff and students, and contribute the best we can to the community, we have got to be a more beautiful, lovable and delightful place," Shibley said. "If we start with the premise that there is no such thing as an ugly place so much as an incomplete place, we have a lot of work to do in landscape, in social and public spaces throughout the campus, to create the support that students, faculty and staff need to be a great university.

"With that in mind, you can think of every public space as a kind of almost blank canvas on which to paint," he said. "What we need to do is put in place a variety of programs."

Restoration of Founders Plaza, which Shibley called "a modest first step example," initially was conceived as an infrastructure project. "The question becomes, can we trade up while we fix it?" he asked, noting that the master plan "will not missing a single construction opportunity" to make the campus a better, more beautiful place.

So that means new landscaping, new geometry in the paving pattern and granite curbs, as well as the artwork, which, Shibley said, presents "an artistic entrance to the plaza."

Shibley said the larger public art program will have at least three dimensions, the details of which still are being worked out. They will include formal, gallery-quality, high-profile art, such as the work by Tolle in Founders Plaza; more experimental, cutting-edge art; and artwork by UB faculty and students that is tied to the curriculum and "that is explicitly UB."

The program will feature a wide range of types of art, including performance art, Shibley said.

"Imagine, for example, at noon, walking the Spine and having someone with a violin sitting on a bench, like you might in the New York City subway," he said. "Maybe it's clowns with balloons. Animating the space on the campus and bringing life to the public realm is a part of what we're thinking about."

A formal public arts program is not yet in place, Shibley stressed, noting that the committee that brought the Tolle work to campus is meeting to develop such a program. The Tolle exhibition, he said, will serve as "an example of how to go forward" with a public art program.

The Tolle exhibition came to campus via the intervention of a UB alumnus, noted California gallery owner Wayne Blank, B.A. '66.

Olsen explained that she frequently meets with Blank, who founded the Bergamot Station arts complex in Santa Monica and owns the Shoshana Wayne Gallery with his wife, Shoshana, to exchange information. During one such meeting, Blank, a member of the College of Arts and Sciences Dean's Advisory Council, lamented the barren landscape and lack of sculpture on campus, and suggested that Olsen contact Tolle about "For the Gentle Wind," which had been commissioned by Cleveland Public Art and had just finished a two-year temporary installation in downtown Cleveland.

The timing of the artwork's arrival at UB also was key, Olsen said, pointing out that it is better to undertake a public art initiative as part of the master planning process, rather than after the master planning has been completed. "It fit in with the interests of the university with having some kind of public art project," she said.

Moreover, Blank agreed to pick up the costs associated with installing the artwork at UB.

The next question, Olsen said, became where to site the artwork.

A number of locations across the two campuses were considered, including Founders Plaza.

Tolle, Olsen said, loved the plaza site, which pairs the geometric squares of concrete in the plaza with the classical pedestals and urns—traditional shapes askew from the effects of the wind.

Tolle came to campus and consulted a wind study of Founders Plaza to map out the locations of each of the urns, she said, noting that the artwork was installed just before Homecoming weekend last month.

The artwork will change several times a year, she noted, as the plantings in the urns change with the seasons. Plaques describing the artwork soon will be installed at each end of the plaza.

In addition to Olsen and Shibley, members of the committee who brought the Tolle artwork to campus are Harvey Breverman, SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Department of Visual Studies; Robert J. Scalise, assistant director for exhibitions and collections, UB Anderson Gallery; Michael Dupre, associate vice president, University Facilities; Brian Carter, dean, School of Architecture and Planning; Katherine O. Kittredge, associate director, Capital Facilities and Space Planning; and Kathleen Heckman, executive assistant to the vice president for development and alumni relations.