Burrows leaves behind rich legacy at UB’s Center for the Arts

Thomas Burrows' desk holds photographs of, from left, Carol Burnett, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Tony Bennett, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, and Gregory Peck. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published September 20, 2016 This content is archived.

“We are definitely recognized in Buffalo’s larger theater community. Because of the shows we do. ”
Thomas Burrows, executive director
Center for the Arts

Thomas Burrows’ desk tells the story best. The in-the-moment photo of a solicitous Burrows and his striking, elegant wife walking into the theater with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip stands next to his daughter’s wedding portrait.

A few desk spots away are informal close-ups with Burrows and Gregory Peck. A little farther down are shots showing Burrows with Carol Burnett, then Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Burrows, executive director of the Center for the Arts, has graceful, generous and personal comments on them all.

About the movie-star-quality of ballet star Baryshnikov: “He was so down-to-earth,” Burrows says. “Totally gracious.”

About Gregory Peck: Burrows remembers the “To Kill a Mockingbird” acting icon holding Burrows’ granddaughter, Lillian, in his lap at the after-performance reception.

About comedienne Carol Burnett: She was one of the big stars who Burrows convinced to come to the CFA shortly after he became executive director in 1996. Burnett agreed to do a solo show to attract buzz and credibility to Burrows’ fledgling arts center. Burnett made herself the object of gentle self-effacing jokes when they dined at the Rue Franklin.

There’s no missing another photograph of Burrows leaving the Shaw Festival Theater with Queen Elizabeth on his arm.

“Can you imagine?” Burrows says with characteristic balance of appreciation of the moment and humility. “Yes, indeed.”

Thomas Burrows, pictured here in the Center for the Arts Mainstage theater, helped make the CFA a force on the Western New York entertainment scene. Photo: Douglas Levere

For Burrows, who is retiring this month after 20 years of establishing the CFA as an inherent, beloved and successful part of the Western New York entertainment scene, his past accomplishments and experiences blend, just like the intriguing photo collection on his desk.

And through all this star power, his Music Is Art Live at the Center and the equally community-minded Arts in Healthcare Initiative are the projects that get his extra boost of energy when recounting his proudest accomplishments. They’re what he is most enthusiastic about.

Music Is Art featured local artists performing at a free program in the CFA atrium on Sunday afternoons to introduce people to the charms and value of the center’s facilities. The Music Is Art program was broadcast on WNED’s “ThinkBright” and on the NY Network.  

The Arts in Healthcare Initiative is a program that “works so beautifully,” Burrows says. Artists go into the hospital rooms of patients and share what they do. Sometime they share their visual art or read poetry. Sometimes the artists just sit in the rooms for comfort.

 “It’s the university going into the community,” Burrows says. “It makes a real impact on the community, where people are most vulnerable. We have the most wonderful letters of appreciation from time to time from someone’s mother who was in the hospital, or someone who is a cancer patient who may or not survive.”

 Burrows says he goes into his retirement with “mixed feelings. Only because I’ll miss it. That’s all.”

Whatever the specific memory, his years document a triumphant chapter for UB’s Center for the Arts. CFA insiders say Burrows’ leadership produced the most eclectic mix of events and entertainment in the area, all the time maintaining its mandate of serving the university’s academic mission. Burrows was especially adept at encouraging his staff to explore new opportunities and at the same time be aware of the center’s fiscal resources.

More than 3 million people have come through the CFA doors, the vast majority during Burrows’ tenure.

If people say anything about Burrows’ time as CFA executive director, it’s how he has left his mark on what is now a partner, a mainstay in Buffalo’s vibrant arts scene.

“The perception of the CFA is totally different than when I began,” Burrows says in his still smooth and theatrically comfortable voice. He signed a one-year contact in 1996 and still shakes his head about those early, developing days when the future of the CFA was as uncertain as its position within the local arts community.

“We are definitely recognized in Buffalo’s larger theater community,” Burrows says. “Because of the shows we do. I frequently see people who tell me, ‘You do great things out there. You have a wonderful series.’ I’ve heard this for years because of the wonderful attractions we’re able to select and bring to Buffalo.

“People find it very accessible now,” he says. “We can bring the stars here. We can do this kind of thing. And it’s all good for the community. It gives the theatrical scene more breadth when we offer what we do.”

One of Burrows’ staunchest and most-appreciative allies has been Vincent O’Neill, associate professor in UB's Department of Theatre and Dance, and artistic director of the highly praised Irish Classical Theatre Company.

“Tom was a longtime board member of the Irish Classical Theatre Company, where he brought a unique combination of business and management savvy allied to a deep and passionate commitment to the art form of theatre,” O’Neill says. “After six years tenure as a member of the board, he became president and he displayed an intuitive instinct for inspired leadership.

“Once he commits to a cause, he embraces it wholeheartedly and unreservedly. He brought the same passion and creativity to his 20-year leadership of the CFA, especially in his encouragement and implementation of national and international dance residencies, and in his support and investment in the multiple arts departments of the university," he says.

“He is an exceptional leader and friend, and his presence will be sorely missed.”

Burrows will step down Sept. 30. Besides the stability and star-studded track record, his legacy is one of generous support for other arts organizations. He is a member of Artpark’s board of directors and recently joined the board of Lehrer Dance, a professional dance company that holds residencies in the CFA. He also has had a long association with the Irish Classical Theatre Company, his favorite alternative theater in Buffalo.

“I think it’s the right time for a change,” Burrows says. “The fact is, I honestly feel at this stage in my life, if they do the proper job of posting and finding a replacement, if they get a good person in here to continue, I really think a slightly younger person with fresh ideas … I think it will be very good for the Center for the Arts.”