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by Doug Carpenter

Some people think of the arts as a luxury. Given the economic trials and tribulations we’ve muddled through of late, that’s probably not a surprise. Some people, on the other hand, consider the arts indispensable to a community’s quality of life. The ardent intensity with which they champion that belief is no doubt fueled by the same kind of passion that fires the creativity they admire.

Whichever political view of things artistic you share, however, there’s no denying that the arts have played and continue to play a significant role in the life of Western New York. By any standard… whether you’re inside looking out or on the outside looking in… ours is without question a culturally rich community.

So much so, in fact, that we probably should thank the people who’ve made it possible. And while that list would be a very long one indeed, perhaps we can at least make a start during this month in which we traditionally celebrate the qualities and strengths of mothers by acknowledging the unique and valuable contributions of some extremely talented and committed women who have nurtured the arts here in Western New York.

Audre Bunis doesn’t just love the arts. She lives them. She has for a long time, ever since she was a little girl. “In my era,” she recalls, “that’s what little girls did. They sang. They danced.” And, with the perspective of a young girl growing up with a father who was a professional theatrical agent, enjoyed a uniquely personal view of show business.

Ironically, she says that her father, Arthur Argyries, who booked appearances by big names like Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, the Dorsey brothers and Sammy Davis Jr. from Buffalo to Chicago, actually discouraged her interest in performing. But that, she admits, didn’t stop her from trying to get on stage. And ultimately she succeeded.

When she was about 10 years old, she says, she attended a performance headlined by the then-quite-famous Abe Lyman Orchestra, that was hosting a showcase for new, young talent being broadcast live on radio from a theater in Houston, Texas, where she was visiting family friends. Inspired by the youthful stars — with whom, she concedes, she unashamedly thought she could hold her own talentwise — she got up out of her seat and boldly climbed the steps to the stage.

Once in the wings, she managed to catch band leader Lyman’s bemused attention and, with the innocent bravado that only a child can muster, politely told the maestro that she wanted to sing for him. She even named the song: Marie Elena. With the audience of some 2,000 people now cheering her on, Lyman acceded to the young Audre’s request.

To this day, she remembers every starstruck moment of the experience vividly. “They dimmed the lights, put a spotlight on me and I sang with the whole orchestra behind me. And it was wonderful. I loved it. I didn’t want to leave. I just wanted to stay there.” And in a way, she did.

Years later, Bunis has channeled her longtime love affair with the arts not into a life of performing but most certainly into a career as one of the true divas of cultural advocacy in Western New York. And the ways she has accomplished that would just as surely bring a smile to her talent agent father’s face.

For example, for the first “Rockin’ at the Knox,” which for more than a decade has raised much-needed revenue for Buffalo’s world-renowned Albright Knox Art Gallery, she took on responsibility for hiring and scheduling all the musical acts, arranging everything from pay scales to performance venues. By applying these arguably hereditary skills along with her other considerable organizational talents, she has gone on to make supporting the arts something of a personal mission… one that she has pursued with an energetic enthusiasm that has benefited many over the years.

The list of area arts organizations she has so generously assisted reads like a Western New York cultural Who’s Who. The Art Dialog Gallery. The Western New York Artists Group. Art On Wheels. Friends of the UB School of Architecture. The Chautauqua Center for the Visual Arts. The Burchfield-Penney Art Center, on whose Council she has served since 1997 and which honored her in 2003 with the Millicent Heller Award for outstanding volunteer service to the museum.

But her strongest bond with the arts continues to be the one that’s apparently been in her blood since she was that talented young girl who found her moment in the spotlight such a personally defining experience. It’s no wonder that Studio Arena Theatre takes center stage in a remarkable record of service to the local cultural community.

Serving as a Board member since 1992 and more recently as chair of its Education Department is really just the continuation of a relationship with Studio Arena that Bunis began as a child, when she had the privilege of personally experiencing a part of Western New York cultural history. She appreciatively recalls having been sent by her mother to take classes at the original Studio Arena Theatre School, where she studied with its legendary founder, Jane Keeler.

The experience clearly instilled in her a lasting and loving affinity for Studio Arena, which over the years she has found her own unique and creative ways to express. Among the most impactful was a simple idea that grew to become one of the Theatre’s most successful events… the popular fundraising art auction Take a Seat.

Once again chairing the event as she has each of the six times it’s been held since she originated it in 1997, Bunis says the June 2nd presentation of Take a Seat will coincide with the gala celebration of Studio’s 40th anniversary as an equity theater. She speaks of the event — which this year moves from its traditional location at the Theatre to the newly-restored Terrace Room of the Statler Towers — with an excitement she says is renewed each time she sees the breathtaking creativity it elicits from the local artists who participate.

Take a Seat offers works by more than 100 area artists, each of whom has created a one-of-a-kind chair-inspired piece, reflecting the event’s central “be a part of the theater” theme. When the call went out for submissions for the very first auction, Bunis recalls, “I was absolutely overwhelmed.” The feeling never subsided, thanks in large part, she says, to the enormous creative generosity of an artistic community that is clearly committed to being mutually supportive.

Listening to Bunis modestly acknowledge the considerable contribution her efforts have made to the continuing cultural enrichment of our community, you clearly sense that she has done what she’s done for the arts not, as the Latin slogan above the roaring MGM lion has said for more than 80 years, as “ars gratia artis…” or “art for art’s sake,” but because whether or not they have access to art profoundly affects people’s lives.

The success of Take a Seat, she believes, demonstrates the importance of nurturing the arts. Of taking their value to heart, not just as a selling point to make one community competitive with another as a place to do business or a destination for visitors or potential relocators. The arts, she says, have to be treated as part of a community’s life blood.

“I still run into former Western New Yorkers now living in the New York City area who time and again tell me that ‘the best years of our lives were the ones we spent in Buffalo.’” I think that says a lot about what we have…” and about how much we should be thanking the people for who make it possible.

The people who entertain us, for example. And the ones who teach the arts to us and our children. And the people who see to it that the whole artistic community remains as viable as it is vibrant so that all that beauty and all those benefits will remain available to us.

Sounds like a pretty tall order, doesn’t it? Fortunately, there are some pretty talented women who are more than equal to the challenge, and are getting some big jobs done with both substance and style.

If you were to put the needs of the community to music, add some snappy choreography and set the whole story in a cabaret, you’d definitely want to cast Mary Kate O’Connell in the lead. The only bad part is that she might be too busy to take the role.

O’Connell is a prime example of the Dorothy Gale Principle, named for the plucky Wizard of Oz heroine played by Judy Garland, who learned that the first place you should look for fulfillment is your own backyard. Or in this case, make that your own backstage.

O’Connell is one of those homegrown talents places like Buffalo usually lose to the brighter lights of places like Broadway, which is where the multifaceted performer had already begun to dig in professionally when her father — former Buffalo Comptroller George D. O’Connell — passed away in 1975. The event refocused her attention home. New York’s loss, Buffalo’s gain.

Ultimately deciding that here is where she needed and wanted to be, she pursued her artistic dreams locally with the same Big Apple drive. And the collaborations that followed were creatively impressive by any city’s measure. At Lancaster Opera House she acted, directed and produced. She later co-founder and performed for In Concert Productions (cofounder and performer) and served as Executive Director for Summerfare.

But it was about eight years ago (…or seasons, if you’re theater folk) that O’Connell firmly took hold of the wheel of her career and steered it purposefully toward the intersection of Main Street and Harlem Road in Amherst. It was there that she found something she’d been looking for for a long time. The place she belonged.
Elevating Her Art to the Next Stage.

It’s called the Cabaret in the Square Theatre, and it’s where her performance group, O’Connell and Company, set up shop with the goal of entertaining the community. What the community got turned out to be just a little bit more.

In addition to offering an exceptionally up-close-and-personal theatre experience, O’Connell’s cabaret and company also serve as a stepping-off point for some remarkable community nurturing. Among the lengthy list of O’Connell’s creative achievements is what may be fair to call her “signature” show, Diva by Diva: A Celebration of Women.

“I put Diva together over five years ago,” she explains, “as a two-week filler for Women’s History Month, and it just kept going.” Today, in addition to weekly Wednesday night presentations at her 4476 Main Street cabaret, she takes the show on the road across Western New York, giving performances to benefit local community organizations. “Through Diva by Diva,” she says with modest satisfaction, “we’ve raised well over $200,000 for women’s and children’s charities.”

“At the end of the day when the lights go out, I know how lucky I am to be here. I consider myself enormously fortunate to be allowed to do what I love to do. But I also realize that there are a lot of people in our community who are hurting… really hurting. And we have an obligation to use the power our creativity gives us to help turn things around any way we can.”

The heightened sensitivity that invariably comes packaged with creativity has a way of keeping artists on their toes. In Maris Battaglia’s case, she’s been on hers now for more than 40 years.

Her story illustrates how profound an impression the arts and the Western New Yorkers behind them make not just on the local community but on the country and even the world beyond. It’s an effect she’s had a front row seat to see.

As founder and Director of the American Academy of Ballet in Williamsville, Battaglia is one of the area’s most honored dance professionals, having received both the W.N.Y. Dance Teacher Hall of Fame Award and the Artist Excellence award, presented annually to the outstanding dance teacher in the America. She’s also shared her obvious expertise with New York State Council of the Arts for more than a decade.

And yet, she admits she came to teaching dance unexpectedly. “When I moved back the Western New York from New York in 1964, I started out teaching classes in my aunt’s basement with only about a dozen students. Before I knew it, it had become 20 or 30.” When it reached 85 by the following Spring, she realized that teaching had apparently chosen her, and never looked back.

You don’t learn a discipline as demanding as dance on that high a level just anywhere, of course. So her training at George Balanchine's School of American Ballet in New York definitely paid off… even more, it turns out, for her students than for herself.

Battaglia sees teaching dance — even more than dancing itself — as a wonderful way of nurturing both the artform and the ability of each individual to be enhanced by it. Validating this belief are the now 77 former students of her school who have gone on to dance professionally across America and around the world.

They’ve joined national companies like the Joffrey Ballet, the American Ballet Theatre and the Dance Theatre of Harlem as well as regional companies in San Francisco, Boston, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Alabama. They’ve also been recruited internationally by troupes such as Germany’s Stuttgart and Hamburg Ballets and the Royal Birmingham Ballet in England.

Formal international recognition for this consistent excellence came in 1990, when the Academy was invited to exchange teachers and students with the Riga Ballet School in Latvia, the world-renowned training ground that produced ballet superstars Mikhail Baryshnikov and Alexandre Godonov.

The annual program continues today, as do Battaglia’s warm relationships with so many of her former students. One of her favorite success stories is also something of a success story for Western New York.

Joe Cipolla didn’t take his first dance lesson until he was 17, Battaglia recalls, but she spotted his gift immediately. And as true talent does, his made its mark on the dance world in a big way, first by earning him the distinction of becoming the first white member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem and then by propelling him to the coveted role of principal dancer with the Royal Birmingham Ballet.

Having nurtured talents like those her star students went on to share with the world might be testament enough to Battaglia’s contributions to the arts… if that were the end of the story. But it’s not. In the end, the story comes back home, as does the now-retired 45-year-old Cipolla for two weeks every month, travelling from his new home in Boston, Massachusetts, to Buffalo to teach at the Academy with his former mentor.

Just another example of how nurturing the arts is a gift that keeps on giving.

It’s a good question, though unfortunately one with few definitive answers. Celeste Lawson asks it a lot. As Executive Director of the Arts Council in Buffalo and Erie County, it’s her job to see as much of the cultural “big picture” as possible. And she sees that we have our work cut out for us, a situation she puts into very direct terms.

“When you start to assess the quality of where you live,” she says, “why you’re paying taxes and why you’re going to work, you begin to appreciate what’s really important to you, your family and your community.” And once we all know that, she believes, we’ll be ready to figure out how to work together to make certain we have and maintain those things.

And she’s confident that when the public comes to that understanding, they’ll see the arts for the indispensable asset they are and have always been. For her part, she’s invested much of her own professional time and energies building the equity of that asset.

Before assuming the top post at the Arts Council in 1997, her involvement touched a wide variety of areas critically important to our community’s cultural heritage. Serving as head of the King Urban Life Center educated her on the complexities of historic preservation. Her path has also led her through the worlds of dance — working with the Empire State and Buffalo Inner City Ballet companies — and music, with the Buffalo Philharmonic.

All provided experiences that have served to prepare her for the challenging job of creating a community with a place for all the arts. And as the second-largest city in New York State, she points out, compared with similar ‘second cities,’ we have so much more culturally than they do that to not actively work to preserve and enhance it would be tragically short-sighted.

In addition to a world-class art gallery and philharmonic orchestra, plus architectural gems that get rarer by the year, we have a full spectrum of artistic resources that are the envy even of cities larger than us. It’s just one of the reasons that the Arts Council’s stated mission is to “nurture and advance all artistic disciplines and to encourage participation in the arts by all segments of the community.”

Lawson recognizes that the “nurturing” part often comes with its own unique set of challenges, and expresses enormous respect for the contributions that women have historically made in that regard to the local arts. She notes that since it was formed in 1973, all of the Arts Council’s Executive Directors have been female, demonstrating yet again what a valuable asset the capacity for recognizing a community’s best qualities and nurturing them can be.

Will that be enough to preserve Western New York’s rich cultural heritage? If these four talented, committed women have anything to say about it, it most certainly will.

© 2005 Doug Carpenter