By Thom Jennings firstname.lastname@example.org
Niagara Gazette — The full-page ad that appeared in the Niagara Gazette announcing the opening of Artpark in 1974 stated it simply enough, “Artpark is a Verb.”
A writer for The Lockport Union Sun and Journal wrote of her first visit to Artpark, “It’s a people’s park-a place to have a picnic, to hike through nature and geological trails, to fish, while mingling with the various 30 artists-in-residence.”
The place we now call Earl W. Brydges Artpark started as an innovative experiment in visual arts. Under the working title “The Niagara Frontier Performing Arts Center,” it evolved into a multifaceted facility where, during the spring and summer months, there was a flurry of activity on the grounds.
Artpark hosted national talent, regional talent and even local talent in its early years.
There was “Artpark Spring,” a seven-week program that highlighted Western New York dancers, singers and musicians before the national companies took over in the summer months.
One local group staged a performance of “Fiddler on the Roof” starring a local actor named Grant Walker in the role of Tevye, who died of a heart attack during the show’s run. Instead of shutting down, the local group forged ahead with Kenmore West music instructor Ronald Swick taking over the role.
There were plenty of national touring productions including a 1975 version of ‘Hamlet” starring a young actor by the name of Sam Waterston who later went on to achieve fame for the role of Jack McCoy on “Law & Order.”
In the 1970s the park hosted two of the greatest dance troupes in the world. The Joffrey Ballet and the Bolshoi Ballet. They also hosted opera’s, jazz concerts and children’s stars like Sesame Street’s Bob McGrath.
All of those things did not make Artpark a verb, it was the artists in residence program that made Artpark unique.
Each year there would be around 30 artists-in-residence on the grounds, starting with Charles Simonds, who was described as an “earth artist” who built tiny villages of clay on his body.
There were other projects which, by today’s standards may seem a little odd, including one called “Beam Drop” where the artist dropped huge steel beams into concrete. There was a giant iguana made on the grounds, giant postcards including one of Superman saving a child at Niagara Falls, and a 16-foot tall Aeolian Harp that was played by the wind from the gorge.
There were some practical demonstrations as well, including classes on French cooking and brick making. There were puppeteers and air-supported structures.
The artists in residence included two notable music performers, Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass, both of whom were groundbreakers in the field of electronic music.
There was a time capsule created by the performance art group Ant Farm, whose other projects included driving a Cadillac through a flaming wall of television sets in a parking lot in San Francisco. Their Artpark project was much tamer, burying an Oldsmobile Vista with TV dinners, draft cards and a doll that said “Impeach Ford.”
Artists were paid a stipend of $300 dollars a week in 1975. They were expected to interact with visitors as Artpark’s artist-in-residence project was to emphasize “the process over product,” since the product was temporary.
The artists in residence program is best understood when considering the statement each artist received from Artpark before they began their projects:
“Artpark is an area for all the arts, a place for artists to perform, develop, experiment. Like life itself, Artpark is designed to breathe, to change with the seasons, to respond to nature. Accordingly, the artists who participate in the Artpark program are envisioned as the life-force coursing through the organism — giving it color, energy, warmth, posture, vitality, growth. With this concept in mind, we do not expect that artworks or their residue will remain from one season to the next. We expect to relocate, remove, cover over or allow the natural erosion process to occur.
In this way, the park will be given back to nature for the fall, winter and spring, and will be allowed to recycle itself so that the artists of the next season will have more choices and greater freedom of activity.”
Artpark has continued to change with the seasons. From the groundbreaking ceremony on May 14, 1970, through the artists in residence program to the demolition of the ArtEl and to the modern era, Artpark continues to be a verb, hosting families from all over the region.
The artists-in-residence program ended in 1991 shortly after a controversial exhibit that included a giant Bible being burned.
Even with its demise, the legacy of the program lives on and is being celebrated this year with a special 40 for 40: Alumni Artists Anniversary Celebration Gallery Exhibit and an Alumni Artist’s reception before next Thursday’s 1974 Opening Night Concert.
Note: special thanks to the Niagara County Historical Society and Niagara Falls Library’s Local History Department and Maria Hayes from Artpark for providing resources for this story.Thom Jennings covers Artpark and the local music scene for the Niagara Gazette.