How the Freedom Wall strengthened and developed the WNY Urban Arts Collective

Nov 16, 2018

It’s been over a year since the Freedom Wall was officially unveiled as complete to the public. In addition to becoming a nationally recognized work, the Albright-Knox Public Art Initiative project helped grow the Western New York Urban Arts Collective. The completion of the wall was one made by many voices, but it didn’t start out that way. WBFO’s Nick Lippa looks back on how everything came together and the lasting impact it’s had on the region.

The Freedom Wall, 2017—by John Baker, Julia Bottoms, Chuck Tingley, and Edreys Wajed.
Credit Tom Loonan / Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Vietnamese-American Chuck Tingley was originally supposed to complete the majority of the project before African-American artists like John Baker spoke up about the wall needing more representation.

“I remember telling someone at one point, it’s like coming in to your house, looking at your family album, and tell you who the pictures are in the album and what they’re about,” said Baker. “Originally that wasn’t part of the process. Aaron Ott, who is the curator of the Albright-Knox, did a good job of listening to the community and seeing what their desire was and what they were looking for, what they were hoping for. And they became a part of it. So it’s no longer the Albright-Knox wall. It’s not the artist’s wall, but it’s the community’s wall. Whenever you can do a project like that and of that magnitude and the community buys into it, it ends up being larger than you even anticipated it would be initially.”

When Ott chose Tingley to take on the bulk of the wall, he believed he found the person to create the image he desired.

“What I failed to recognize in that moment, in those early stages, was how that would be received as a denial of an opportunity for the African-American community,” Ott said. “It was in our public meetings where some of the community members… we had some pretty forthright conversations what it meant, not just to tell this story but to produce it visual. It wasn’t necessarily any one person’s story to tell, but certainly not mine alone to tell.”

What it led to was the discovery of more local talent. Edreys Wajed contributed, as well as Julia Bottoms, a young African-American artist in her twenties. Ott called Baker an elder statesmen of the project.

“The project is a much stronger project now having had, not just voices in the community, but the change that they wanted to see which was a work that dealt with their story told through their voice,” he said.

And since their voice has been heard, more minority artists have appeared. Baker is President of the Western New York Urban Arts Collective and said the group has more than doubled since the completion of the Freedom Wall drew more attention to it.

“All of sudden now we got a group of like 70 artists of color. And they are all getting opportunities now that were lacking before,” Baker said. “It used to be a point where we didn’t know where they were. We can’t find them. Where are they at in the community? Now we got a resource that people can reach out to.”

This leads to members receiving important professional development.

“How do you submit work to galleries? How do you fill out an application for a particular public arts project? How do you present your work? What’s the best medium to use? How do you do PR? So a lot of things that comes with being an artist that in most cases, you don’t know, your parents don’t know, not enough people in the community know because they don’t know that much about being an artists,” Baker said.

Jay Hawkins is a younger member of the group who found out about the collective through a Juneteenth event.

“We’re definitively growing and it’s diverse,” said Hawkins. “Senior artists. Younger artists. People that do sculpture. People that do photography. Different mediums. It’s just great to have all these people in one place that are all so different.”

The group currently meets bi-weekly at the Michigan Street Corridor—where they are now residency artists.

Ott said the history of this area is one reason why the corner of Michigan and East Ferry Street was the perfect spot for the Freedom Wall.

Aaron Ott, curator of public art at Albright-Knox Art Gallery
Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

“That intersection is the northern entrance into the Michigan Street African-American heritage corridor. It’s right across the street from Bethel AME, the oldest black church in Buffalo. It is a block in from Main Street. So you have this natural divide between white and black in the city that people know, but we don’t necessarily talk about. It seemed like that content could come together in this space as a way for us to really bring people together in a dialogic way,” Ott said.

And it did for Hawkins, who didn’t know much about Bethel AME before the Freedom Wall.

“I learned about that church by being at events geared around the Freedom Wall,” said Hawkins. “The barbecues and meeting with the artists as they were working on them. Getting to see that process. I think that was amazing for the community to get to see it.”

With the collective continuing to grow in size, Baker believes more artists of color have an opportunity to pursue their passion professionally.

“We’ve been collaborating with a lot more organizations, a lot more galleries and museums, a lot more activities that are coming back, and a lot more possible opportunities that are coming back for artists,” he said.

Ott calls the Freedom Wall one of the most transformative projects of his entire career. Now he’s asking different questions as he takes new projects.

“Have we truly considered artists of color? Have we truly considered our community? Have we asked the right people? Have we asked enough questions? That’s something that my committee and I as an individual curator really pay attention to these days,” said Ott. “There was a lot of good faith generated at the end of the day with this project. I’m proud of that. It was difficult at the beginning, but I couldn’t have imagined how successful it would have been at the end, so I’m very happy.”

The inclusion of minority artists on just one important project looks to have opened the door for several more across the region.