A neon public art display commemorating Buffalo born pop-icon Rick James will not be going up on an Elmwood Avenue parking garage.
Developers planned to use the art display as the centerpiece for a 24-hour parking garage on Elmwood Avenue, near the former Women & Children’s Hospital.
The idea was to depict Rick James, dressed in leather and red boots and clutching a guitar, towering over the garage entrance. Designer Tom Mooney, developer Rocco Termini and Buffalo Rising editor Newell Nussbaumer say they wanted to celebrate Buffalo's musical history. But almost immediately, the concept was enveloped in controversy due to the star’s troublesome past.
James was convicted for assault, false imprisonment and selling cocaine in 1994. He spent a little over two years in Folsom State Prison, near Sacramento.
The reminder of James’ drug-fueled attacks against women comes in the midst of the #MeToo Movement. Across the nation, the social-justice movement has garnered momentum and challenged sexual and physical abuse against women.
Nussbaumer said when they first came up with the idea last year, the #MeToo Movement didn’t exist. After questions were raised, Nussbaumer said they decided to change the sign.
“The change was prompted by doing a little more research, during some interviews we were questioned about Rick James’ past, more specifically more of his outrageous stories,” Nussbaumer said. “To tell you the truth, we hadn’t really done a lot of research about how some of those stories were just a little bit over the top. [After we looked into them,] we felt that maybe, knowing what we had found out, that it was probably best to go in a new direction.”
Elizabeth Licata, editor of Buffalo Spree and a former art curator, was among those who had questions.
"I don't think a parking garage is the correct venue to pay tribute to our musical legends," Licata said. "I think we can do better than that."
Mooney, CEO of local advertising firm Fourth Idea, acknowledged that James had a criminal past could stir controversy. He stressed the sign was only meant to reflect the positive contributions James made to the music industry and highlight Buffalo’s music scene. With or without James, he feels the sign will be an important part of Buffalo’s musical history.
“Overall, this installation is meant to capture the history and heritage of the rich tapestry of Buffalo musicianship. And so we feel like it’s not been done before. So we’re excited about the opportunity to celebrate that.”
Nussbaumer is disappointed to switch the focus away from James, but understands it’s the right thing to do. He says James would have been the most recognizable person to represent Buffalo’s music scene.
“In a very short period of time we decided that it wasn’t the smartest move to go ahead with the Rick James tribute, which is unfortunate, because as far as quintessential rock and rollers that hail from Buffalo, I mean geez, Rick James is kind of the upper echelon,” Nussbaumer said. “We just thought he was so charismatic, he was such a character, his presence on the street would just be so larger than life, especially up in lights and we wanted to have that pizzazz for the statue.”
Licata said she doesn't doubt the sincerity of the people behind the effort.
"I'm sure they meant very well," Licata said. "Maybe having the #Me Too nail in the coffin was a good thing."
In James’ place Nussbaumer hopes a silhouette of a rock and roll guitarist, similar to Las Vegas’ neon cowboy, will adorn the parking garage. He plans to incorporate a multimedia screen on the figure’s guitar to show pictures and videos of musicians who come to Buffalo.
Nussbaumer said this will allow the sign to pay tribute to James and all other Buffalo musicians. He plans for the sign to show pictures and video of musicians who come to Buffalo for shows.
With plans for a combined music, sports and broadcasting museum in need of funding, Licata said perhaps the people behind the James public art display could work with museum planners to develop a more appropriate way of honoring Buffalo's musical heritage.
Zach Anderson contributed reporting to this story.