Albright-Knox director brings Nordic influence to Chautauqua’s 56th Annual

Benjamin Hoste | Staff PhotographerJanne Sirén, left, speaks with artist Marlene Siff, from Westport, Conn., and her husband, Elliott Siff, at the opening reception for the 56th Chautauqua Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Art at Strohl Art Center on Sunday. A mixed media art piece by Siff titled “Neo Gothic” was included in the show,  which was curated by Sirén, the new director of Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

Benjamin Hoste | Staff Photographer

Janne Sirén, left, speaks with artist Marlene Siff, from Westport, Conn., and her husband, Elliott Siff, at the opening reception for the 56th Chautauqua Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Art at Strohl Art Center on Sunday. A mixed media art piece by Siff titled “Neo Gothic” was included in the show, which was curated by Sirén, the new director of Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

By January, Don Kimes, artistic director of Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution, was really biting his nails, worried that the 56th Chautauqua Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Art might not have a juror. Each season for the past 27 years, Kimes has chosen an art authority to select approximately 25 pieces from a nationally submitted pool of art to display at the Institution.

Kimes had worked with Louis Grachos, the former director of Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., at the end of last year. Together they curated two shows at the Institution on abstraction in America. The final part in the series, “Abstraction in America, part III,” hosted at Strohl Art Center, showcases abstract art from the 1990s to the present.

For the 56th Annual, on display in Strohl’s main gallery through July 15, Kimes thought it would be interesting to invite Albright-Knox’s new director to judge the show, rather than picking a juror in the fall like he has in the past. But things were complicated when the search for Grachos’ replacement took longer than Kimes expected. When Albright-Knox finally announced that Janne Sirén would take the reins of the gallery, Sirén still had to wrap up his five-year tenure at the Helsinki Art Museum. Kimes worried that Sirén wouldn’t have the time to commit to the Annual, but he hoped it would work out. Sirén, a Finnish art professional who received his education in the United States, became famous for ambitious art projects and passionate community engagement.

“We were doing a lot of back and forth between here and Helsinki in the spring,” Kimes said. “Janne was closing out there and getting ready to move to Buffalo, meanwhile trying to figure out how to look at hundreds and hundreds of applicants for the Annual.”

This year’s Annual marks the first time an Albright-Knox staffer has curated the show. Sirén’s first visit to the Institution took place Sunday at the opening reception for the Annual, where he spoke about the decisions he made in choosing work for the show. Kimes noted a Nordic bent to the exhibition, with a lot of black and white in the color palette.

Judy Barie, the Institution’s director of galleries, said she had no trouble at all staging Sirén’s picks. Staging involves deciding how to place each piece of art in relation to the others in a gallery space. Barie noticed Sirén curated abstract work with simple forms and lines. She merely had to find a balance between the black and white and the intermittent colored works that he chose.

“I think it just fell into place,” Barie said. “That’s the easiest way I can say it.”

One colorful entry came from Buffalo-based artist Susan Copley. Her diptych, “Windy City,” features two poster-board-sized wooden panels painted with blue and yellow acrylics. Copley thought the color in her piece added another dimension to the largely black-and-white show.

Copley has shown her work in four or five Chautauqua Annual Exhibitions since 1978. She felt particularly excited to meet Sirén at the 56th Annual opening reception. Copley spoke of the significance of the Albright-Knox to Buffalonians and of Janne Sirén to the art world. She sensed the energy behind this year’s show and said she was especially proud to have a piece chosen for this exhibition.

Barie called the 56th Annual one of the most beautiful shows she has seen in her nine years at the Institution because Sirén curated the entire show as one piece of art.

“Some jurors try to do that,” Barie said, “but most of the time they just choose work that they like. But this work Sirén chose specifically to work with the other pieces. I don’t think that’s ever happened here before.”