“Making Strange”: Tiffany Gaines Debuts Project as the First Black In-House Curator for the Buchfield Penney Art Center

by Schondra Aytch

In  late 2019, the current acting director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, Scott Propeack, reached out to a select group of curators and artists to curate an exhibition highlighting community voices. The chosen group – made up of Katharine Gaudy, Zainab Saleh, Dana Tyrrell, Rebecca Wing, and Tiffany Gaines – took on the project and made the collaborative effort to showcase a diverse set of contemporary artists reflecting the times through their art. 

The resulting exhibition from the group’s year worth of work, Making Strange, is also making history- the show is Tiffany Gaines’s debut project as the first, Black in-house curator for the art museum.

A proud born and raised Brooklyn, NY native, and Buffalo State alumna, Gaines has been making major contributions to the Burchfield Penney since she started working there in 2017, but her recent promotion as a full-time writer, content creator, and curator for the art center has brought the rising creative opportunities to diversify narratives through art presented at the museum, and Making Strange does just that. 

“The work in the show really focuses on the distortion of bodies, places, and faces,” Gaines explained. “This distortion of narrative and how in these distorted perspectives… identities are shaped and how identities are formed…and how that leads to larger social, political and environmental issues. Looking at things from a new perspective or looking at a narrative from a new point of view can open up the possibility for reflection. It can open up the possibility for understanding of another experience that you may not be familiar with.”

Before the unraveling of the Covid pandemic, the resurgence of social justice movements, and political unrest, the earliest ideas for Making Strange were to reflect the realities and modern art communities Gaines and her team were a part of. As curators, their primary goal is to take the works of selected artists and create a narrative around it; to educate and give context to artwork for a general audience. Using their talents to display and cover diverse representations was of the utmost importance for the group.

“You’re getting exhibitions that are coming from the same people and after a while the themes that are explored, the perspectives that are being explored, and the way that the work is presented- there’s a similarity there,” added Gaines.

In many ways, the preparation, process, and execution of curating Making Strange echoed the curatorial group’s general focus. Eager to highlight artists that hadn’t had as much exposure and give light to different narratives, Gaines and her fellow co-curators let the many happenings of 2020 fuel the discussions they had with prospective artists for the exhibition. Also conducting the phases of research and art viewing in quarantine, virtually, made clear the present disconnection and distortion of reality the group wanted to uncover and translate through the selected art . “We really wanted the work to speak and the work to lead what the show had to say,” Gaines added.

Now open, Making Strange features 10 artists who all have strong connections to Western New York – Tara Najd Ahmadi, Alice Alexandrescu, Cecily Culver, Jason Livingston, SV Randall, Masha Sha, Abiose Spriggs, Margaret Schrecongost, Annette Daniels Taylor, and Frederick Wright Jones  and their responsive artwork to the times. From standard canvas to films to sculptures, the installations highlight the many different perspectives and reactions to the current  “omni-crisis.” Providing further commentary and public discussions about the exhibit since it opened, Gaines’s enthusiasm and passion for the show is one of fruition and the result of her hard work.

Prior to moving into her curatorial position, the rising creative was already making strides as a part-time worker for the art museum.  Initially, working in the museum store and the front desk of the gallery, Gaines became interested in contributing her journalism skills. Crediting her first opportunity to Heather Gring, the museum’s archivist, Gaines wrote a biographical essay in 2018 on the notable artist and former Buffalo socialite, Jennifer Regan- which quickly caught the attention of the administrative staff.

Making gradual efforts and receiving gradual opportunities from the museum to not only write biographies but assist with exhibitions, Gaines took on a larger role as a part-time contributor for the Burchfield Penney. A major turning point for Gaines was the year’s worth of writing and editing she did for the center’s 2019 catalog, In the Fullness Of Time, Painting in Buffalo. Writing most of the 86 artist biographies for the 240-page hardcover covering important works and painters from Buffalo between 1832 and 1972 was a big undertaking and even bigger success.

“Having the opportunity to do the research, to write so many of those bios – it was really informative to understanding the history of not just painting, but just art in general here in the region… I learned so much about how much of a thriving art community Buffalo is,” explained Gaines.

exterior of the Burchfield Penney Arts Center

Joining the Burchfield Penney full-time in January of 2020 as a Curatorial and Digital Content Associate, Gaines’s work and visibility in her new position are both inspiring and influential. Embracing Buffalo’s art scene for her own, the rising culture writer and content creator is already dipping her talents across the city. Initiated into the Buffalo Alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. in 2019, Gaines is an active member in the Communications, Arts and Letters, and Heritage and Archive committees for the sorority where she’s able to highlight works of Black artists with connections to Buffalo. Also planning her first freelance curatorial show for The Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art (BICA), showcasing rising photographer DJ Carr’s work on the Westside’s bike culture, Tiffany Gaines’s ultimate goal is to minimize the proximity between the public and the art world. 

“Growing up, I never believed that as a young, Black, woman from Brooklyn, NY that I would be where I’m at right now, working in a museum. Like that was never…in my scope. And so, I think it starts with not just knowing that there’s space for us, but also seeing it,” Gaines concluded.  

Making Strange is on view until May 16 at Burchfield Penney Art Center. The arts center is located   at 1300 Elmwood Ave at Buffalo State Collge. (see ad this  page.)

Hours of operation are Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10AM – 4PM, (early entry hours of 10 AM – 11 AM reserved for members and those at increased risk), and Sundays from 12PM – 4 PM. 

A full list of protocols in place to protect visitors and staff can be found on the Safety First information page.

For more info  go to www.burchfieldpenney.org