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CEPA gallery exits pandemic with goal of continuing public art projects

Nick Lippa

The pandemic prevented CEPA Gallery from getting people into their building in downtown Buffalo over the course of 2020. As a result, CEPA shifted its focus of contemporary photography and other visual arts to public spaces.


Veronique Cote, Executive Director and Chief Curator of CEPA, knew gallery shows at their Main Street location would be limited to smaller audiences once the pandemic began.

“We couldn't get people inside the gallery, but people were still going to work," she said. "So we invaded spaces that are usually invaded by publicity.” 


Cote said if they couldn’t have an exhibition, they could exhibit art around the city, which they did with 20 bus shelter photography works. 

“According to the Buffalo transit system (NFTA), there were about 800,000 people who saw the exhibits while it was going," Cote said. "This is more than what most museums do in one exhibition.”

The art itself was created by CEPA’s students, who worked remotely for the majority of last year. The gallery was able to provide its usual educational services despite of the pandemic.

“And we made sure that those public transit bus shelters were near where the students were located. So then they can tell their friends and their family that you can, when you take the bus, that's my bus shelter. That's my art that's exhibited there," Cote said. "They could have ownership.”

The public projects didn’t stop there. In response to the rising conversations surrounding social justice last summer, CEPA bought billboard space throughout Buffalo. 

“We commissioned an artist that was supposed to exhibit at SEPA from the get go that couldn't, because of the pandemic," Cote said. "We said, well, let's flip this exhibition into a public exhibition.”

Artist Stacy Robinson helped bring to life the hashtag black matters series across 12 billboards, which Cote said reached close to 200,000 people.

Credit CEPA
'Power' from CEPA Gallery’s Black Matters billboard exhibit


“When you're outside walking your dog or when you're driving your car, because you're an essential worker, or going to the grocery store, you could see the response and Stacy Robinson's response to the Black Lives Matters movement,” she said.

These efforts led to CEPA receiving the Art Services Incorporated Organization of the year award. Cote said the winning formula is utilizing their educational resources as an advocacy tool. 

“This award is a format we want to replicate," Cote said. "We want to keep going to the streets. We want to keep being in the community and we want to keep doing not only internationally worthy exhibitions, but also art advocacy, placemaking diversity and opportunity building. And in my case, job training for creatives and nonprofit workers.”


CEPA is currently fundraising for a program that would provide a mobile darkroom to Buffalo Public School students. 

“And our goal is to invade public gardens, school backyards, and so on," Cote said. "So we can teach photography, because it's not in every school, especially in a public system that can't afford a darkroom. But we can make it so it's mobile.”

Cote said many art lovers are not museum lovers, and adds there are audiences they won’t reach unless community partnerships are formed with accessibility in mind. 

“Telling (communities) that to experience art they have to take themselves outside of their neighborhood, drag themselves to a huge museum, pay parking for it, pay a ticket price, get in there, and then not understand what they're looking at because it's framed into a cultural landscape that is not really their own lived experience. That's a huge ask,” Cote said.

CEPA’s next event will be their 15th Biennial Art Auction on June 26.

You can view past and future CEPA projects here.

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
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