Artpark's anniversary celebration begins with international performers, Indigenous artists, rising musical stars
√ Interview with President Sonia Kozlova Clark
By Joshua Maloni
Artpark & Company’s focus for this summer – its 50th season – centers on five key words: spectacle, drama, Indigenous & global influences.
Indeed, arts and culture will take center stage this year, as the award-winning venue will host educational and entertaining events across the Lewiston state park’s 150-acre campus.
Organizers shared, “Hotly anticipated events this summer include the North American premiere of the spectacular production of ‘Carmina Burana’ by Spain’s La Fura dels Baus; a hot air balloon escape act by the French Cirque Inextremiste and a ‘Cirque Celebration’ fundraiser directed by Sxip Shirey; guitar legend Buddy Guy’s farewell tour; the 13th annual Artpark Fairy House Festival, this year adding a celebration of the culture of Ukraine under the creative collaboration of Kyiv’s theater director Vlad Troitskyi and Tbilisi’s designer Uta Bekaia; concert attractions like Ben Folds and double-headers like Pixies with Modest Mouse; rising music artists like Noah Kahan, Orville Peck and Larkin Poe; and the Artpark Strawberry Moon Festival, celebrating Indigenous cultures of the Buffalo-Niagara Region. …
“Artpark has already announced more than 30 performances and concerts, two festivals, several art installations, six international creative residencies, art camps, and even the launch of Artpark’s ‘Art Ale’ in partnership with Resurgence Brewing Co.”
President Sonia Kozlova Clark previewed the new season in a recent Q&A. This is part one of her interview.
Artpark & Company President Sonia Kozlova Clark (Photo by dellas, traffic east)
Q: I would say Artpark probably fared better than most over the pandemic – the site remained open, you came up with creative new programming, and received several grants and awards. You had crowds in thick and thin. What have you learned about your audience in recent years, and how do you best serve them in 2023?
Sonia Kozlova Clark: That's a very good question – and it is complicated because our audiences are changing – and they are changing more rapidly since COVID.
To define what is our audience today versus what it was three years ago, I would say that, during COVID, we were able to think about our strengths, our unique features, and also our future with support from federal and state funding sources and the local community. We were able to strengthen our partnerships with presenters like Live Nation, AEG Live, Funtime; grow our artistic and management team; and with that take some risks. What we learned in the process of trying some new bands and recalibrating some of our event structures and expectations, is that there’s a tremendous new audience for Artpark, both locally, which includes Lewiston, Buffalo, the rest of Western New York, and as far as Canada, as Canadians are starting to come back.
We learned that our audiences are, indeed, interested in the great diversity of music and other programs. They represent different demographics, segments or pockets of the population that we can serve in very different ways.
Artpark itself occupies a vast territory, and its 150 acres offers some very interesting opportunities for engagement. We have several stages: the well-known Artpark Amphitheater with a large capacity of up to 10,000 people. We also have the Artpark Mainstage Theater, which is the enclosed theater with an open lawn with which Artpark opened in 1974.
We also have the intimate Emerald Grove stage, named after the installation by Jesse Walp that surrounds it. This chamber stage has a garden-like setting and has become the primary setting for the fast-growing “New Music in the Park Series” where the informal atmosphere gives our audiences permission to experience something very new to them.
We also have been using the grounds of Artpark, rich with performance and festival opportunities. Both our Strawberry Moon Festival celebrating the local Indigenous cultures and the Fairy House Festival this year focusing on the art of Ukraine mixed with the local fairy house creations in the woods will take advantage of the wonderful nature of the lower park.
The Cirque Inextremiste performance calling for a large outdoor area for the hot air balloon hoisting acrobats up in the air will take place on the upper parking lot B. One of the “New Music in the Park” concerts – “L’ouiseau,” curated by now local conductor Brett Chancellor – will take our audience on a walking music tour on the stunning Niagara Gorge to explore the work of contemporary composers Kaija Saariaho, Iannis Xenakis, Brent Chancellor and Messiaen with dance and Native American spoken word.
We will have on-stage performances of music by Philip Glass and Vivaldi and take advantage of the natural acoustic dome of the Emerald Grove with Third Coast Percussion.
And, of course, the massive theatrical production of “Carmina Burana” by La Fura dels Baus with Buffalo Philharmonic, Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus conducted by Gil Rose, and 200-plus performers will take place on our exceptional, one-of-a-kind opera stage.
Image: Carnaval Sztukmistrzów // Lublin // Exit fot. Natalia Wierzbicka
Cirque Inextremiste (Photo provided by Artpark & Company)
Q: I think, certainly, diversity in programming is something that you've been very successful at over the years.
The previous administration, out of necessity – then I would say popularity and practicality – focused on outdoor concerts. There was no indication the cultural programming you’ve initiated would become as well-received as it is today. What led you to believe those programs were possible – and that they could work at Artpark?
Sonia Kozlova Clark: When I first came to Artpark, what I saw was, again, this vibrant palette of opportunities for presentation. I have produced very different types of arts and events in the past, and I could see how Artpark is unique from any other venues I had worked with.
Artpark as a place of nature and as a community presents almost limitless ways to explore the different types of performance, theater, music, Cirque, street theater, or art in public spaces. Also, of course, visual arts is a tremendous legacy and opportunity for Artpark, which we are strategically rebuilding. We are approaching these opportunities in phases and by layering one new discipline at a time.
The opportunities come from the site itself – its history, also its legacy, and, very importantly, from the people around us. It's the Buffalo community, so fond of innovative music and theater; the Lewiston community, so rich with people who know their history and the memories of coming to Artpark to experience the various types of performances. It's also the Indigenous people who were here long before any others.
Our understanding of what is diversity, specifically, at Artpark is also a very interesting subject. We often times talk with our board, funders, artistic partners and curators about how to make our organization more diverse, and how to make our audience more diverse. Oftentimes, the fallback is to say, “Well, Lewiston is a pretty homogenous society.” Initially, I thought, the local diversity was economic and maybe educational. But soon I have discovered the incredible depth and richness of the Haudenosaunee and their predecessors, thank you to Eva (Nicklas) and Irene (Rykaszewski) from the Lewiston Art Council, and Michele-Elise Burnett, who I’ve met through our board member Seymour Knox IV.
With their help, some reading, and the stories told by Neil Patterson Sr. of the Tuscarora Nation, or Peter Jamison of the Seneca Nation, and many others, I learned that the Haudenosaunee Nations are in themselves very diverse, but also so present here. Their presence here is not always the most obvious, as we see them through the limited focus of shared festivals or events, but the reality is so much richer.
Through the work of Michele-Elise, Artpark’s Indigenous arts producer and staff member, our relationship has been flourishing now for a number of years, starting with the Artpark Strawberry Moon Festival and expanding now to a summer-long program focused on Indigenous ways of knowing. I am grateful to Kehala and Jordan Smith and all the scholars and artists helping us build a more close-knit relationship, which sometimes feels like family.
The success of attracting an audience is through seeing your community, all its fine tones and different shades of cultural and economic differences, social and even political views. And for us at Artpark, there is such an interesting palette to work with here.
Another path for success is in programming strategy. Layering the new over time, mixing it with the familiar. When you bring something new, the recognition doesn't happen all at once. You have to adjust the strategy for each particular kind of art and audience. It's not one-size-fits-all.
Cirque Inextremiste (Photo provided by Artpark & Company)
Q: Of course, we know concerts are still a very big draw. What can you tell me, looking at this year's lineup, that stands out to you – or that people should be excited about or even curious about, with regard to the bands and the acts you've booked?
Sonia Kozlova Clark: As you said, it's a very diverse lineup, and addresses different types of audiences.
I am, as always, excited about Barenaked Ladies, which now has become a staple event in Western New York. They are more popular here in Western New York, or at Artpark, than practically anywhere else. It's just a very special relationship that we have developed over time between our community and the band. So, for that alone, it's absolutely a special to Artpark event, and all of us always look forward to it.
I think, of course, Styx on June 2, is something that so many of us are looking forward to, as well. They've been to Artpark now a number of times, and this year it seems bigger than ever.
We rarely ever start that early, but this year our first concert is May 21, with the Avett Brothers. Again, a great band. They've been to Artpark twice before. So great to see them back, and it looks like it is going to be a packed house. And it's great to see the audiences coming back, and then some.
Buddy Guy is an iconic figure in music. It’s his last – or self-proclaimed last – tour. We'll see. I hope he changes his mind. He will definitely be a highlight, for me personally, and I’m sure for many in the community.
I think Larkin Poe is a fantastic duo that I think everybody should discover, if they haven't yet – with the Allman Betts Band. Together, it's a great pairing.
One of my favorite musicians is Ben Folds. To me, it’s definitely a highlight. I’ve followed his career from the very early days, and I'm so glad to see him back with us.
Pixies and Modest Mouse will close our amphitheater season, and what a great, incredible pairing that is. I’m definitely looking forward to that. I was doing the happy dance when we confirmed that particular concert.
And then we have not one but two North American premiers: Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” in a spectacular production by La Fura dels Baus with Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, conducted by Gil Rose. It's a modern spectacle. It's a very edgy spectacle based on a medieval collection of poems and songs written in Latin and Middle High German. The texts cover a wide range of themes, such as drinking, gambling, love and the fickleness of fortune.
The poems were discovered in a Bavarian monastery in the 19th century and later set to music by composer Carl Orff in the 1930s. Musically it is extraordinary, recognizable and powerful. I call it the “Heavy Metal of the ’30s.” Its main song, “O Fortuna!,” was recorded and remixed in so many different styles. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra has done a track; in addition to all the classical interpretations, of course. It runs the whole gamut. There's hardly a human being on this planet that doesn't know this tune.
The production is by a renowned company in Spain – La Fura dels Baus – who I have been in conversations with over a number of years now – their focus is on opera as a spectacle, oftentimes outdoors with immersive video, flying acts and spectacular stage effects. They've been in the United States a number of times. The last time they were at the Mostly Modern Festival at Lincoln Center with a production of Haydn in 2018.
Their "Carmina" production has toured around the world for over 10 years, but it's never been in North America. And I'm very excited to be able to present this just at Artpark, just for us, just because we can, and just because it makes sense for us.
We are also fortunate to be working with the visionary conductor Gil Rose with whom we are building a long-term plan for reintroducing opera to Artpark, and, as always, with our friends at the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, also the Tanzen Dance and other local performers.
And the second North American premiere at Artpark will be with Cirque Inextremiste on Aug. 27, which we are bringing in partnership with University of Arizona and Rochester Fringe Festival. This French group are completely unique and out of their own kind, they define themselves as “sweet lunatics trapped in spite of themselves in a life-size epic” in one of the wildest shows you will ever see, called “EXIT.”
Barenaked Ladies (Photo by Matt Barnes // provided by Artpark & Company)
NOTE: Rainbow Kitten Surprise has canceled their 2023 tour, which was to include a sold-out performance at Artpark on June 7. Patrons who purchased tickets online at ticketmaster.com will be automatically refunded. All other refunds are available at point of purchase.
NOTE No. 2: Sublime with Rome was added to the 2023 Artpark Amphitheater schedule, following this article, and will perform at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 23, with special guests Funktional Flow.
Q: It’s a big anniversary season. How will that milestone be recognized this summer?
Sonia Kozlova Clark: We plan to celebrate by the continuous growth of Artpark as an institution and exploration of its potential while also recognizing its legacy. We have programs that highlight our Haudenosaunee people through Strawberry Moon Festival and summer-long Indigenous programs. We are restarting the opera program, once so prominent at Artpark, and so well known in this country. We are bringing new voices and international productions, which are impactful not only for our own audience, but for the artists themselves. Through these international collaborations and national partnerships, Artpark’s name is now present in the professional discourse around the world.
I was recently at Carnegie Hall, at a concert, and a number of people I ran into from New York City ran up to me with their memories of Artpark as an opera hub back in the 1980s. It's still in the memories of people far away from here. So, being able to reinstate this program with a tremendous conductor – we call him a conductor in residence and also a curator of opera – Gil Rose – I think that's a very momentous kind of occasion.
Being able to produce a series of “New Music” concerts, that’s very much, again, an homage to something that was celebrated and developed at Artpark. It’s what we call “New Music.” Something that was started by Creative Associates in Buffalo, and very much developed in Artpark, as well, and really translated to the very fabric of this cultural organization, and to see it carried forward with the musicians of today. Jeremy Dutcher, Third Coast Percussion – these are very well-known new musicians working, and experimenting with the types of music that are both very new to us today, but also date back to the traditions that were first honed in the 1970s – just when Artpark was established.
So, there are all these kinds of overtones of going back and also moving forward, all at the same time – and building a brand-new program we have not had in the past, is Cirque. So, we've done smaller productions as a part of our Fairy House Festival and other special events: Cirque Orange from Hamilton, Cirque Barcode from Montreal, Giraffe Royal from Estonia and others over the past six years.
They all represent the artform known as Cirque Nouveau mixed with street theater, as we'll call it. It is a fast-emerging popular form of performance, normally not involving a tent nor animals, not necessarily with the kind of acrobatics and clowns that everybody expects from the past – the red nose kind of act. In this new type of cirque, the acrobats and clowns are also actors – they act within the parameters of dramaturgy. They tell stories. It’s half circus, half theater.
And this year, we're bringing this French production called “Exit” by a circus company called Cirque Inextremiste. Again, it's quite a feat. It’s a big risk – on many levels. We're doing it in partnership with two other presenters in North America: the University of Arizona and the Rochester Fringe Festival. We could not do this alone.
But again, it signals the beginning of something new and pretty large-scale going forward.
The Artpark opportunities are tremendous – and the 50th season brings it all together.
I’ll also mention that, next year, we'll be celebrating our 50th anniversary. So, prepare to party for the next two years.
Third Coast Percussion (Photo by Rich Polk // provided by Artpark & Company)
Q: We've spoken about the various initiatives Artpark is taking to give back to the community – and even to use the word you mentioned, “risk,” as far as some of the programming and events Artpark is undertaking to benefit the community. How can that community – how can patrons – give back to Artpark?
Sonia Kozlova Clark: Thank you for that question. For us, the most important thing you can do is to come. Bring your friends. Bring your children. Bring your parents. Come, come, come. Come to anything you don't know yet. Come to things you have been too many times and love. Come, be here. Be with us. That's No. 1.
And, of course, we’re a nonprofit organization. We are a self-sustaining organization. We do work in partnership with New York State Parks, who maintain the facilities; but our park operates with only less than 5% of state funding. The rest is raised by our own team led by our very powerful and dedicated board of directors, through various funding opportunities. And the foundation for these resources is in the individual giving, so every small gift brings a compounded effect.
Our individual donor drive is always on and you can make a difference today by going to artpark.net; there's a button at the top of the menu that says, “Donate Now & Support.” Any gift is good enough – $5, $20, $5,000 – we will honor it, and use it appropriately, and it will move us forward, and make our programming available to the whole community in the long term.
Artpark’s front outdoor lobby area and ticketing courtyard