Editor's note: this article has been updated to fix incorrect information about the dates of "Current Seen."
Whenever Rochesterians applaud the richness of the arts in this region, they also tend to loudly lament the lack of resources dedicated to the arts, the diminishing opportunities for arts writers, and the fact that so many young artists feel they need to seek better opportunities in bigger cities. In the past year or so, several groups of culturally-focused individuals and institutions have stepped up, organizing some new approaches to inject fresh energy into solving this puzzle. The newest of these hopeful endeavors, "Current Seen," kicks off in earnest on October 4, pulling together loads of artists, curators, institutions, and venues to present more than 25 projects at 16 sites.
"Current Seen" is the most recent iteration of the many-headed beast that evolved from the Rochester Biennial. In 2017 Rochester Contemporary Arts Center inherited the Biennial from the Memorial Art Gallery and immediately restructured its model. What had long been an invitational showcase of six regional artists became a multi-venue series of exhibits geared toward encouraging collaboration between small galleries, promoting challenging work, and exploring new curatorial models.
This year, with RoCo as a lead organizer once again, the biennial has further evolved into and even more complex network of contemporary visual arts exhibitions, pop-ups, and installations of new public art that will unfold along East Avenue and Main Street, opening Friday, October 4, and continuing through mid-November. This particular geographic focus is meant to addresses the corridor as both a dividing line and a connective thread, Rochester Contemporary Executive Director Bleu Cease tells CITY.
"Biennials and Triennials have long been art world touchpoints for big names, grand installations, and art-market trends," Cease says. "'Current Seen' is intended to support the region's growing contemporary art community by bringing new curatorial voices and new artworks together in Downtown Rochester," and infusing global conversations with local voices.
Fostering collaboration is a smart move, with the potential to increase the impact that each of the parts has on the whole audience. And participants can also learn from one another: the exhibitions and events are organized by both experienced and emerging curators and will be held at well-established and lesser-visited venues as well as spots that don't come to mind when you think "art show."
One "Current Seen" exhibit opened during the summer at Central Library's Rundel Memorial Building. Curated by Rochester Institute of Technology professors Hinda Mandell and Juilee Decker, "Crafting Democracy: Fiber Arts and Activism" presents a collection of subversive embroidery, soft sculpture, quilts, and other resistance art, and is on view through October 25.
Other exhibition will open and events will be held at venues that are known for their cultural impacts, including the Visual Studies Workshop, RIT City Art Space, the Little Theatre, 540WMain Communiversity, and Joy Gallery. But curators will also create pop-ups in Parcel 5, where artists will use the site's gravel to create a mandala; at Greenwood Books, where visitors can search for artists' books embedded in the stacks; and at a liquor store at 128 West Main Street, where experimental video art made from video game footage by dozens of artists will fill the windows. Public art along East Avenue and Main Street includes new work by San Francisco-based artist Michael Goldman/Consolidated Studios, New York City-based artist Stephon Senegal, Binghamton-based artist Colin Lyons, and Rochester-based artists Megan Sullivan, W. Michelle Harris, Thievin' Stephen, Shawn Dunwoody, and others.
But "Current Seen" is meant to be more than just a more inclusive version of First Friday mass art openings. Yes, there's a huge emphasis on promoting art exhibits and installations that tackle crucial issues, but an important goal of the whole endeavor is to facilitate lasting community discussions about art, public space, and social engagement.
Toward this end, "Current Seen" organizers have put together a schedule of events including a Rochester Art Collectors walking tour on Friday, October 11; an Anti-Racist East West Walk on Saturday, October 12, with Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives; a screening of the film "Whose Streets, Our Streets" on Saturday, October 19 at Douglass Auditorium; and The State of Art Writing panel talk on Thursday, October 24, at Rochester Contemporary (full disclosure: I am one the folks on the panel). Additionally, there will be a series of Thursday evening "think and drink" after parties that will be announced during the run of the exhibits.
Rochester Contemporary will also host an art community forum with Democratic County Executive candidate Adam Bello on Saturday, October 7, at 7pm. The event is meant to be non-partisan, organizers say, and Republican County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo, who is running for reelection, was also invited.
Ultimately, "Current Seen" is an experiment, Cease says, posing many questions: "Can the visual arts connect people across a divided city? Is an art biennial outside of a major metropolitan area capable of elevating the conversation around contemporary art and engaging wider audiences? Will visitors and residents come together in downtown Rochester to learn from curators and discover new visual artists?"
The organizers are hopeful, and Cease refers to the "Current Seen" collaboration as both proof of the community's abilities, and also, a nudge.
Rebecca Rafferty is CITY's Arts & Entertainment Editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.