Ryan Arthurs has returned to Buffalo to start Rivalry Projects — a contemporary art gallery and project space in Buffalo’s Allentown neighborhood. I had the privilege of speaking with my former student about his gallery, his past, his artwork, and Rivalry’s place in the future of Buffalo.
Andrea Mancuso: Can you believe it?
Ryan Arthurs: I can't. One year. It was so crazy returning from teaching in Minnesota at Carleton College last March and going immediately into lockdown. It seems like a “lost year,” and at the same time I'm amazed at what we've accomplished.
AM: Yeah. I think that's a really interesting place to start. Where are you right now?
RA: I'm thrilled to say that I'm in Rivalry Projects’s new gallery space at 106 College Street.
AM: Talk about the mission of Rivalry. I know you’ve been planning this for at least five years?
RA: Yeah, if not longer.
I had the good fortune of working for the Gail Severn Gallery in Sun Valley, Idaho, when I graduated from college. It was an amazing experience, introducing me to how artists prepare exhibitions and produce bodies of work, and how to have conversations with artists. The studio can be super isolating for artists —it is a vulnerable space — and I felt I had this ability to play a direct role helping people execute what it is that they're trying to do. I realized I get an enormous amount of energy out of that process.
So in thinking about starting this space, I want to be able to work with artists but at the same time not leave my own artistic practice behind. The challenge is trying to find a balance in a model and saying, "How can I continue to do the things that I want to do and include others?"
Rivalry is ultimately a contemporary exhibition space and a production space. The production space doubles as my studio, but it can also function as a second exhibition space or as a space where I can invite artists to co-produce print editions or multiples or as a space where people can put photos up and think about sequencing or work on an artist’s book.
AM: The space is amazing. It presents a broad picture of art as action and reflection, with the curated gallery adjacent to the accessible studio space. You have a different mission than that of the not-for-profit galleries. But you also have a very different mission than that of the traditional galleries, than that of, let's say, Nina Freudenheim's. She never had a production space.
RA: The commercial gallery and production space model is something new to Buffalo, and that’s what I wanted to offer with Rivalry Projects. The architecture mirrors my life’s balance as an artist and maker, but what I want to achieve with this space is allowing viewers to glimpse into the complete life cycle of a work and to understand the difference between how discourse is made and how art is the result of experimentation and synthesis. Rivalry is about building relationships within Buffalo while connecting to larger conversations, and it’s about holding space to be informed and enamored by the process of making art.
It’s also about trying to demystify the white cube. There's something special about getting to walk from the gallery into the back studio, and it’s about letting people in on the recipe of “this is where artwork is made, this is an artist’s studio” and finding excitement in all the stages of that process. It expands the conversation and shifts it away from prices, which people inevitably like to discuss with contemporary art.
The name Rivalry is not about external competition; I’m thrilled to be working in a rich artistic community such as Buffalo. “Rivalry,” for me, is about the balance between the selves that define us — even if you aren’t an artist or curator, you can identify with that balance. Rivalry’s mission, then, is to mirror that balance and strike a path forward.
AM: Yes, I love this idea. You are such a generous person, and you're working to make connections between people, so the sense of collaboration is really clear in that. And I hear you talking about cultivating this community of artists, but also about being considerate of and educating an audience, guiding its members in the same way that you're interested in guiding artists. Your space seems to have a really wonderful balance between those two experiences.
RA: When I was in Sun Valley, Gail Severn always said, "Every person that comes in, talk to them. Explain what it is that we're doing here with the exhibitions. Talk to them about the work. They might be getting off a seven-day whitewater rafting trip. They might be dressed in a suit. It doesn't matter. Introduce yourself. Introduce the work." Bringing that experience to Buffalo is super important in order to build an audience that welcomes those who don’t typically come to gallery openings. I hope to be a destination in Buffalo where people can experience art, get into a conversation, and not walk away wondering what contemporary art is trying to do or if it requires insider access.
AM: You are unapologetically commercial, and I think that's a real strength. It’s so important and needed, right?
RA: Selling art in Buffalo is not printing money. I know this isn’t an easy path but the work that I'm presenting is important, as is finding a sustainable means to continue to have shows and to produce artwork myself. I'm not going anywhere. But it's scary to share that kind of ambition. When you put something out into the world, you're opening an opportunity just to get knocked to the side. We've constructed the space to last, and I want to be an institution. I admire that Nina Freudenheim had this career and that when I would walk into her space, I knew I was seeing a great artist, a great show. It didn't matter if the artists were from Buffalo or wherever, but I knew that the quality of the work was going to be exceptional and that Nina was thoughtful about how it was presented.
AM: What should someone expect if they sign up for a time to visit Rivalry?
RA: Based on the experiences I've been having: conversation. People are starved for conversation right now. I love that people have felt comfortable asking questions about the work. Rivalry is about establishing that dialogue, but it’s also about understanding that there are limitations in how we process visual language, how we understand art, and how we can work through that limit.
AM: What's the philosophy behind the curatorial mission of Rivalry?
RA: Rivalry is going to be a mix of emerging and established artists, as well as artists with local, national, and international profiles. I want a mix where you can come in and see an artist that might be collected widely by museums like the Albright-Knox or see an artist’s work for the first time. As a gallerist, I'm only able to produce so many exhibitions and maintain a healthy balance, so right now new exhibitions will arrive quarterly.
As a photographer, I’m drawn to contemporary photography, multiples, and so on. So while I imagine that our curatorial mission will be diverse, we’ll always have an eye toward contemporary photography on some level.
In terms of what type of art Rivalry will be exhibiting, I want to reflect a diversity of makers and processes. Additionally, working with underrepresented artists and figuring out ways to collaborate thoughtfully with local artists is a priority. I’m open to what that looks like and aim to have a responsive curatorial practice.
AM: As an artist, I look back to those moments when a curator was able to respond meaningfully to what I was doing in a way that helped move me forward. That responsiveness you're talking about is so important, especially when visiting an artist’s studio: they're showing you the work that they're doing, and you're having a conversation about it, and then that conversation shapes the work.
RA: Rivalry’s second exhibition, Beyond the Material Plane: Part II, is a great example of what you’re saying; it reflects conversations I've been having with artists for years. It connects ideas about materiality with the multiverse, science fiction, psychedelics; it's complicated and layered. It's not about one idea. It had to be resolved through a number of conversations with all of these artists and connected back to materiality.
I see Rivalry as a space for risk-taking, for people to try things within their own practices that are frightening. I mean, the difference is we're not in
New York City; there’s not this spotlight where people feel like you can't take risks. We can reinvent what kind of exhibition we want to do. I see this as
a continuation of my practice because I'm still learning and I don't feel like I'm repeating the things that I've already done.
AM: You've lived and breathed Buffalo. You're one of these “Buffalo boomerangs,” i.e. you’ve recently returned home from someplace else. What is a formative memory you have from childhood, growing up in and around Buffalo, that connects to the work you are doing at Rivalry?
RA: I grew up in Youngstown, so Artpark was right there and thriving in the 80s. I remember taking ceramics classes there and running around and exploring the woods and finding sculptures and land art. There is something about Western York and its connection to contemporary art that goes back to a community level but also lends itself to national conversations. I want to emulate that with Rivalry. While we are a neighborhood gallery and invest in our community, we are connected to things outside of the region.
AM: What's the one thing that made you come back to Buffalo? Is there a thing?
RA: There were so many things. Moving away from Buffalo, for me, was motivated by wanting to go experience the outside world, and it was in conjunction with coming out and trying to find my community of both creative and queer folks. Every time I'd come back, it was checking in, seeing what was going on, and being impressed. In 2010 I started to kind of get the itch, but it was finding the right situation. A huge part of that I credit to Chris Walsh, my partner; moving back with somebody who was excited we were moving back was the missing ingredient.
Ultimately, it came down to community and affordability if we were going to move and start over and say, "Can we do something like this without knowing anyone?" And then it was a real draw to say, "Hey, I think that there's room here, there's a need."
AM Do you want to talk about the next exhibition coming up at Rivalry Projects?
RA Our next exhibition, Returning Light, is with Sharon Harper, a photographer and a professor at Harvard University whose work is in the collections of MoMA, the Whitney, and the Albright-Knox, among other museums.
Returning Light is a reflection of our current socio-economic climate at the close of a period of profound darkness. Harper’s work emphasizes the transition of time, articulated by the medium of photography and made discernible through light. The focus of the exhibit are five pinhole photographs that she made on consecutive nights during the summer solstice; these photographs measure the night in terms of light rather than darkness. But it's not just about the equinox and the solstice, the days getting longer, but I think that it's really trying to kind of embody a spirit of awakening, a return to rational thinking, and a move away from conspiracy and paranoia. We’re also working on a publication with an inkjet print edition, which I'm excited about because one of Rivalry’s goals is to think about affordable and approachable multiples that can go along with the exhibition.
Ultimately, Sharon is somebody that’s been incredibly important in my professional experience; I adore her practice, and I'm excited to have her work in Buffalo. Returning Light will be on view at Rivalry from April through June 2021.
AM: Can you talk about your own work? I re-member you as a dynamic and ambitious high school art student working in all different mediums, including photography and filmmaking. As an artist, what excites you? What are you working on now?
RA: I grew up doing long canoe trips in Northern Canada, which have been hugely influential in my thinking about landscape and how we interact with the natural world, but also the variety of ways masculinity expresses itself. Living on a water border that looked out onto Canada, I was always exploring boundaries and barriers of entry.
For the past five years I’ve been working on a long project between Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Scotland. It's about people leaving Europe, places like Ireland and Scotland, and then coming over to the new world of Atlantic Canada. It’s about what it takes to have lived on those rocky shores, and I attempt to summarize a multitude of histories, to string together a new narrative through visual elements.
But when I'm not able to be in the Canadian North, I'm in the studio dealing with ideas around a queer military history. Whereas my photographic work uses the natural world to explore themes of strength and endurance, my printmaking and collage use vintage military snapshots to investigate the bonds of friendship, camaraderie, and vulnerability of men in the military. So it's something about always rubbing up against these groups of guys that I'm not or in many ways that I am and am not.
AM: What could Rivalry Projects look like five years from now? How will it grow?
RA: Five years from now my vision is that we’ve had new and exciting exhibitions while still being known as an experimental space. At that point, another goal would be to have a roster of artists we represent who are getting museum shows, and that I’m a resource for them while we nurture those relationships. Other goals for Rivalry include participating in national and international art fairs, producing editions, deepening our investment to Buffalo, and demonstrating how a commercial space can thrive.
I want Rivalry to be a destination for contemporary art, and I imagine us alongside galleries in cities like Toronto or New York, while adding to the cultural fabric of this region.
AM: I'm thinking of all these photographers from Buffalo that have had such huge impacts on our community, from Milton Rogovin, Marion Faller, John Pfahl, Victor Shanchuk, George K. Arthur, and of course, Cindy Sherman. But in your work with Rivalry, and in your own work, you're working to define what photography is now.
RA: Absolutely. I feel like if we're putting some-thing good and hopeful on the walls, then you can take that and try to carry it into your life. Right now, we need hope; it's too easy to focus on the really grim and the scary and the daunting. For me, this building, the project, and everything that we're working toward gives me a North Star to point at to say, "This is what I'm working for. This is why we're doing these things, so we can get back to cultural events and conversation.
This interview took place on March 3 and March 5, 2021. It has been edited for clarity.
Andrea Mancuso is a curator, educator, and artist known for her work in the Buffalo-based artist collaborative virocode.