Interview with Rae Tyson, Artpark Visual Arts Coordinator, 1974-1978

Posted June 06, 2011 by Anonymous
Sandra Q. Firmin, Curator, UB Art Gallery
Interview Date: 
Friday, March 18, 2011
Person Interviewed: 
Rae Tyson, Artpark Visual Arts Coordinator, 1974-1978
Place of Interview: 
The Home of Rae Tyson



The following oral history transcript is the result of a recorded interview with Rae Tyson on March 18, 2011. The interview took place at the home of Rae Tyson and was conducted by Sandra Q. Firmin. This interview was funded by the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA).

Rae Tyson and Sandra Q. Firmin have reviewed the transcript and have made corrections and emendations. The reader should bear in mind that he or she is reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.



SANDRA FIRMIN:  This is an interview with Rae Tyson, conducted by Sandra Firmin, for Art Spaces Archives Project for the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. The interview is taking place on March 18th of 2011, at Rae Tyson’s house. Could you begin by just talking about how you became involved in Artpark.


RAE TYSON:  I became involved in Artpark in the late spring of 1974, when I was contacted by then executive director, Dale McConathy, who asked me if I would be interested in joining the staff for Artpark, to help plan and coordinate and execute the outdoor programs.


FIRMIN:  And you were working at the Wilson—


TYSON:  I was a schoolteacher, taught science in Wilson Central School, which is a rural school district about fifteen miles from the Artpark site. And the thing that Dale said he was attracted to was, that he and several other Artpark staff had visited Wilson sometime prior to that, to attend a school-community art festival that I had planned and coordinated. He was very impressed with the mix of cultural events we had, and felt that it was the sort of feel that he hoped to achieve at Artpark, and was not able to do so with the staff that he had, and wanted to know if I would bring some of my ideas and consider coming to Artpark to help him fill out the outdoor programs. Now, at the point that he had asked me, they had already selected the artists in residence for the 1974 season. Dale had a consultant by the name of Rita Reinhardt working in New York, who selected a small group of artists who would be the first group to come up to Lewiston to execute pieces in the park setting. What he wanted me to do was to oversee the artist-in-residence program, but to plan other, I guess more popular, activities to bring the public into the park. And we went back and forth. I had a number of commitments that I’d already made for that summer, because as a schoolteacher, I was off and I had already made plans. But Dale was very persuasive and he did talk me into joining the staff for that first season.


FIRMIN:  And could you tell me a little bit more about the programming, sort of the populist programming that you came up with?


TYSON:  Well, it was pretty clear— I mean, Artpark at that point was still very theoretical. You know, the place had not been opened yet. But listening to Dale talk and listening to some of the New York State Parks officials who were responsible for creating it in the first place, I got the sense that what they wanted to do was something that was, on the one hand, very radical, in terms of public art; but also they wanted to make sure that the programs, the other programs were broad enough that they would appeal to a larger audience. So the idea was that all of it would be cultural, but some of it would be, I guess, if you will, a little bit more accessible; to bring people into the park, and once they were there, give them the opportunity to be exposed to some of the programs that they thought would be a little less successful. In other words, the artist-in-residence program. And I think the thing that attracted Dale to the Wilson art festival was the fact that I’ve always used a fairly broad definition of what I consider art. And one of the things that he thought was wonderful, for example, was that at the Wilson art festival, which included ballet and symphony and string quartets and mime, film and so on, we also had a car show, an antique car show. To me, someone who can restore an old car can be, in a way, as much an artist as someone who paints.  He [Dale McConathy] liked that sort of broad approach to the arts, and that was sort of the philosophy I took going into the first season of Artpark. It would be to plan things that appealed especially to families and to a younger audience, but [with] a range of activities that would get them into the park in the first place. And we did it. I don’t want to get into what may have happened before I got there, but when I got there, for something that had gotten as much publicity as Artpark had, very little planning had actually gone into the outdoor programs. Dale was worried about the theater season, and rightly so, and thought that others on the staff were taking care of the outdoor programs. But as it turns out, that planning really hadn’t gotten very far. So I actually took the job and talked one of my fellow teachers, a guy by the name of Jim Stephens, who was the art teacher, one of the art teachers in the senior high school, [I] talked Jim into going to work with me. So the two of us, sitting in a small office in one of the old schoolhouses in downtown Lewiston, Jim and I sat there and planned the first Artpark outdoor season. And we did it very, very quickly.


FIRMIN:  And what were some of the different components?


TYSON:  Well, we did it on themes, because we looked at the artists who were going to be there and decided that we needed something very quick, but very catchy. So we developed theme weeks that— You know, one of them was based on air, one was based on water, and I think the third was— I don’t remember if it was fire. But we planned activities, both artistic and sort of popular, around those themes. And we only had— The park did not open until about the third— The outdoor part of the park didn’t open until the third week in July, and ran just through Labor Day, the first year. So we didn’t have a big block of time to fill. And we were also hampered by the fact that— It was pretty interesting, because they had hired an architectural firm to design structures for the outdoor programs, none of which were finished by the time the park opened. So we had to sort of improvise and plan our activities wherever we could do them. And just by necessity, a lot of the programs for the first year took place in fairly close proximity to the theater, because that was the space that was done. And so we used terraces and parking lots and that sort of thing, because the rest of the park really wasn’t available yet. Although the artists were working there, the other facilities weren’t to the point where they were ready to be used.


FIRMIN:  Did you have an impression of how the artists in the first season— what their experiences were like?


TYSON:  Yes. I mean, we were responsible— Rita Reinhardt selected the artists. And I think that Rita probably— some of them had actually seen the site beforehand, some of them had not. So it was our responsibility to obtain whatever materials they needed for the site, for the project, and to figure out how to get the general public to where they were working. The response was varied. If I had to— I know that at the conference that was held at the University of Buffalo, Richard Tuttle—who was, I think, one of the few artists who ever had a piece vandalized—did not really talk favorably about the experience. And that pretty much mirrored the impressions I got from Richard when he was there. You know, I think that for an artist to work in a public surrounding, and be exposed to a lot of people who have no idea who they are or what they’re doing, takes a special sort of personality. And so you have an artist like Charles Simonds, who thrives on working in communities and loves the reaction that his work evokes from a non-artistic community, [he] had a field day. He had a ball. I mean, people responded to Charles, Charles responded to [the] situation. It was tailor made for somebody like Charles Simonds. And [for] other artists, I think the experiences were sort of in between. Some of them functioned well, some of them did not. But among other things, the feedback we got from that first season, and a very compressed season that it was, really enabled us to better define the artists that would be there in the future.


FIRMIN:  Could you talk, then, about the transition from the first season to the second season?


TYSON:  The transition was pretty radical because first of all, Dale McConathy only lasted one season. And he was replaced by a gentleman by the name of David Midland, who at that point, had been— I don’t remember his exact title, but I think he was general manager of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. So David came in with a performing arts background, and very little visual arts background. But David was a smart manager, which I think was one of the reasons he got selected for the job, because he had experience doing budgets and planning productions and supervising staff and so on and so forth. He was also astute enough to realize that he ought to stick to doing what he knew, and find others to run the programs that he didn’t know. And at that point, I had committed to taking a year’s leave of absence from my teaching job. David asked me to stay on and continue running the outdoor programs. And to provide a supplement to my background, he hired a consultant by the name of David Katzive, who was with the Philadelphia Art Museum, to work with me on the artist-in-residence part. I still maintained almost total control over everything other than the artist-in-residence program, that took place outdoors; David and I worked together to fashion the artist-in-residence program for 1975.


FIRMIN:  And so what guided your selections?


TYSON:  David and I spent a long time— and it was interesting. David Midland’s management philosophy was that he loved to hire people that he knew would have a conflict. And he felt that by having conflict, you would end up with the most innovative programs. So he did that, although I’m not sure how successfully. He did it with the woman who ran the performing arts program, a woman by name of Jane Ward, who had been at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Jane couldn’t have been more different than I was. And I think David sensed that and thought that that would be a good mix; put Jane in charge of theater, put me in charge of the outdoor programs, and the clash between us, that he thought was inevitable, would add to the quality of the program. As it turns out, Jane Ward and I got along famously. I mean, we just had a good time together. She was the consummate professional. She knew her work. She was intrigued at how much different working in upstate New York was from working in New York City. So Jane and I got along fine. David, on the other hand— It was interesting because he came from the formal art world, with his own set of expectations and criteria for what the program should be. I, on the other hand, with no formal art training, had sort of a populist gut instinct about what I thought would work and wouldn’t work. So David and I— the tension that David Midland wanted to create, I think he was reasonably successful. But one of the things that struck me was that David Katzive and I sat down very early on and analyzed the 1974 season, the artist-in-residence season, and decided there were a number of things about it that we thought needed to be changed. First of all, we didn’t want it to be New York centric; that this was a program that should encompass artists from all over the country, and Canada, because you know, we were right on the Canadian border. We felt that we needed to make sure that there was a good gender mix. We wanted to make sure there was a bit of ethnic mix. And we wanted to broaden considerably the kinds of artists who came. So even though we had questions about how someone like a video artist or a filmmaker might function in the public setting, we felt it was important to have a well-rounded program. And so that’s sort of the philosophy that we used going into the second season. So David and I, and I think predominantly me, started traveling around the country, talking to artists. David did a lot of site visits for artists that were in Philadelphia, Washington, New York; I sort of picked up on the rest of the country and, you know, went to visit artists like Jim Roche in Florida, Joe Hobbs and John Alberty in Oklahoma, James Surls in Texas, the Ant Farm out in California, and so on.


FIRMIN:  How did you identify the artists?


TYSON:  That’s a good question. Some of them came by recommendation from other artists. Some artists contacted us unsolicited. Some of them came from curators in other parts of the county, who were aware of local artists that were doing interesting things. It was a combination. And magazine coverage—Art in America or ARTnews and the rest of the publications—we used to watch them fairly carefully. So it was a combination of things.


FIRMIN:  You mentioned this mix of different kinds of people, gender; but I’m interested, also in— Western New York has a very strong Native American population, especially the Tuscarora Indians. What was the relationship between Artpark and the Native population, Native American population?


TYSON:  There wasn’t any relationship in year one. I don’t really remember who made the realization, but we made the realization that that region generally, and that site specifically, had a great deal of importance to the local Native American population; and that if it was truly going to be representative of Western New York and that part of the country, that we had to somehow figure out how to incorporate Native Americans and Native American artists into the program. The problem was that the Native Americans would have nothing to do with the Artpark site. And the reason was that before the property was taken over by the State of New York, some amateur archaeologist had defaced an Indian burial ground that existed probably 250 to 300 yards from the theater, in a wooded area. And they felt that until that desecration had been remedied and the site rededicated, that they would have nothing to do [with Artpark]. So, two things happened. Under their direction, we restored the Indian burial ground, and the Native Americans had a private ceremony to rededicate that site. And once that happened, they felt that the injustice had been remedied. Beyond that, Jane Ward and I went to Oklahoma together to attend a Native American Powwow, to find Native American artists to invite to Artpark for the second season. And we had the local Native Americans actually coordinate a huge powwow on the Artpark grounds; but we helped with identifying artists, dancers, [and] so on to participate. We actually had them run the program. And so that was the beginning of a fairly long relationship with several Native American artists and the local reservation. Artists like Duffy Wilson and so on, who later went on to build a museum in downtown Niagara Falls. So that was the beginning of it. And it’s a relationship that existed as long as I was there.


FIRMIN:  So you had all these different programs going on—the craft program, the theme weeks and the performances in the park, the theater. How did all these different players interact with each other? Or was there much interface between—?


TYSON:  That, to us, was one of the benefits for the artists who were there, the opportunity to interact with other artists. And we weren’t sure— we were pretty sure that the visual artists would get along just fine. It was trying to figure out how to bridge the gap between what was going on outdoors and what was going on inside the theater. So we used to stage sort of private social events, not open to the public, but on days when there was no activity in the park, we would plan meals or wine and cheese get-togethers and invite the artists who were performing in the theater, along with the artists who were working in the park. And the interaction was wonderful. I mean, beyond our greatest expectations. I can remember to this day, members of the Bolshoi wandering around the park or members of the Joffrey Ballet hanging around Jim Roche’s piece up on the spoils area of the park, and that interaction took place. And in fact, a couple of the artists did performances, did performance pieces when their work was done, and it was not unusual to have performers from the theater participating in those outdoor performances by the artists. So the interaction, to me, was wonderful. And I think if you talk to a lot of artists that were there, that was sort of a surprising side benefit that took place, that really took place out of the eye of the general public. Conversely, several of the visual artists and Artpark staff were invited to participate in performing arts programs in the theater, primarily the operas.


FIRMIN:  Can you talk a little bit more— You mentioned the architecture, and I’m interested in how the architecture functioned, as far as facilitating or not, these relationships; but also the various sites at Artpark, with the gorge and the trails and the spoils pile.


TYSON:  The intent of the new construction—which was designed by an architectural firm called Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer—the intent, and especially for the structure called the ArtEl, which was a wooden, partially covered but open-sided structure that was designed to house certain activities that really couldn’t take place right outdoors— I mean, crafts, certain craft artists, for example, needed some protection or they needed a kiln or they needed a place that could be locked up at night and so on and so forth. So the ArtEl—and for children’s activities and certain small performances—the ArtEl turned out as intended, which was to be a focal point for the outdoor programs. They also built an outdoor amphitheatre for performances, and several Quonset-style buildings to— Well, for example, in one of them, we did have, when Dale Chihuly was there doing glassblowing, we set him up. And when we’d have a blacksmith, where you obviously need fire and a fairly open area, those spaces functioned quite well. For the artists in residence, after the first year, when David Katzive and I took over, we arranged for every one of the artists to pre-visit the site. You know, come up in the off season, walk around, look at what was there, and draw inspiration from the park and decide where they wanted to work and what they thought they might want to do. And we did that to make sure that we didn’t have artists working on top of each other. You know, we sort of had a reservation policy. And that was that once you staked out a spot, that we would try to make sure that we kept other artists away from you, so they didn’t intrude visually on what you were doing, and just gave you, your own space. That doesn’t mean that— for example, where Jim Roche worked one year, later in the season, after he had left and his piece was finished, we would have other artists who worked in proximity, but not right on top of his site.


The park itself was an interesting contrast, because you had the natural beauty of the Niagara River Gorge and the space from— You know, looking north from the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge along the gorge is a fairly narrow gorge area, but it was just spectacular. Actually, I think at one point, it housed a railroad. But it was the one area of the park that still had some natural beauty to it. A lot of the rest of the park had been used to dispose of spoils from the construction of the hydroelectric project that was built up river a little ways. And so it was fairly desolate, very little vegetation grew. Pretty flat, not very interesting. But a lot of artists would gravitate to that area because in essence, in those places, nature was neutral. You know, the site was not going to— Almost like a blank canvas; that the site was not going to intrude on what they were doing. So you had a mix between artists who wanted to incorporate their work into the natural beauty of the gorge, and artists who didn’t want to compete with nature, but simply wanted a place to work where nature wasn’t going to intrude.


FIRMIN:  I know that Artpark was also used previously by Stauffer Chemical, at one point. What was the level of ecological awareness?


TYSON:  We were aware that parts of the site contained some industrial waste and a lot of spoils material from the power plant project. But this predated the discovery of the Love Canal, which was an environmental disaster of significant magnitude in Niagara Falls, about twelve or fourteen miles away. And when Love Canal happened—the first evacuation of Love Canal was, I think, 1978—the awareness of all of the environmental problems in that region came to light. But when we were working in Artpark four years prior or three years prior to that, there was not a high level of awareness about just exactly how serious or not serious the environmental problems might be at Artpark.


FIRMIN:  To go back to the artists, what were they responsible for giving you, as far as— Did they submit proposals and a budget or—?


TYSON:  They did. And it was not because we wanted to impose any sort of control over what they chose to do, because they were pretty much free to do whatever they wanted; but it was to help expedite the process when they finally came. So they would submit a budget, which had to be approved; but also would submit to us a list of materials they were going to need and equipment and labor that they might need in order to execute the piece. So they all— I wouldn’t say they all, but most of them did submit plans in advance. And some of the models they did or the drawings they did are the only remaining evidence of their involvement and artwork, because the pieces were all temporary and they didn’t remain. So sometimes the drawings and models are the only things that still survive. And some artists just didn’t want to do that. They said, okay, that’s my budget; I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to do till I get there; I’ll stay within my budget. And that was fine, too. As long as they understood that if they’re only going to be there for two weeks and they’re coming in without a firm plan for what sort of piece they were going to do, that they needed to be patient, because it might take us a little while to track down what they were going to need. And as you can imagine, some of the requests were fairly routine. You know, you could go to the local quarry or the local lumberyard or the local hardware store. Some of the requests were a little bit more esoteric and it took a while. But it was a pretty free-flowing situation. You know, we weren’t adamant about needing a proposal in advance, as long as the artists

understood that if they were coming up there without a firm plan, without a list of materials and a list of equipment, that it might take a little longer for them to get their work done.


FIRMIN:  Can you talk about some of the more esoteric—?


TYSON:  Well, you know, we had to chase around for exotic types of lumber. George Trakas, when he did his piece, wanted some steel that wasn’t readily available, that had to be shipped in. Sometimes we had to get equipment, heavy equipment that wasn’t available through the New York Parks system. Things like helicopters, for example. In the case of a couple of artists who chose to work either in the river or on the Canadian side of the river, were not only dealing with interesting materials requests, but were dealing with having to work with a foreign government to get permission for them to take their equipment, their materials and so on over to the Canadian side of the river to do work. Or artists like Laurie Anderson, who did that. And Rockne Krebs, who did a laser piece, installing the laser unit on the roof of the Ontario power plant that was across the river. And all of those things— you know, whenever you’re taking anything of value from the United States into Canada, even for a short period of time, you’ve got customs issues you have to deal with. And in the case of Rockne, because the Canadian government wasn’t used to the notion of laser as a work of art, they treated it like a scientific or medical device that really turned out to be quite challenging to get it into Canada.


FIRMIN:  And was that your responsibility…


TYSON:  Yes.


FIRMIN:  …to make sure everything went smoothly?


TYSON:  Yes. Yes, we had to— We were the expediters. We had to contact the Canadian government to secure permission to place the laser on the roof of the power plant. The folks at the power plant were just wonderful. We ran into a big problem getting the laser in [to Canada] because, as I say, they didn’t consider it a piece of equipment that was used in art; they looked upon it as a piece of equipment that had either industrial or medical or scientific application. And we actually had to use some diplomatic pressure in order to get permission to get the laser into Canada, just for a very short period of time.


FIRMIN:  That brings up an issue of documentation— I originally thought because Artpark had all this documentation of slides and video and— It seemed amazing to me, that Artpark had a lot of foresight that these works were really important. So I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the photography [that] had to be used to justify the work or to document the work, since it was all ephemeral. [And] the fact of the matter— that this was not just a nonprofit organization, it was a state park.


TYSON:  It was. And that, I think, made a lot of people skeptical, because it was— This was the seventies, after all, and the sort of anti-establishment feeling that some people had about government. So here was a government-funded project, the likes of which no one had ever seen before. So there was some built-in suspicion about just how open and free the New York State government should be. But the beauty of it was that the people in the New York State Park System, who conceived of Artpark in the first place, were also smart enough to realize that we couldn’t be hamstrung by being part of the bureaucracy. You know, and it was a stroke of genius, because if we had had to, for example, follow New York State government procurement guidelines for all those materials and all the equipment, we never would’ve gotten anything done. But they isolated us from all that and said, “You are not New York State employees. We are going to provide you with a budget, but we are also creating a separate legal entity that is actually going to be responsible for running the programs of the park. And in doing that, we’re going to free you from most of the fairly onerous requirements that a state agency would have.” And it was a masterstroke, because if they hadn’t done that, I don’t believe that Artpark could’ve possibly been successful. But by doing that, they shielded us from all those requirements. The beauty of it was that they left the New York State Park System responsible for the physical maintenance of the place. And that’s all they did. But having a New York State Park System staff there, with access to all this equipment and access to all this expertise that the guys on the New York State Park System staff had was a masterstroke because they were invaluable, in terms of a number of projects we did that required heavy equipment use or required welding or required all those things, that these guys— They had the equipment and they knew how to do it. And it just— it was wonderful. If I needed a backhoe, for example, I could just go to Jack Schultz, who was the New York State Parks and Recreation Commission Superintendent at Artpark, and say, “Jack, next Tuesday, I need a backhoe and an operator.” Or, “Jack, you know, next Wednesday, I need a crane,” or a Gradall or you name it. And they were wonderful— So it was a resource that just, given the nature of a lot of the projects that were done there, it was a resource that was just amazing, you know.


FIRMIN:  How did the artists and the machine operators get along?


TYSON:  They actually got along— The park staff who were there were there because they were intrigued about Artpark. You know, they could’ve been in some other state park, where they’re mowing grass and raking leaves and cutting down trees and cleaning restrooms. But some of them, most of them who came there, were sort of intrigued by the concept. Not to say they always understood what was going on, but I think that there developed a mutual respect between the career park staff and the artists that were there. Here’s a good example. You get a guy like George Trakas, for example, who was a New York based artist, had a bit of a reputation coming into it, but came up with this idea of creating this steel walkway along the gorge. And the guys who worked at the park system couldn’t quite understand what it was that he wanted to do. But working with him, they realized that, by golly, George Trakas was a whale of a welder. And the fact that he had such a command of the equipment and the materials he was working with, they sort of developed a middle ground of respect for each other that— They may not have understood exactly why he was doing what he was doing, but they respected the fact that when he was doing it, he sure knew what he was doing. I mean, he had a command of all the things that they respected, so—


But getting back to your other question about documentation. I don’t think until David Katzive arrived, that we really fully understood the importance of documenting what happened. The first season, documentation was not very good. It was, in fact, fairly haphazard. David came in and with his curatorial sensibilities, realized that because of the temporary nature of what was going on there, that the documentation was important. It was important for history; it was important for those who couldn’t get to Artpark, to actually see what had been done there. So he’s the one who encouraged us to bolster the photography staff and video. And David’s also the one who conceived the idea of creating a catalog that was basically documenting what had been done during the course of the year. Because even visitors— I mean, we got to the point where the place developed, aside from its appeal to the general population of Western New York and Southern Ontario, it became sort of a destination for art lovers and other artists from other parts of the country. But the problem is that if you came up in, say the first weekend in August, you had already missed the work that had been done in July, and you were too early to see the work that was going to be done in September. So the documentation really became crucial. And I really have to thank David for that. It was a case of understanding that it was important, but being so caught up in just trying to run the programs, not really having the understanding of why it was as important as it was. So you know, he [David Katzive] really deserves full credit for that.


FIRMIN:  To just switch to the public a little bit, did you have a sense of the interactions that the artists were having with the public?


TYSON:  We did. In the first year— You know, that was one of the things that happened in year two. The first year was very— the interaction was pretty haphazard. The only artist who really worked hard to communicate with the local community was Charles Simonds. And that was particularly with children. Year two, we decided that we needed to work a little harder to bring the artists and the general public together. So in year two, they created tour guides. They were called park rangers. And every hour or two during the day when the park was open, the tour guides, the park rangers, would organize tours around the park. So they [the public] could see the artist’s sites, see what the work was, and have an opportunity to talk to the artists, hear the artists speak, answer questions and so on and so forth. So we really worked pretty hard to make sure that that interaction took place. And it’s not to say that a lot of people didn’t wander around on their own. You know, we would have maps that we distributed to people so that if they didn’t want to go on a formal tour, they could take a map and could see where artists were working at any given time.


FIRMIN:  How do you think people felt about taxpayer money going toward Artpark?


TYSON:  I think probably Dale McConathy’s instincts were absolutely spot on, that you couldn’t— there would’ve been— My guess is that there would’ve [been] a massive public outcry if the only thing Artpark had was the artist-in-residence program. I think if that’s all there was, it would’ve invited criticism for using taxpayers’ money. You know, what do you mean using taxpayers’ money for some woman to dig a hole in the ground? But the fact is that when you got there, there was so much going on. And the artist-in-residence program actually— you know, on a given day, the artist-in-residence program was only one part of what was going on.  So it’s possible, you’d have families come in and they would take the kids to maybe a pottery workshop or take them to see a mime performance or a puppet performance or any number of activities that families really appreciated, and they might not really get exposed that much to the artists that were working in some of the remote areas of the park. But the fact is that the experience that they had, for very little money, was a positive one. And it was unlike anything anybody had ever seen before, you know?


FIRMIN:  What was the funding climate like at that point? Because I remember you once telling me that you got money from NYSCA for what you were doing at the high school. So I’m just curious if you could talk more about that.


TYSON:  Yeah. The New York State Council on the Arts was instrumental in the funding and the creation of the Wilson art festival. And you know, without that funding, that program would not have existed. I mean, we had some local— we had community support from a— You know, Wilson is a fairly rural town and there are only a couple of industries there, and they contributed. But if it hadn’t been for the Arts Council, the Wilson art festival would not have been as robust as it was. The Artpark experience, as I remember, was not eligible for funding from the New York State Council on the Arts. So in the beginning, for the outdoor programs, all of the funding came through an appropriation from the state legislature. David Midland and Jane Ward, and then Christopher Keene, who was the music director from— I think at that point, Christopher was affiliated with City Center Opera. They were able to obtain private funding for a number of the programs they were doing in the theater. But my recollection was that the outside funding for a lot of what we did in the outdoor programs came from the appropriation. I guess the exception might’ve been— I can’t remember exactly. May have gotten some funding for some of the Native American programs we did. But most of it came from an appropriation.


FIRMIN:  Okay. Can you talk a little bit about some of the experiences that stand out in your mind—working with artists, what you had to do, [to] pull off?


TYSON:  Could I take a break for just a second?


FIRMIN:   Of course. [end of audio file one of two] Okay, I’m back on.


TYSON:  Good. Thinking back on it, it was almost controlled chaos, because the density of program was so amazing. So in a given season, we would have, I don’t know, twenty-five or thirty artists in residence, an equal number of craftspeople in residence, plus we had poets in residence, we had chefs, we had a cooking program, we had chefs in residence, we had performing artists. And to coordinate all that and get the equipment where it needed to get, to get people where they needed to be was an incredible act of choreography. A lot of it, fairly— you know, if you’re used to staging public events, a lot of it’s pretty predictable. The sound system’s got to be in a certain place at a certain time; it’s got to be set up, it’s got to be tested. If you’re doing a workshop at a certain time, then the clay’s got to be there, the wheels have got to be there, you’ve got to have staff to assist the artist who’s doing the workshop and so on. The artist-in-residence program was harder to predict, simply because of the nature of the work. You couldn’t always anticipate what the next need was going to be. And sometimes the artists themselves couldn’t anticipate the need, because they [would] run into obstacles or problems and so on and so forth. But that, for the most part, added to the excitement of being there because you never knew what was going to happen. Sometimes ideas on paper didn’t translate well into reality. Sometimes artists misjudged materials they needed. Sometimes they misjudged when they were going to need extra labor. Sometimes they thought they could do something with one piece of equipment and it turns out they couldn’t; they needed a bigger piece of equipment. Sometimes, like in the case of someone like Mary Miss, for example, they will decide that their work is sort of hard to see at ground level, that you need to have a helicopter, so you can actually, you know, get a better perspective [on the work]. So through the years that I was there, we ran into a lot of those challenges. Like Charles Fahlen, for example, who at that point, was from Philadelphia, [and] had conceived of a huge, huge sculpture to be executed in sort of one of the open areas of the park, but not too awfully far from the edge of the gorge. And the piece had, as I remember, three elements to it, the largest of which had to have weighed three or four tons. And it involved a disk, a concrete disk. He created forms in the ground,  poured the concrete in the ground; but then it involved bringing heavy equipment in, i.e. a crane, to lift the concrete disk up and place it in the ground at a bit of an angle. Well, first of all, moving any object of that size is a challenge. Moving an object of that size that was built by someone who had never built anything like that before was an even bigger challenge. And so we got a crane. The crane came in, and when they started to lift the concrete disk off the ground and get ready to place it at the angle that Charles wanted to place it, he hadn’t put enough reinforcement bar in the concrete, or hadn’t allowed it to set long enough—I’m not sure what it was. They got it up in the air and the disk broke. It snapped right in half. We’re lucky that no one got hurt when it happened. But it meant that the piece that he had conceived wasn’t going to be possible, because he’d run into some engineering issues that just threw him a curve and there was just no way he was going to have the time to do it again; nor was there any guarantee that if he did it again, it was going to be any more successful. So Charles was disappointed, but he took, I think, probably twenty-four hours and came to me and said that he had decided that there was a way that he could salvage the piece by modifying it and using the fragments of the disk that had gotten broken. So we had to arrange a whole other group of heavy equipment and labor and so on and so forth, to help him salvage the piece that had sort of— But you know, that was part of the beauty of Artpark, that we would tell artists, “You’re not creating a monument to history. This is a laboratory. You should experiment. You should feel free to experiment. You should not be afraid of failure because in the end, it’s about the process more than it is about the finished work. And so take risks. Come and try things that you might not try if you were doing a commission at a place like Storm King.” So that, to me, was the epitome of what Artpark represented, when you had a situation like that, with Chuck Fahlen, where his original concept, for engineering reasons, was not successful. But the fact is that he used the opportunity to try it in the first place, and then had the vision to figure out how to salvage a piece that he was happy with, even in the face of all that failure. And it’s our job to be there to offer him support, technical support, offer him reassurances that the failure was not a big deal, and then to figure out, help him figure out, how he could salvage something that he would be happy with. So, that sort of situation repeated itself time and time again, all the time I was there.


FIRMIN:  I know a couple people throughout the years, more than once, got arrested. [they laugh] 


TYSON:  Yes. I think any time— and especially— I don’t know if the seventies were any different than the eighties or nineties or what, but you know, the time, the era; and to bring that many creative people into one place at one time, I think you’re inevitably going to end up with some interesting situations. And we averted arrest a few times. So we had an incident involving a rattlesnake, with a Texas artist by the name of Story Mann, who wanted to do a performance involving a live rattlesnake. And we were able to intervene. The New York State Park Police didn’t think that having a live rattlesnake in a public place was a great idea. We were able to avert a confrontation between the New York State Park Police and the artist. In the case of Ant Farm, Ant Farm’s piece was to build a time capsule out of a 1968 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon. And they were going to load the station wagon with artifacts from the era, and then bury the time capsule in the park. Well, the night before they were to have this public burial, the Ant Farm guys decided to take the Oldsmobile for one last drive, before they buried it. Problem is the Oldsmobile had no license plates, no insurance, no nothing. And they got in the Oldsmobile and got on the— In New York State, a lot of the parks are connected by a parkway system that is maintained by the New York State— or at that time, was maintained by the New York State Parks and Recreation Commission. They got on the parkway that ran between Artpark in Lewiston and Fort Niagara State Park, which is at the confluence of the Niagara River and Lake Ontario. And they’re driving down the parkway in this Oldsmobile. Whether or not there was beer involved, I have no idea. But they had this carload of people driving down the road, with no license plates, and they got stopped. And I got a call at home from one of the New York State Park policemen, who said that they had arrested the members of Ant Farm, who were pleading immunity because what they were driving was not a motor vehicle but a work of art. This is a time capsule. We are not driving a car; we’re driving a work of art. That didn’t seem to matter to the New York State Park Police. As far as they were concerned, Ant Farm was violating all sorts of traffic laws by being on the highway with this vehicle, and they were going to impound the car and arrest the occupants, or at least the driver. And of course, we had this big public event planned the next day. All the local television stations were going to come, [and] we’d invited the general public. And here we were faced with the prospect, fairly late at night, of not having an artist to do the burial and not having a time capsule to bury because it had been impounded. We were able to convince the New York State Park Police that it was an innocent mistake, and we managed to talk them out of slapping Ant Farm with

charges. I think they did give them a ticket for a misdemeanor of some sort, but they backed off on their threat of impounding the car and so on, so the event went off as planned.


FIRMIN:  I was kind of surprised that Lynda Benglis was invited up, considering her very provocative work.


TYSON:  Lynda Benglis was symbolic for David and me because we felt that we were in a position to really push the envelope, in terms of public art. And we knew that there would be certain types of artists who probably wouldn’t be a great fit, either because of the nature of the work or the medium they worked in. And I mentioned earlier about the challenges we had with filmmakers and video artists and photographers, for example, who, the very nature of their work doesn’t really lend itself to working in public. But Lynda Benglis was a fairly well known artist and we knew going into it, what her work was like. I mean, it wasn’t like there was any surprise to us. But we invited her for a site visit, and tried to make it clear that although we wanted her to be an artist in residence, that it was, after all, a public place, and there might be some limitations on what she could do there. Well, she heard about 75% of what we said to her, and decided that she wanted to do a video that was fairly provocative, and that she wanted us to let her do that, as part of her residency. And so you’re in a situation where you know full well that if she does it in public view and somebody sees it, that it’s going to cause all kinds of repercussions. On the other hand, if we don’t let her do it, we are going to be stained with the accusation that the government imposed— censored her work. So we were sort of caught between wanting the artist to have the freedom to do the performance and the video, and not wanting to create a situation that’s going to get Artpark in trouble. And in the end, we figured out a compromise, so that she could do the performance and the video, and we did it in a way where it was shielded from general public view. So it worked out. We knew inviting artists like Lynda—and there were others—that we would probably be setting ourselves up for that sort of a challenge. But to us, it was part of the excitement of the place. You know, that if you could pull it off and keep the artist happy, that in the end, it would be worth the risk.


FIRMIN:  You were there from 1974 to ’78. And I’m wondering, in that four-year time span, if you have a sense of evolution or change in the programming or in the arts.


TYSON:  The biggest thing that I noticed, and was the biggest challenge I think we had, was to keep the program feeling fresh. I mean, it’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of artists who could function in that environment; but the fact of the matter is that there aren’t a lot of artists who can function in that environment. And it just felt like after the first year, it seemed like each subsequent year, the challenge of finding artists who were suitable for that sort of situation were fewer and farther between. In a couple of instances, we invited artists back, who had been very successful—like Charles Simonds or Jim Roche and several others, who came back for multiple visits. Poet Robert Lax came back with the graphic artist by the name of Emile Antonucci. We had a press in residence, where artists and poets could publish their own books while they were there. So we had artists who came back multiple times. But then at a certain point, you could feel—or at least I could feel—like the energy wasn’t there like it was in the beginning. And I think that was inevitable. I mean, I really do think that Artpark was something that was intended to have a lifespan. And it started to feel that way after the second or third year, where you could just sense that the energy level wasn’t as high as it had been. I don’t know about public attitudes. I mean, I wasn’t there long enough to see a huge evolution. I certainly think that as we went on, that people in Western New York more and more understood what was going on there, and more and more, wanted to be part of it. So from a popular standpoint, the place continued to be amazingly successful. But from an artistic standpoint, I just felt like you could feel it starting to slip a little bit. And the fact that it was so intense. As a member of the staff, the experience of planning and running that program was so intense that, you know, the burnout factor was pretty high.


FIRMIN:  Well, thank you so much.


TYSON:  You’re welcome.


FIRMIN:  Do you have anything to add that I didn’t ask?


TYSON:  Well, we’ve talked about it a lot. You know, going into the situation and not having any real exposure to public art before Dale McConathy called me on the phone, and meeting Charles Simonds for the first time, and then being exposed as a

layperson—not as anyone with any sort of art background; no formal training whatsoever, but just developing an appreciation for what artists were doing—and just becoming so immersed in the contemporary art scene around the country was an experience that I’ll never forget. Because I think in the end— And I don’t want to take too much credit, because I certainly had a lot of help, David Katzive being primary on the list. But the fact is that going into it without preconceived notions, without formal training, without any sort of curatorial outlook on what can and cannot work in the Artpark context, was part of the reason the place was so successful. There were artists who would’ve [been] obvious choices, who never got invited because we had instincts that either because of the personality involved or because of the point they were [at] in their career, that they probably wouldn’t be successful. Nor would Artpark offer them an opportunity to do something that they wouldn’t be able to do someplace else. And I think you could probably come up with a list of artists that would fall into that category. We were after artists who were not necessarily household names at that point, but whose work would lend itself to that sort of situation. But also, equally as important was to give the artists an opportunity to do something that they probably wouldn’t be able to do under any other circumstance. And so, I think that having someone like me, who came in there with no preconceived ideas whatsoever, [who was] very open minded about the artists that were involved, the programs we could do, I think probably helped—in the end, in the long run—helped Artpark achieve some sort of popular success that it might not have had otherwise.


You know, I mentioned when we first started talking, about how I had a car show at the Wilson art festival. We also had a car show at Artpark every year I was there. And the difference was—and this is sort of a subtle difference, if you’re not a car nut—the difference was that at Wilson, we used antique cars that had been restored; at Artpark, we used hotrods that had been custom built. Because to me, a man or a woman who can build a hotrod has just as much technical expertise as someone who can weld a sculpture. It also gives the public a different perspective on what constitutes modern art and modern culture. So that you go and appreciate a beautifully done 1951 Mercury, and then you leave there and go up in the ArtEl and sit through a French cooking class, was to me— it was important to have that sort of mix. But it also, to me, represented my definition of what constituted art in the 1970s. So that’s it.


FIRMIN:  I remember Ruth Reichl. I was speaking with her and she was talking about when she came with Doug Hollis, that she did the cooking classes, but she also [made] a bread sculpture.


TYSON:  Yeah. She did. Ruth Reichl, to me, represents what Artpark was all about. Because you know, at the time I met Ruth—and she was living with Doug—she was an accomplished chef, but certainly had no reputation whatsoever. So I talked to her. She was coming with Doug anyway. I said, “Well, while you’re there, why don’t you do these classes?” I mean, who would’ve known that Ruth Reichl would’ve gone on to be the food critic at the L.A. Times, the food critic at the New York Times, and then the editor of Gourmet Magazine? And we had her before anybody knew her. And that, to me was the beauty of Artpark. Some of the artists who were there were very little known, and went on to become fairly well known. We had interns on the Artpark staff, most of whom were affiliated with the Hallwalls Gallery at Buffalo, who on their own, became well known artists, like Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo. They were interns, coming down to work at little for no compensation, just to be part of the experience, and they went on themselves to be well known artists. And you know, that was just— to me, it was just wonderful.


FIRMIN:  I’m glad— [phone rings] Do you need to take that or—?


TYSON:  No, it’s alright.


FIRMIN:  I’m glad you mentioned that because one of the questions I did have is what was the relationship between Artpark and the other institutions in the Western New York region?


TYSON:  Well— I should give you the politically correct answer. I’ll give you an answer and I’ll try to be diplomatic. We felt that Artpark was a vital part of the Western New York artistic community. And we wanted to reach out everywhere we could, to make sure that other organizations in Western New York felt welcomed at Artpark and felt like they were part of the process. Which is why, for example, the Buffalo Philharmonic was the house orchestra for a lot of the productions in the theater. It’s why the theater program at Niagara University was part of the performing arts program. We did the same outreach to the visual arts community, with varying degrees of success. Buffalo has one of the best known contemporary art galleries in the country, at Albright-Knox. And the relationship would’ve seemed natural. Because of their interest in contemporary art and the fact that we were staging one of the most innovative contemporary art programs in the country, it would’ve seemed to be a natural union. But for whatever reason, Albright-Knox was never very receptive to our overtures. However, Hallwalls [Contemporary Arts Center], which at that point, was housed just a few blocks away from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, embraced Artpark openly. And so we cultivated the relationship with Hallwalls, because they were a viable part of the art scene in Buffalo. We felt it was important that we were part of the art scene too, and that they be involved in what we were doing, and we wanted to be involved in what they were doing. In fact, we did work with them in the off season on some stuff. They seized the opportunity and in the Western New York art community, became our biggest supporters. And I can’t begin to understand why Robert Buck and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, didn’t take more active roles than they did. I don’t know. But we made the attempt, and Hallwalls was the organization that stepped up and responded to that overture.


FIRMIN:  Great. Well, thank you so much. I think we covered a lot of ground.


TYSON:  We have.


FIRMIN:  Thank you. [END]