Q&A: Craig Centrie, Executive Director of Buffalo’s El Museo

The luxury and glamour that follows Western culture has no bearing on traditional and ethnic arts, at least this is the case for Craig Centrie, executive director of El Museo.

Centrie is seeking several artists from the refugee and immigrant community. He intends to showcase traditional art from various cultures at the 35-year-old gallery. After he waltzed through the doors of Karibu News with confidence and determination, he talked about why it’s important to preserve traditional art, the history of El Museo and its consistent involvement with the immigrant and refugee community.

Tell me a little bit about El Museo.

We began the organization in the late 1970s, it was initially called Latino Artist Collective. It was just a group of artist in various fields, such as visual arts, drama, music and so forth. It formed in a response to one of Buffalo’s more premier arts organization putting together what they called “A Retrospective of Arts in Buffalo,” but it did not include people of color, or artists of color. Our response was basically a statement. There are artist of colors. The organization had no budget, it just had man power, so we would put up art shows on any street corner, or at a local bar or restaurant and it would be up for a few weeks and then it would come down. There was live drama. We had an artist from Brazil who did street corner drama, and people just passing by became incorporated in the production, it was unscripted.

We keep alive the tradition of providing a secure venue where non mainstream artist are capable of showing their work and finding a way into the cultural scene here in WNY.

What has El Museo done with the immigrant/refugee community in the past?

We’ve been aware of the fact that the composition of the city is changing and has been changing for a long time, since maybe the arrival of the first Vietnamese back into the 80s. Prior to that, Buffalo was a town that was really ethnically Polish, German, Irish and Italian. The ending of the Vietnam War brought the first wave, so to speak, of populations that were more cosmopolitan in nature. In other words, it wasn’t just Western Europeans anymore, it was beginning to look like the rest of the world so to speak.

At that time, I had gone into the Vietnamese community and collected mountains of data to understand how the community was forming and how it was working and so forth. We were always in search of potential artists from these community, but in many instances it was the case where the idea of formally having arts and arts venues was a foreign concept to many people. Also, many people don’t see the arts as a viable means for them to get into. When they really think of what it is they want to do they want to be doctors, lawyers, and engineers and so on.

Areas like the arts is not a really developed economic niche in their own country. When they come here there is more availability. This is a whole new area people can get into, but they may not be fully aware of it and how to get into it. It is not prestige in the same way of being a doctor or a lawyer, which I think many new coming immigrants think is what they should be doing, or opening a business.

In the past, we have focused on working with the Mexican community, we worked with the Haitian community here which is very small, we worked with the Puerto Rican community which is the largest community and one of our more recent things was a show called the “Newcomers.” That was with Lukia Costello.

She was working in the Buffalo Public School system for adult education. She had adults from all these communities who were learning the fundamental English stuff, and she saw them as remarkable in their own ways. She began to individually photograph them and it eventually morphed into this whole project.

We set up a way where you don’t have to go into a building or a gallery, you can pass by storefronts if you follow a map and just be able to by these portraits with commentary about who these people are. All of the exhibitions that we do focus strictly on the advancement of the interests of underserved populations.

How is art a platform to integrate the refugee and immigrant community?

The art community is a much more open minded, accepting community of people where difference is applauded as opposed to frowned up. It’s not an aggressive community, it’s not a dangerous community. Even though what we do is dangerous; I think art galleries and artist are dangerous because they challenge society, so we’re dangerous in that sense.

What we don’t do is, we don’t exclude. It is a way to get your foot in the door in a way that is nonthreatening.

What are your future plans to integrate refugees and immigrants through El Museo?

One thing I am really concerned about, is that traditional arts are not lost. The devil is extremely seductive. Western culture really is the man dressed in the black tuxedo whose glamorousness will take you away from a major purpose of your life. In some kind of a way, you become sucked into the technology, the glitz, the glamour of purchasing, of buying, of all the kind of things that make western culture so appealing, which is materialistic. And I’m not downing any of it, I’m not saying that. I am saying, I wouldn’t want to see traditional culture lost as a result of people getting taken into materialism.

Of this group of individuals, which we hope to find, there will be ways to integrate these traditional art forms or crafts into what New Yorkers refer to as fine arts. This becomes a field for people, this becomes an unanticipated field that people can become a part of.

To get involved, contact Centrie. El Museo accepts submissions at elmuseobuffalo.org

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