Alma Carrillo Lopez has been the executive director of Buffalo Arts Studio (BAS) for two years. She is also on the steering committee of the Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance and is a former board member of the Hispanic Heritage Council. At a recent opening of the Changzou China Children’s Art Exhibit the gallery was filled with visitors, from children and families to local and foreign dignitaries from Buffalo’s sister city. Amidst the crowd, Ms. Carillo Lopez’s energetic presence could be seen, checking in with translators, speaking with press, and greeting first-timers to the gallery. It seemed like she didn’t stop moving but in each interaction her warmth and welcoming presence were evident, as was the conviction in her work and care that she brings to it.
I spoke with her on a summer night at her West Side home, where she lives with her husband and son, about what brought her to work in the arts and how her path to art informs her vision for the role of the arts in the Buffalo community.
What was your path to working in the arts?
It was a little different. I always enjoyed the arts, but it was never an option for me; I was an immigrant, the youngest in the family, and the first to go to college straight out of high school, and I had the pressure to make money. I was supposed to do something solid. The arts were not that. I went to Notre Dame thinking I would graduate with an engineering degree. Instead I graduated with a degree in government and international relations. I moved back to Texas for a year and I was volunteering for art exhibitions.
I had a lot of friends who were artists in Austin. My friends were mostly Latinos, people of color, and they were having trouble finding places to showcase their work. They were not ethnic enough for places that focused on Latino art and they were not mainstream enough for the other spaces.
They did great work to create their own spaces, but it made me think about what gets exhibited, who gets exhibited, why the space is accessible to who- all those questions.
I got excited when I heard about the new program at Brown called Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage. I applied and got in. They were doing work with the Smithsonian on the Bracero History Project, collecting oral histories and ephemera for the Museum of American History. That was exactly what I was looking for. From World War II to 1964, 4.5 million contracts were given to these Mexican workers and very few people know about it. How do you tell the story of America without including their stories?
Where did you grow up, and how do you identify culturally?
I was born in Mexico and my family came in stages which meant that we were separated for quite some time. We came here out of need, looking for a better life. My mother, who I love and respect so much, left her career as a teacher in Mexico and came here and did whatever she could, from restaurants to cleaning houses to being a nanny. I learned my work ethic from my mom and my love of family.
One reason I love community so much is in that in the places we have been, people took us in, embraced us, offered support. We have been very lucky. But not everybody is that lucky. For me it is important that I am that, or that I offer spaces that provide that happy place for other people, for other immigrants. I have been interested my whole life in doing work with immigrants or communities of color.
What did you do after Brown?
I worked at the Steelyard [in Providence, Rhode Island] for five and a half years. It was a great experience. I had the opportunity to work with all different types of students. One program was the Weld to Work program, for people 18-24 who had multiple barriers to employment; poverty, single parents, formerly incarcerated. We trained them in metal fabrication, trusted them with fire and pretty fancy equipment. There was a public art component, where they were commissioned by a community partner who had to trust us that they would make something good that was going to be in public view. There had to be a lot of trust between all of the people involved.
We really worked with students for them to understand they were not receiving charity. They were paid a stipend for training and had to meet with their clients. We often selected clients from the same neighborhood where our participants came from so that they would see their project long after it was completed, at a school, or a railing for housing. We wanted to beautify the spaces participants came from, while giving them skills and making them stakeholders so that they could feel proud. The most important result was that their attitude changed as they realized they were doing something for their community.
From there you came to BAS. How would you introduce Buffalo Arts Studios to people who are not familiar with it?
Usually I try to find out what they are into. BAS is so many things to so many people. The first words that come to mind are arts access. We want to make the arts accessible to anyone who comes into the space.
If you are an artist, you want a place to exhibit your art. We don’t charge artists to showcase their work. If you are a working artist and need a rental space, you can become a resident artist and have access to affordable studio space. If you want to take art classes we have affordable classes, or if you are a young person, free art classes. We are so many different things to different people. Also we have community space and exhibition space for other organizations.
It’s about making spaces inclusive and welcoming. It means a lot more than just saying you are welcome here, it is being part of the community so that the community gets a sense that we are an asset to them.
What are you proud of in your two-year tenure as director so far? How do you want BAS to grow?
One thing I am proud of is the growing sense of community. We are working really hard at not being a silo and we have partnered with so many organizations on exhibitions and programs.
Something that makes the space so special is the resident art studios. You get to see what it takes to do something, and that applies to any area of life as well. You see the finished piece at an exhibition, but what did it take to get there? At the studios you can talk to the artist, you can see the process, from working it out on paper to failing many times, to painting over, all the preciousness of a piece. We are a society afraid to fail and it is a nice reminder that you can not accomplish what you want and try again.
I am looking forward to growing in our public projects. We have a mural that is about to get dedicated, the Ray of Light mural in Masten Park, and we have other public projects; Sewing Days with Amanda Browder and the Albright Knox, another public mural project. People are coming to us with ideas now, not just necessarily from the arts side, and that is the community aspect.
We’re really excited because it is our twenty-fifth anniversary this year. Our celebration is in four parts, four quarters, to represent our twenty-five years. The first event will be a concert on October 1 called RevelX25. All of the events will be up on our website this week.
What advice do you have for readers who are interested in working in the arts, especially readers from the immigrant community?
One thing we are trying to change is the belief that art has to be one thing or serve one people. We have so much beauty in all our cultures. I have seen how people hone their skills, just like in the western world
When I lived in Austin I brought a sculptor from my hometown for an exhibition. He apprenticed for seven years before he was allowed to do any work of his own. This is not someone who went to school but has this level of skill; people go get trained by potters in Oaxaca, by people who have spent a lifetime, generations and generations of perfecting their craft.
Keeping your identity is important. Also, learn about the business. There is a business, even just knowing what to charge for your work. There is a lot of professional development. Be professional and always ask. You want to showcase? Ask for a studio visit. Make people notice you. And then be ready for the studio visit so it looks good when they get there.
Buffalo Arts Studios is located on the fifth floor of the Tri-Main Center, a large multi-use building a few miles north of downtown on Main Street. It is a short walk from the Amherst metro stop, and the #8 and #23 buses also stop nearby. Visitor parking is located behind the building.
Open gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday 11 to 5, Saturdays 9 to 2 except in summer, and fourth Fridays till 8. For information on programs and classes call (716) 833-4450 or go to the website: buffaloartsstudio.org
To hear stories from the Bracero History Project that Ms. Carillo Lopez worked on, go to the oral history section of braceroarchive.org