#43. Alma Carrillo
Alma is the Executive Director of the Buffalo Arts Studio, located within the Tri-Main Center. Learn about how she landed in Buffalo, and what she is doing to bring the arts to our community, and our community to the arts.
“I am originally from Mexico. I was born in Jalisco, along with my two brothers and a sister. When I was little, my dad passed away. We had to move around a little while he was sick. One of the reason why I ended up in the US was out of necessity. So, we ended up in Texas. My mom came first and then my brother and I, who are the youngest, came a year later. Then my sister and other brother came a year after that. Our family was separated for some time. I think that I have always been looking for that family feel, and to recreate families in the communities that I am in. Being the youngest, I had the most opportunity of any of my siblings. We were all working since we were kids, but for me, it ended up being the easiest to transition from high school to college. I went to Notre Dame and started as an engineering major because I was good at math and science. My teachers were really encouraging me to do that. I really liked the arts but I wasn’t encouraged to go that route because they didn’t know how I was going to make money that way. I was not meant to be an engineer. I ended up graduating with an government international studies degree. I moved back to Texas and was working with bilingual students helping them transition into middle school. That school was in a poor neighborhood and it closed. I then went to work as the Office Manager for the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Austin in September of 2001. This was right after 9/11. I got to see a lot. A lot of the division that it caused, but also a lot of the strength that came out of it.”
The shift to the arts
“I had friend in Austin that were in the arts. Mostly artists of color. They were very interested in exhibiting their work, but they couldn’t find a space. The spaces that existed were for mainstream arts, and the people who managed those spaces didn’t feel like their art was mainstream enough and maybe too ethnic. It wasn’t the artwork they were looking for. That was a time when I started to become conscious of these white-spaces. These galleries and spaces and who decides who and what gets exhibited. I decided to go and get a masters degree in it! I ended up at Brown, studying public humanities and cultural heritage. The program was very interested in becoming the connection between the academic and the art world to the general public. That’s exactly what I wanted. I wanted to start breaking some of the barriers that existed between those two worlds. There were spaces that were opening up to more ethnic exhibitions, but they were saying that the public was not showing up, even though they were putting a lot of resources into these exhibits. So, I decided to look at why this might be happening. One thing I looked into is what efforts these organizations were making to be part of the community. Not just saying, “come to us”. But actually being part of it. Also, how are they making it welcoming outside of just translating it. I’ve spent my life since then trying to figure out a way to make the spaces that I am in more welcoming. How to expand the opportunities of arts access to a greater population and different, or non-traditional audiences. That’s why Buffalo Arts Studio was such a great fit for me when I moved to Buffalo.”
The move to Buffalo
“When I was at Brown, I found this great organization called the Steel Yard. I didn’t know anything about welding, blacksmithing, or anything like that. I was with that organization for five years. They became my family. I’ve modeled a lot of my work since then based on my time there. I met my husband while I was there. He graduated from Brown, and we were looking for a place where we could live. We started applying for jobs and he got an interview to come to Buffalo in May of 2013 – we were getting married in June of 2013. To be honest, I didn’t think that Buffalo was the city for me, before I even came here. I hate the cold and I thought it was going to be cold year-round. I fell in love with the city the moment I stepped out of the door. I came while he came for his interview, and while he was getting interviewed, I would just walk around the neighborhoods. I ended up walking around Allentown. We had a checklist of things that we were interested in for the city. It was things like diversity, friendliness, community, spaces for creativity. I was in the right neighborhood. People were talking to me on the street and everywhere, inviting me into their stores and homes. People were just so friendly. We got married a few weeks later and on our wedding day, we packed our stuff to move to Buffalo! Moving here and looking for an apartment was my honeymoon. We wanted a place where we could have a family. I’ve been very happy with this decision. It was the right one for us.”
“We took the first apartment we saw. I went to meet this woman, Sarah to view the apartment. She told us that even if we don’t want the apartment, that she was having a get together later that day for her graduation and since we didn’t know anyone in town we should come and meet some people. We decided to do that. We stopped by and the chair of the board for the Buffalo Arts Studio was there. She was asking me about my work, and she asked if I had a card. I said I didn’t have one. I wrote it on the back of a regular sized paper plate. I didn’t think I would ever hear back. She called me the first or second week after we moved here. I joined the board right away.”
“One of the things about Buffalo is this: if you are willing to do the work, people are excited to have you as part of their team. When the opportunity came for the Director position, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be an Executive Director. I love programming. I love people. I love to be very hands-on. The more I thought about it, and my husband could see the investment I had in the organization and the kind of work that I could see us doing, we decided to apply. I saw “we” because I think that when you take such a role, it has to be a family commitment. Most people will tell you that this is not a 40 hour a week job. You aren’t here for the money and for the perks. You’re here because you love the work… and it’s a lot of work. If they had a cot here, I could sleep here. I’ve had to cut my hours because I have a child now. He’s made it to quite a number of meetings though.”
“I have to say, my husband is a huge Bills fan. He’s spent his life all over the place, but he spent a good amount of time while he was little in Fairport, outside of Rochester. His fondest memories are going to the Bills games in the early 90’s. Every year since we’ve been together he says. “this is the year”. The Bills made it into my wedding vows.”
The Buffalo Arts Studio space
“We have over 20,000 square feet of space, which includes gallery spaces, a community space, a ceramics studio where people can take classes and where ceramic artists can have a community – because we have a number of kilns and about 8 ceramic artists. We have an education room, and all of the artist studios. Every studio is so different. When we have tours, we open the studios. To see the eyes of the people who get to see the artists and talk to them and to see the process of making mistakes. I think that’s so important and something that people forget about. The final piece is not the first work. It’s the culmination of thinking of an idea, working it through, doing sketches and you see that when you walk from studio to studio. I feel that everyone needs a creative process. That’s exactly why I’m doing this job. You have to make it fit within your life. Each of these artists is doing a different art form at a different stage of their career. You see that in this space.”
When can people visit the galleries?
“The galleries are free and open to the general public. We have gallery hours and we are part of the M&T Fourth Fridays, so we have extended hours on the 4th Friday of every month. That’s an opportunity to hear artist talks and we work with organizations to have exhibits in our community space. We have classes here and youth programs. We have adult classes as well as professional development for artists. We try to make it accessible for artists to come and work and to exhibit. We make the artwork accessible to the community at no cost. Kids can apply to be part of our free Jump Start program.”
“One of the original tenets of the organization is public art. Something that is quite alive in this organization is our motto: “A community of artists, artists for a community.” We develop a very close connection with our high school students. We had a Jump Start student who lost their aunt to a really terrible crime. We reached out to the family and asked what we could do, and they said how about a mural. The Ray of Light mural is in Masten Park on the site of where the crime happened. It became something quite different at the end. The family is trying to take a tragedy and make something beautiful out of it. She was a mother of 7 and was a victim of domestic violence. It was a great process for us and we loved it so much that we’re working on more public art projects like it.”
What would you tell a younger version of yourself?
“Sleep more. Take advantage of traveling as well. Always be fearless. I think that as we get older, the resposibilities sometimes cause us to take less risks. Keep the fearlessness for as long as possible.”
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