Langston Hughes Institute Founders, clockwise from left: Jim Pappas, Allie Anderson, Clarence Scott, Hal Franklin and Wilhelmina Godfrey; Image courtesy of the Burchfield Penney Art Center Archives
Artist-founded urban art center had a legendary impact on youth
Friday, February 28, 2020
The Langston Hughes Center for the Visual and Performing Arts revolutionized access to the arts as a tool to improve social conditions.
The 1960s and 1970s saw the emergence of a wave of cultural institutions in Buffalo committed to serving underrepresented communities. The birth of the African American Cultural Center, Black Dance Workshop (Center for Positive Thought), Ujima Theatre Company and Langston Hughes Center for the Visual and Performing Arts represented a subtle yet powerful organized effort to celebrate black pride and culture. The Langston Hughes Center, co-founded by artists Jim Pappas, Clarence Scott, Allie Anderson and Wilhelmina Godfrey, was revolutionary in utilizing art to improve social conditions. Its dynamic founders provided youth with a liberating avenue to creative expression.
The vision for the center originated from Pappas’ desire to involve the arts in the ongoing fight for civil rights and equality. As an undergraduate, he wrote a thesis exploring this concept housed in an urban setting. Initially, he reached out to graphic designer Clarence Scott and sculptor/photographer Allie Anderson to bring the idea to life.
The creative trio developed its first youth art workshops hosted at Canisius College and migrated to a new space on Sycamore St., located in heart of the community they strived to serve. Pappas, a Living Legacy Artist at the Burchfield Penney, reflected on his time in a 2013 interview with Archivist Heather Gring. “We had workshops for kids in the community and saw nothing but positive aspects. Kids just kind of took to it,” he recalled. “We let them do whatever they wanted to do artistically, just to get them to express their feelings and emotions about their own lives and they came out with some fantastic images on paper.”
In 1969, the initiative moved into a two-story building at 25 High St., celebrating the formal opening of the Langston Hughes Center for the Visual and Performing Arts. Programming expanded to include sculpture, woodworking, craft, jewelry making, photography, filmmaking, music and dance. Painter and weaver Wilhelmina Godfrey came aboard, organizing the weaving department.
The center’s work was tremendously impactful and gave students agency to explore their individual artistic interests. The center also helped bridge the gap of connecting some kids to human services not provided in public education with an onsite social worker. Students with histories of truancy, mental illness and other struggles discovered therapeutic solace from creative expression.
“Our idea was to give the best to the community, sensitize it to know that there was something out there for them and take advantage of it in a first-class way,” Pappas said.
Despite its profound impact, the early 1970s saw growing difficulties and changes. Cultural public funding eroded as economic interests moved into suburbia. Pappas left the center in 1975 for a post teaching at the University at Buffalo.
Renamed the Langston Hughes Institute, it continued to serve the community for roughly 40 years before closing in 2015.