ArtsBeat / By Colin Dabkowski
Bethel-Cooper, a constant voice for art in Buffalo
Lenore Bethel-Cooper was in it for the long haul. When times were tough and money was tight at El Museo Francisco Oller y Diego Rivera gallery in Allentown gallery, Craig Centrie, the venue’s executive director, was ready to throw in the towel.
But Bethel-Cooper, a curator for the organization, refused to give up. A longtime arts advocate whose behind-the-scenes work improbably bridged the city’s Latino, African-American and gay communities, had an unwavering response to the challenges that arose throughout the gallery’s life: “I’m in it for the long haul.”
Bethel-Cooper’s long haul came to a premature end on June 1, when she died at age 40 due to complications from pneumonia. But her work, known mostly in Buffalo’s black and Latino communities, will continue to resonate across the city’s cultural scene.
Lenore Bethel-Cooper was born to Lenord and Molly Bethel, both artists, on April 2, 1969. Immersed in the art world from the age of 2, Bethel-Cooper learned the trade from her mother, an accomplished painter who gave art lessons on the front porch of the family’s home in the Fruit Belt. Out of those lessons grew Locust Street Neighborhood Art Classes, a nonprofit community organization where Bethel-Cooper taught and served as assistant director for many years. The center will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year under the continued direction of Bethel.
After graduating from Hutchinson Central Technical High School in the mid-1980s, Bethel-Cooper spent a year in New York City studying at the International Center of Photography and the Art Students League of New York. Upon her return to Buffalo, a teenage Bethel- Cooper walked into El Museo and began her storied career on the city’s arts scene.
“Her talents were just very wide-ranging and affected a large segment of the community,” Molly Bethel said. Lenore’s work, Bethel said, ranged from murals she created at the Colored Musicians Club, the New Covenant United Church of Christ and elsewhere to her fundraising and organizational efforts to help groups like Juneteenth, El Museo, the Colored Musicians Club and Locust Street thrive in an often unfriendly atmosphere.
By her family, former co-workers and admirers, Bethel-Cooper was de-
scribed as an up-and-comer on the cultural scene and one of a shrinking breed of dedicated advocates for the arts. She did the hard work of finding elusive grants and making community connections that may not have immediately been evident.
“Lenore knew how to do these things, and if she didn’t know how to do them, she would just go right to the source. She would pick up the phone, she would find out who was responsible for getting those grants and she would ask them, ‘How do we go about doing this?,’ ” Centrie said, noting that Bethel-Cooper’s go-getting skill helped transform Buffalo’s Juneteenth organization, which dedicated its 34th annual festival to her in mid-June. “She essentially taught that organization in many ways how to be a professional organization.”
That was Bethel-Cooper’s unquantifiable contribution to the city’s cultural minorities – a rare combination of persistence, fearlessness and dedication that’s too busy getting things done to loudly announce itself or seek praise.
“She seemed to be able to have her finger on the pulse of what small communities need or would want, or how they needed to express themselves,” Centrie said. “It was always through art.”
As many a starving painter or out-of-work actor will tell you, a life dedicated to the arts has its drawbacks. Their work may never show up in a museum exhibition; their names may never appearing in glimmering lights on a marquee. But they press on, driven by a belief in their art and undaunted by the prospect of failure.
It’s the same for community activists, curators, philanthropists and behind-the-scenes volunteers who keep the city’s cultural engine running, even though the rewards of such a life can be even more elusive.
Bethel-Cooper found her reward in the success of the artistic ventures she helped to foster. And those groups, along with the cultural community at large, will long be in her debt.