Cabin fever on a gray afternoon may be exchanged for open, spacious color along the Niagara escarpment. It's all in a visit to the Castellani Art Museum on the campus of Niagara University. Frequented by local and international visitors, director Katherine Koperski said that for many reasons, it's the most welcoming museum she knows. Admission is free, and there's something for everyone.
Koperski described the vision of founders Armand and Eleanor Castellani of Niagara Falls. It began as Armand Castellani was touring Italy one summer.
"He was absolutely blown away by the amount of art that people had access to in their everyday lives," Koperski said. "Twenty-four/seven. Beautiful public buildings you could walk into, free museums, churches."
When Castellani returned home, he wanted to build an art museum that would be free of charge. Koperski said he wanted it to be a place where anyone can walk through the front door and enjoy the beautiful building and the beautiful art inside. Koperski said visitors are usually impressed by the distinctive architecture as they approach the white marble entrance to the art museum.
"The design of this building is inspired by the ancient Basilica (in Rome)," Koperski said. "It's a giveaway, as soon as you say that. You see the two rows of pillars leading into the giant central gathering place."
The museum has the second-largest exhibition space in Western New York, including 20-foot ceilings designed for monumental art.
"It's a very welcoming building, and I think very dramatic, visually," Koperski said.
Spare café tables and sculptures grace the lobby in the front gallery, where walls glow with color. A reception desk and gift shop flank the front corners. Doorways open into adjacent, light-filled galleries.
Koperski said it was the Castellanis' dream to have the facility be an education museum which would offer "an encyclopedic approach" to the diverse world of art.
"We like to share our collection and help people to understand it a little better," Koperski said.
Handouts for each exhibit are provided near entrances. Benches and tables open exhibit areas to note taking and discussion. Family events and an interactive "Eye Spy Game" are provided for younger patrons.
"Four decades of abstraction fill one gallery," Koperski said. "This is our heavy hitter room, with well-known artists. Most of our viewers have trouble with abstraction so we did a little piece (handout), explaining what artists were trying to achieve as they moved from representational, realistic-looking imagery to more abstract imagery."
A viewer at the art museum may imagine creation through the shades of greens and earth tones of "Grand Mesa" by Friedel Dzubas; or a spiritual theme in the feathers and flame of "Flight Sensation" by Leonardo Nierman. In one hallway, works interpret "The Last Supper."
Koperski sees religious education as an element of such exhibits.
"It gets students to think about their Catholicism, perhaps, in a different way," she said. "Because you grow up, you take Communion for granted, and when you find out more about the origins of it, the symbolism involved, it becomes more important to people."
Castellani Art Museum and its supporters provide a venue for contemporary local artists through the TopSpin Emerging Artist series. Currently, "Where Are the Wild Things?" features the stylized, monochromatic sculptures of Buffalonian Bethany Krull.
Koperski said such experimental visionary art needs to be offered, if only for students at Niagara. Greater collaboration with Niagara students and the community are among her initiatives as director.
Highlights include a new degree program, student-curated exhibits, and plans to expand tours. Professors of religious studies bring students in to view illuminated manuscripts. English and science classes come in for lessons in close observation and accurate description.
Koperski said that each spring the art museum partners with NU Theatre to go with the show they chose. Last year, the show was a Steve Martin comedy about Picasso and Einstein meeting in a café in France.
"It was so hilarious," Koperski said. "I think the excitement of having it in this building made it special. And it was sold out every night."
This Feb. 13 through 16, the Castellani Art Museum will host "Piece of My Heart," a drama of American women who served in Vietnam.
For patrons who prefer nonfiction, the Castellani Art Museum holds the largest collection of Niagara Falls prints in the world, with a selection currently on display in a satellite museum near the Falls. The museum also serves as an umbrella organization for "Freedom Crossing," an exhibit commemorating the Underground Railroad.
"This area was very progressive, politically and socially," Koperski said. "A lot of that was connected to religious groups."
The art museum's interest in connecting beauty with everyday life is a match for Koperski. While in her last undergraduate semester at the University at Buffalo, she took an elective in Folk Arts. While researching the blessing of food baskets, she found the aesthetic choices and variations so beautiful that she thought they deserved an exhibit. She asked for space at the art museum and was approved. She said it was most popular, and confirmed its value.
"Folk Arts are a very collaborative process," Koperski said. "You look to the communities to educate you. Museums and art are meant to serve the community where they are."
She said that their current Folk Arts exhibit, "Extraordinary Ordinary People: American Masters of Traditional Arts," is a good example. Living artists and musicians, honored by the National Endowment for the Arts, share the gifts of their cultural legacies in the multimedia display. Such objects as woodcarvings and quilts, audio and video clips, and close-up portraits of the honorees extend understanding and connection between individuals and cultures.
"That's what happens with art," Koperski said. "The artist is putting his message out into the world, and then the person standing in front of it is bringing everything, all of their experiences and knowledge. The meaning of the piece comes somewhere in between what the artist is putting out and the meaning that the viewer is putting into it."
The Castellani Art Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.
For more information visit the website.