The Sonic and Scenic Allure of Artpark

As live performance has gone from a mere element of an artist’s overall arsenal to a critical component of their occupation and livelihood, the strength of each individual show—and where it’s played—has become increasingly important. The more special the location, the more inspired performers can be.

Artpark, located in the quaint village of Lewiston, 35 minutes north of downtown Buffalo, is one of these distinctive destinations that melds artistic celebration with environmental appreciation.

“A lot of contemporary performers have their bucket-list venues they’d like to play, like Red Rocks in Colorado or The Gorge in Washington,” says Artpark Interim President Dave Wedekindt. “These are places that take on their own lore due to the setting they’re in, and we enjoy a similar benefit here.”

Originally established in 1974, the venue has bloomed as a collaboration between the New York State Parks and the cultural nonprofit institution, Artpark & Company, in recent years. Every summer, the 150-acre expanse hosts more than 150 events, bringing in close to two hundred thousand visitors to its gorgeous grounds overlooking the Niagara River. The performers have diversified, and the amps are turned a bit louder, but its entertainment is consistent with its tradition of discovery and inspiration amid natural splendor.

“Today, we honor that legacy of continuing to give artists permission to fail, and permission to experiment,” says former Artpark President Sonia Clark. “I consider artists — as well as the audience — our community.”

Every summer, this community is enlivened and multiplied by performances across Artpark’s two signature stages: its outdoor Amphitheater and covered Mainstage Theater.

Artpark Main Stage / Photo by Bobby Kirkham

Artpark Amphitheater / Photo by Bobby Kirkham

With its Amphitheater and associated concert series—running from May through September—concertgoers have come to expect memorable performances at Artpark. Whether it’s the Flaming Lips’ stage crew exploding confetti canons in front of an angelic sunset, or a scorching Nathaniel Rateliff set being soothed by a Niagara River breeze, there’s a palpable sense of place here that makes each show special and keeps local and traveling fans coming back every summer.

“Today’s audiences want more of an experience,” says Wedekindt. “You can come here and see a few songs and say, ‘Hey, that’s great,’ but you could also take in a sunset or see an amazing rainbow during a show, or have an interesting exchange with this person you meet from France who’s standing next to you. It’s all of that.”

When things are moved off the cliffs and into the Mainstage Theater below, shows are different, but no less significant— enhanced by decades of memorable moments.

Artpark Main Stage / Photo by Bobby Kirkham

“They say when you walk into a venue, that building has a soul,” says Wedekindt. “When people walk into the Mainstage Theater and recall the history of such massive legends of music and the arts performing there, that comes through; that’s part of the experience.”

Musicians like Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and Willie Nelson—along with contemporary names like the War on Drugs, Jack White, and Kacey Musgraves—have commanded the stage, as have performance artists like ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. Blues virtuoso Buddy Guy played the first year the building opened, and played his last show there this past June. Over decades of performances, the Artpark staff has grown adept at knowing what works in this special place.

“You develop a trust with your audience,” says Wedekindt. “Part of what of what we’re seeking here is to get people to take a chance and discover new things. There are people who will only go to what they know, and there are others with a broad mindset who’re open to discovery, no matter what the experience is.”

Photo by Bobby Kirkham

Photo by Bobby Kirkham

Photo by Bobby Kirkham

While the most well-known shows at Artpark take place at their two signature venues, the entire riverfront expanse is a veritable playground for performance artists, with pop-up opportunities to play under trees, in parking lots, atop stairwells and rocks, and alongside the trail that leads down to the Niagara Gorge.

“We love playing with the space,” says Clark. “It’s something we love to do, and the goal is to make the experience completely unique to Artpark.”

There’s magic at Artpark and countless stories of performances that achieved the level of legend. In June of 2023, My Morning Jacket was easing into its serene “I Will Sing You the Songs” off its 2003 LP, “It Still Moves.” A light rain was falling on the crowd as frontman Jim James walked the band through the first verse. Then, as he advanced toward the chorus, the rain stopped, the sun crept from clouds, and a collective cheer arose from the front pit and up the amphitheater lawn. With the rain gone, a majestic rainbow appeared to the left of the stage, arching over that side of the venue, eliciting thousands of raised iPhones.

It was a classic Artpark moment, when a synergy of sound and space make for a one-of-a-kind experience.

“Visitors from the area or here for the first time are struck by what an asset this is and how incredible it is,” says Wedekindt. “There’s no place like it, and that means a lot.” 

450 South 4th Street, Lewiston, NY

The post The Sonic and Scenic Allure of Artpark appeared first on Visit Buffalo Niagara.

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