We are very excited to announce the 13 winners and finalists of the seventh annual Spark Awards, presented by M&T Bank. The awardees will be honored at a ceremony on Wednesday, May 13 at Forbes Theater (500 Pearl) in Buffalo, where guests will enjoy food, drinks, entertainment, a silent auction, and more. Tickets will go on sale at noon on February 12 online through Eventbrite or in person at the ASI offices.

Artist of the Year: Finalists
JoAnn Falletta
Chris J. Handley
Edreys Wajed

Organization of the Year: Finalists
1891 Fredonia Opera House
O’Connell & Company
Unique Theatre Company

Arts Integration
The Children’s Guild Foundation Autism Spectrum Disorder Center at Oishei Children’s Hospital

DEC Program of the Year
Lewiston Council on the Arts’ Iroquois Market

Lifetime Achievement
Vincent O’Neill, Irish Classical Theatre Company

Rising Star
West Falls Center for the Arts

Supporter of the Cultural Sector
Joel Feroleto, Buffalo Common Council Member of Delaware District

Trailblazer of the Arts
Michele Agosto, Buffalo Public Schools

Unsung Hero
Beth Pedersen, Buffalo Society of Artists

ASI’s annual Spark Awards — “celebrating those who ignite arts and culture” — honor outstanding individuals and organizations in the Western New York arts and cultural community. Our nominations process sees community members from across Western New York’s five counties — Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, and Allegany — recognize individuals and organizations for their dedication, talent, and impact on the sector. The Spark Awards are sponsored this year by M&T Bank, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Buffalo Spree, Rigidized Metals, Ferguson Electric Construction, Savarino Companies, Buffalo Urban Development Corp., e3Communications, Erie County Industrial Development Agency, Tri-Main Development, Univera Healthcare, and the Chautauqua Institution.

About the Honorees

JoAnn Falletta, a finalist for Artist of the Year, is internationally celebrated as a vibrant ambassador for music, an inspiring artistic leader, and a champion of American symphonic music. Upon her appointment as Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, Falletta became the first woman to lead a major American ensemble. In 2019, JoAnn received her third GRAMMY Award and was honored with an ATHENA Award® from the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, which recognizes contributions made by individuals to advance the status of women in the Buffalo Niagara region.

Chris J. Handley, a finalist for Artist of the Year, is the Associate Artistic Director of Buffalo’s Alleyway Theatre, where he will assume executive leadership this summer, and where he founded the Theatre School of WNY. He has worked in theater for over 20 years in Buffalo, New York City, and across the country as an actor, teacher, director, and producer. He is Vice President of the Theatre District Association, sits on the Actors’ Equity Liaison Committee, is a 2019 Cullen Foundation Fellow, and is on faculty at SUNY Fredonia.

Edreys Wajed, a finalist for Artist of the Year, is celebrated for his variety of talents, from visual art and murals to jewelry-making and hip hop. He is widely recognized for his contribution to Buffalo’s Freedom Wall mural, commissioned by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in 2017. In 2019, he saw a sold-out solo show and exhibit at Argus Gallery. His paintings can now be found in the permanent art collections of Burchfield Penney Arts Center and the Roswell Park Art Heals Gallery.

1891 Fredonia Opera House, a finalist for Organization of the Year, has been enhancing the cultural landscape of Chautauqua County since its grand reopening in November of 1994. In 2019 – its 25th year – it celebrated its growth from a performance space for local arts groups to a full-fledged venue presenting national and international artists by updating its name and logo: 1891 Fredonia Opera House Performing Arts Center.

O’Connell & Company, a finalist for Organization of the Year, has enriched the lives of thousands of Western New Yorkers by producing a variety of musicals, plays, popular classics, regional premieres, and original works with a special focus on gender parity in the arts. Currently in its 25th season, the Theatre School at O’Connell & Company will formally launch in the Spring of 2020 to produce year-round workshops, camps, classes, and more for youth, adults, and seniors of all levels and experience.

Unique Theatre Co., a finalist for Organization of the Year, offers a safe place for people of all abilities to have a true theatre experience. All of Unique Theatre Company’s plays are original works, with most being written by people with disabilities. In 2019, it began a chorus group with the same mission of offering singers of all backgrounds, levels, and abilities the chance to experience being in a chorus.

Oishei Children’s Hospital Autism Spectrum Disorder Center is the winner of the Arts Integration award, which honors a non-arts project, program, or initiative that has used arts and culture to significantly enhance its work. In 2019, the center partnered with Explore & More and Theatre of Youth to develop arts events and activities geared toward individuals with autism.

Lewiston Council on the Arts is the winner of the Spark Award for DEC Program of the Year for its Iroquois Market in 2019. In conjunction with the 54th annual Lewiston Arts Festival, the council partnered with the Tuscarora Nation to bring Native American artisans and performers to more than 25,000 visitors.

Vincent O’Neill is the winner of this year’s Lifetime Achievement award. Born in Dublin, Ireland, O’Neill founded Irish Classical Theatre Company in 1990 and served as its Artistic and Executive Director for three decades. In 2019, he passed this torch to actor and director Kate LoConti Alcocer.

West Falls Center for the Arts, winner of this year’s Rising Star award, provides a venue that encourages collaboration and growth between amateur and professional artists. It is dedicated to offering visual, culinary, performing, and healing arts in a diverse rural community, with specific programming for veterans and kids.

Councilmember Joel Feroleto is the winner of this year’s Supporter of the Cultural Sector award, which honors an individual or an organization outside the arts community for their work in directly aiding the cultural sector. Feroleto is an attorney at Feroleto Law and serves on the Buffalo Common Council representing the Delaware District. He has worked diligently to champion public art initiatives in North Buffalo such as Hertel Walls and the Hertel Alley Art Fest.

Michele Agosto is the winner of this year’s Trailblazer of the Arts award, which honors an individual for their efforts to call attention to the importance of the arts through their work in advocacy, arts administration, curating, or promotion. Agosto is the Director of Arts for the Buffalo City School District and has served the children of Buffalo since 1994, with 10 of those years as a middle school art teacher in the Black Rock area.

Beth Pedersen is the winner of this year’s Unsung Hero award, which honors an unpaid individual or group that has made a major impact on an arts organization or the sector through their volunteer service. Pederson has been an integral part of the Buffalo Society of Artists (BSA) since the mid-1980s and served on the Board of Directors in various capacities from 1988 to 2016, including a term as president from 2010 to 2011.

Learn more about the honorees at the Spark Awards page of our website.