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Albright-Knox’s 150th Anniversary Year Ends With A Bang And A Question

2012 has been something of a momentous year for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo — and well it should have been, as its 150th anniversary. Tomorrow the museum tops the whole thing off with the opening of Universals Albright-Knox 150 (UN.0201–UN.0350), created by the artists Eric and Heather ChanSchatz with the participation of 150 Western New Yorkers. It was commissioned by the Albright-Knox for the occasion (Dec. 4 is the date of its founding 150 years ago) and the gallery is offering free admission and extended hours from Dec. 4 through Dec. 7. There’s a talk by the artists with Albright-Knox Curator for the Collection Holly E. Hughes on Friday evening.

Universals Albright-Knox 150 (shown, in part, at left) was a good idea — I haven’t see the piece — for a couple of reasons. For one, it “explores the future of abstraction and the gallery’s role within this important facet of art history,” the museum says, without exaggeration, I think.

Second, it involves the Western New York community: Last April, the Albright-Knox invited people to participate in the artwork — those who wanted to participate put their names into a lottery, from which 150 were chosen (plus 50 alternates –smartly). Those people filled out a questionaire and had one-on-one conversations with the artists, thus becoming part of the work, “which is conceived to embody the role an organization like the Albright-Knox seeks to fulfill in society and contemporary culture.”

Hughes has said, “Inviting Eric and Heather ChanSchatz to create this work of art has been an extraordinary experience for the museum, its staff, and, ideally, the project participants.” But she would, wouldn’t she? We’re left to her comments until the work is unveiled and reviewed by local critics.

According to the Albright-Knox, Universals Albright-Knox 150 consists of 150 unique, hand-painted works—one to represent each participant. It will be accompanied by a video installation, also made by ChanSchatz, incorporating footage of their meetings with the 150. And in 2014, the Gallery will finish off the commission with the unveiling of a large-scale sculpture by the artists, based on the imagery developed through the project.

Over the past several months, the Albright-Knox has presented several admirable exhibitions highlighting its past — The Long Curve: 150 Years of Visionary Collecting at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery; Living Art: A. Conger Goodyear and Sculpture; Wish You Were Here: The Buffalo Avant-garde in the 1970s; and DECADE: Contemporary Collecting 2002–2012. I’ve heard good things about all of them, though I’ve not been to Buffalo myself.

That said, Louis Grachos, who recently departed after ten years as director, left a mixed legacy. It is true, as Colin Dabkowski recently wrote in the Buffalo News, that in 2002, the gallery “seemed, after nearly 150 years, to be growing stale. During the previous decade, the gallery’s once-ravenous appetite for bold new work from the outer limits of the art world been reduced to the occasional nibble at the heels of more ambitious collectors and institutions.”

The article also hit the problem:

During his 10 years at the gallery, Grachos lit a fire under its collecting program, and integrated the gallery into the community through ambitious collaborations with rock bands, dance companies, poets and other museums and galleries.
But his tenure here will likely be defined by one thing: Grachos’ fostered the board’s decision in 2007 to sell more than 200 pieces of valuable pre-Modern art from the collection.

Dabkowski recounts several of Grachos’s achievements. The question to me, and to others who opposed the deaccessions, is whether he could have achieved as much, or more, without the divisive sales. True, he raised a lot of money, milions — it’s unclear if he spent it wisely on new art.

Though Grachos says he left voluntarily, I suspect that new director will be necessary to move beyond that past. Fortunately, the next director may, according to Albright-Knox board president Leslie Zemsky, may be selected by Jan. 1 — which would be both welcome and a surprisingly short search. He or she will expand the gallery’s campus — in October, the gallery hired Snohetta to develop a master plan for its campus — and he or she will determine whether the Albright-Knox truely gets its game back, or not.

Photo Credit: Holly E. Hughes, Courtesy of the Albright-Knox





  1. Steven Miller says:

    Someone should look into the status of the huge sum of money the museum got when it sold its pre-modernist rt and wrecked any chance of anyone from Buffalo being able to appreciate such art without having to go somewhere else. A review of the 990 financials might turn up something, or, if the musueum issues an annual report that includes a clear, complete and logical financial report the money might be shown there. The problem with selling art to acquire more art is that over time, one never knows if this really happens as promised or if the money gets co-mingled. Remember, money is fungible and that means, interest and other things that come from a restricted account can be used elsewhere in a museum’s budget.

    • Steve, you may be about to get clobbered. When in the past I have suggested that money — temporarily, at least — is fungible, censure has rained down upon me! I do believe that, long term, museums generally reserve funds from deaccessions for new art purchases. A few are starting to link sales and purchases (Indianapolis under Max Anderson, for one). In this case, you can sort of trace recent purchases at the A-K — listed on its website, as I recall — and assume they used the money from the deaccessions to make some of the purchases. They’ve been spending at a higher rate that their acquisitions endowment would otherwise allow, I believe.

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