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Albright-Knox: Making The Case For Expansion

LegerWalkingFlowerMore than one museum has gotten into big trouble by expanding. But I’d bet the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo has a better case than most of them. And last week, the museum said it plans to go ahead with a major expansion.

A little background first: I met Janne Siren, who was hired to replace Louis Grachos as the gallery’s director in January, 2013, on a visit he made to New York last week. I had last visited the museum about three years ago–though I wish I had not missed several of its recent exhibitions. And that streak seems to be continuing. Today was the last day for what looked like an excellent Anselm Kiefer exhibit, and I would very much like to get to Buffalo to see the coming Helen Frankenthaler show, which opens on Nov. 9 (Siren also showed me slides from the contemporaneous Paul Feeley retrospective, whose work I had not been familiar with).

So after a while in the doldrums, the AKG seems to have its exhibition program in gear. (Siren also showed me some recent acquisitions–have a look.)

But Siren reminded me how little of the AKG’s permanent collection is on view–and of the difficulties caused by the building’s design. The AKAG, Siren told me, is the sixth-oldest art museum in the United States. It predates the Met. Having started during the Civil War–and still officially known as Buffalo Fine Arts Academy–it has always focused on contemporary art and is renowned for the paintings acquired by A. Conger Goodyear, an early director, and Seymour H. Knox, Jr., a benefactor responsible for the AKAG’s renowned collection of Modern art (Leger’s Walking Flower and Jackson Pollock’s Convergence, both shown here, came from Knox.

Siren told me that only about 2% to 3% of the museum’s permanent collection, which consists of about 6,740 works of art, can be shown at any one time in its 19,000 sq. fett of exhibition space. At the museum’s annual meeting, last week, where the AKAG said it was going forward with an expansion, the Academy’s chair, Thomas R. Hyde, said, “Campus development is no longer an option; it is a necessity. We are, in many ways, a middleweight museum with a heavyweight collection,” according to The Buffalo News

Siren reminded me of another problem: when the AKAG was last expanded, in 1962, it mainly built an auditorium. The long halls around it are used to show art, but they are not idea. Furthermore, many contemporary art works today don’t fit through the museum’s doors.

Here is the museum’s full statement on the expansion.

ConvergenceBack in 2012, under Grachos, the Albright-Knox had hired Snohetta to develop a master plan for growth.

But the question is money. The AKAG made not insubstantial cutbacks during the 2008-09 recession. The Buffalo unemployment rate is a little less than the national average, but average wages are also lower. The city is said to be experiencing something of an economic rival, but as the News said last January, “In a region that has heard more than its share of grand plans over the past quarter century that ended up going nowhere – from a factory outlet mega-mall in Niagara Falls to Bass Pro and the Pataki administration’s plan to create a bioinformatics hub here – seeing is believing.”

That article went on to say that there is now an economic plan, with state investment funds behind it, and “challenges aside, the change is astounding by Buffalo standards, where for the past 60 years, economic growth has pretty much been something that happens someplace else.”

I really hope that message has affected potential donors, inspiring them to open their wallets. If real money is in place, the AKAG collection really does deserve more space.

Photo Credits: © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris (top); © 2010 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York (bottom),  both courtesy of the AKG


  1. Chris Crosman says

    The plan, as articulated by the museum, seems pretty vague even for a “case for support” statement. The invitation to invite public input is appropriate but much depends on follow-through and how seriously they engage with various constituencies. There is little question the museum needs more space and must address their aging facilities. One potential roadblock is their location within Delaware Park. As stated in their own description, the park is a treasured landmark designed by Olmstead, a necklace of green ringing downtown that has suffered many indignities over the past century, including a four lane freeway rammed down its center. Any building campaign that expands the current footprint is likely to meet with public resistance. As a former educator and head of education at the Albright (1972 – 1983) I applaud the inclusion of space for those activities but perhaps they need to look at alternatives including new uses for a rarely filled (during the daytime) 350 fixed seat auditorium for school bag lunches. Yes, the carpeted space might need daily housekeeping–or major reconstruction to serve multiple uses–but that might be more economical than a new building. In fact, it might mean radical surgery to Bunshaft’s modernist glass box but re-thinking that entire addition, including the possibility of multi-stories might preserve what little is left of the park. Just saying…

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