The Albright-Knox Makes New Moves

View of the north building from the 1905 Building. (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York)
The Buffalo museum plans to welcome visitors in a glass-walled ‘living room for the city.’

The Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo has a wonderful, idiosyncratic collection and an unusual architectural campus.

I visited this week before the museum’s closure in early November for a big, new building project. It now has two great buildings. Its neoclassical 1905 building is an elegant gem, cool, columnar with Edwardian flash. It’s not big. It’s gracious and welcoming, but it’s a temple of art. The Saint-Gaudens caryatids on the entrance frieze — they’re the best visitor-services people — suggest you enter with a clear, disciplined frame of mind. You take a breath when you walk through the museum. You leave feeling the experience is unique to you. Caryatids don’t ask for money and don’t tell you where the bathroom or shop is. They suggest you think. Sculpture is so good at that, especially when it’s 30 feet in the air.

The 1962 building addition by Gordon Bunshaft is a spare modernist box. It pulled the architecture of the Gilded Age — the 1905 building — toward the Space Age, still leaving the original building with a place of pride. It’s a fake one.

The Bunshaft building is a passive-aggressive space. It wins by pretending to lose. It’s squat and brown, and could be the executive building of a big business. It’s anonymous, but, when it opened in 1962, it was, all of a sudden, the new entrance. The steps to the old entrance were blocked by a Berlin Wall–type thing. The 1962 building has exhibition space, in corridors, with the art lined up, like the shops at Penn Station.

On November 4, construction starts on a third building, and that pulls the place into the 21st century. It’s a 30,000-square-foot new building designed by Shohei Shigematsu and OMA America. OMA is an international firm with roots in Japan. The new building will be transparent, with lots of glass and big, naturally lit spaces for art. It’s not passive-aggressive. The big box will loom and direct. It will win by winning. I think it will be beautiful, but I think this with reservations.

The museum has raised about 80 percent of its goal. Jeffrey Gundlach, an investor who grew up near Buffalo, is the magnificent lead donor. I love it when people give locally, where they grew up.

I hope the board has people from the construction business. This is an exceedingly complex project, with so much glass. Trustees with wealth from financial services won’t naturally be helpful. They make money by moving paper and numbers. Construction people move materials and labor. They build things to last.

Aside from the ice, snow, and cold issues, I’m not a contrarian but a map reader. The Shigematsu building will be the main entrance. My reading of the program tells me that an enormous distance will need to be covered on foot after you park to get through the new building to the 1905 building — the old-fashioned, temple-like space. Some will be visitor-service space. Some will be art space. A big part of it will be social, dining, and shopping space.

The new building unites the architecture with Delaware Park, a great Olmsted space, in time for Olmsted’s 200th birthday. I think the design accurately restores the early, pre-car landscaping. It has a nice underground parking lot, covered by the park.

Buffalo isn’t California, though, and the architect has done lots of California buildings. Buffalo is in the snow belt. I hope that the emphasis on glass walls in the new building is a tenable one. I know glass and flat-roof technology have evolved over the years to accommodate cold weather, though I’m not sure how successfully.

The museum proposes that the renovations will create a living room for the city, with the new building as a social space. I’m open to it. I’ve written about the new V&A in Dundee, Scotland, which is becoming the new town center. It works, in Dundee. I’m not sure such a thing will work in a car-culture place.

The Albright-Knox collection is superb. It’s modern, with anchors in French post-impressionism — the Gauguin nude is the sexiest thing he did — and a Picasso nude from 1910. The American modernist paintings relate to French art a generation earlier. It’s a small collection, about 7,000 objects. It has spots of depth but also a modernist “Great Hits” feel. In 2007, the museum sold some of its old art to create an endowment generating income to buy modern and contemporary art. Its Roman-era Artemis bronze sold for $28 million. The de-accessioning was responsible and disciplined. Other sales generated what is today a $95 million acquisitions fund. That produces a little less than $5 million in annual income to buy contemporary art.

Manaò tupapaú (Spirit of the Dead Watching), 1892, by Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903). Oil on jute mounted on canvas. (Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York)

I can’t say I object. I’ve never thought of the Albright-Knox as a broad-based, historical collection. It’s a modern art collection. The trustees made a choice to focus on living artists.  That’s their prerogative.  The change in mission was well received. That said, I don’t think spending $5 million a year on the art of living artists is going to get much that endures. It’s likely to get lots of high-priced junk. The board probably decided they wanted to focus on blue-chip contemporary art. The board wants lots of show horses — and wants them now. With $1 million a year, and good taste from a board, director, and curator, a museum can build a great contemporary-art collection quickly. That’s my opinion.

Nude Figure, late spring 1910, by Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973). Oil on canvas. (Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York)

I’ve written often about money and museums. The total amount of the Albright-Knox capital campaign is $180 million, $160 million for infrastructure, and $20 million for endowment to generate the income to pay expenses related to expansion. A 5 percent draw on $20 million in new endowment is $1 million to pay for utilities, staff, and programming for the 30,000-square-foot Shigematsu building, maintaining the Delaware Park enhancements, and other spaces. I don’t think this is enough new endowment money.

look and see, 2005, by Jim Hodges (American, born 1957). Enamel on stainless steel. (Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York)

Every museum is different, certainly, but a standard, new operating-endowment-money target should hit 25 percent of the infrastructure target. In the Albright-Knox’s case, that’s $40 million. Underestimating future operating expenses is the biggest danger for a program of this scope and ambition. Usually, the underestimated costs surround programming — the museum will have to fill the new space with sparkling new things to attract people — and staffing, which ranges from museum educators for new classroom space to security to maintenance crews. Sometimes, future utilities costs are underestimated. If future income projections depend on more people coming, or more admission-payers, then that’s a risky proposition. More often than not, planners get giddy, egged on by consultants, and these projections are inflated.

There’s lots of room for reasonable conjecture. The Albright-Knox’s current endowment for operating expenses is $62 million. That’s not a big lump of back-up cash for a big, venerable civic museum. The operating budget isn’t big — I’m impressed at how efficiently it runs — but the endowment covers less than a third of this budget. It gets lots of foundation money and money from the city of Buffalo and from the Erie County governments. This is soft money that can evaporate. I’d hate to see what looks like a fantastic project, once completed, throttled by no operating money.


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