I grew up in Buffalo, New York. When I was a kid, my school would take yearly trips to the Albright Knox Art Gallery (which confused little me, as it is really a museum). The Grecian knock-off, complete with a replica of the Acropolis’ Porch of the Maidens, was intended to be the Fine Arts Pavilion for the Pan-American Exposition in 1901 (back when Buffalo was a destination!), but was completed too late for the purpose. And thus it became the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, later the Albright Knox.
Over the years to follow, it started amassing an immense collection of art- Byzantine busts, Egyptian Scarabs, French Decorative arts, Neo-classicist, Mannerist, Impressionist and Pop Art paintings. A slew of landscapes, a few Surrealist paintings. Then came the names. An editioned Degas sculpture, a 5th rate Gaugin, Courbet, van Gogh…then a Louis XIV dressing table. Basically resembling an art garage sale. As a kid this appealed to me, a little bit of everything. I remember my favorite painting, “Marvelous Sauce”, a 19th Century photo realistic kitchen scene, which today Google told me was painted by a Jehan Georges Vibert in 1890. I believe it was hung across from a Lichtenstein (Red Head, Yellow background, which I’d also sit in front of and draw over and over). The pieces I grew up loving- George Segal’s “Cinema”, Lucas Samaras’ “Mirrored Room”, Anslem Kiefer’s “Milky Way”, a Warhol soupcan piece, Modigliani’s “Servant Girl”- these were my childhood.
As much fun as it was to wander through the hodge podge as a kid, none of it really made sense. Sure, most of it was a visual treat, save for the 5th rate big names (which I suppose is to be expected of a small city art museum and their budgets), but it lacked direction and any sign of curating. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t cohesive as an entire collection, and wasn’t large enough to warrant sub-sections like the Met or other large museums.
In 2007, museum director Louis Gracho finally noticed. In the next few months, the Albright Knox would enrage all of Buffalo, by deciding to deaccession a large portion of their ancient works. Most of this collection hadn’t seen the light of day since the 60s, but the act caused a year long fight between the museum and traditional Buffalonians. Deaccessioning artwork is always a very touchy subject, there are many people to upset- the donors if they are alive, the board members who acquired the work, the patrons who feel an attachment to it, as well as the scope of a museum’s core mission. But sometimes it is necessary, in order to gain capital to acquire works that make more sense in an institution’s program. This was the case with the Albright Knox, the museum made a conscious decision to move the museum in a Modern Art direction, in which these ancient works would have no place.
I was working at Sotheby’s at the time, which was coincidental as the Albright Knox chose them to auction off the collection. Seeing it on display for the last time, I didn’t really remember any of the pieces, but one Roman era bronze ended up bringing in $28.6 million – the highest ever paid at auction for an antiquity. I gave a little almost silent “yesssssss” when the gavel went down, feeling a little hometown pride. The whole Deaccession brought attention to the issues that museums face- how to remain vital with limited means of raising funds for acquisitions, and in a declining economy, while remaining true to your mission.
The museum has seen much change over the last few years, and I’m happy to say exciting change. The museum has acquired some bold new pieces, including several works by Matthew Barney, Vik Muniz, Tara Donovan, Nikki S. Lee and Tom Sachs- all relevant artists that I actually like. They also mounted some shows that I’ve actually traveled back specifically for. Their Francis Bacon Exhibition, although more concise, was much more cohesive and exciting than the Met’s. (no joke), and the Andrea Zittel “Critical Space” exhibition has been one of my favorites to this day. The new direction feels right, whole and purposeful. Even the late snob Thomas Hoving called it a must see. And that man hated everything that was not the Met.
I should say, I write this as I’m on a train from New York to Buffalo, for some needed recharging of my batteries. I spent most of my childhood life waiting to leave Buffalo, yet now I’ve finally reached the age where there is something renewing about going back. I can finally be happy for Buffalo, instead of scorning or making fun of it.
I’m planning a visit to the Albright Knox for their Sol le Witt exhibition tomorrow.