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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Fire sale at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery

By Dick Hirsch
Among other things, Louis Grachos presented himself as a very savvy guy during the three years since he became director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. He is not merely a dilettante and an elitist, as are so many of his colleagues in the museum world. He has a certain panache, charisma or flair, call it whatever you wish. He is a promoter and a marketer, a man who, in a brief period, has emerged as a familiar figure in the museum corridors and media personality.
He masterminded creation of Gusto at the Gallery, a weekly multimedia presentation that attracted new bodies, young bodies, to the museum, by making admission free on Friday nights. It has been a great success. He has also made some startling acquisitions, pieces that surprised or astonished even those experienced gallery-goers familiar with the Albright-Knox policy of showing the latest contemporary art.
This appeared to be a savvy guy, a man who many believe is on his way up in the museum world. The trustees plucked him from a little-known gallery in Santa Fe, and since he arrived he has been a busy man. He rearranged the collection, revised the staff, repainted some walls and even revamped the operation of the restaurant. Presumably he has accomplished all of that with the blessing of the directors, who must be both impressed with and charmed by the Grachos regime.
Then he stumbled. Or did he? With board approval, he engineered a plan to sell off some 200 paintings and sculptures from the collection, with the proceeds available for purchase of contemporary works. As this is written, they have declined to provide a complete list of the works. Museums do sell extraneous pieces occasionally, but such a large number drew widespread attention, most of it negative.
The Albright-Knox occupies a unique position in Buffalo, even among those who rarely visit there. It is near the top of everyone’s bragging list when they emphasize the positives about the area. It has a palatial quality and is a revered institution, the kind of place you don’t want to tamper with, unless you are ready for controversy.
Grachos arrived in Buffalo with a reputation as a young scholar and innovator who enjoyed positioning himself on the cutting edge, just the type the board wanted to further the museum’s reputation for exhibiting and buying the latest, the newest, the most imposing and radical...But his museum administrative experience was skimpy. He had been director of a small and experimental gallery in Santa Fe, best known for supplying regular doses of shock and awe. His Buffalo mission: to build on the Albright-Knox reputation as a citadel of the modern.
Most people know that the gallery gained a hyphen in the 1960s, with Knox being added after Seymour H. Knox, aided by the director, Gordon M. Smith, went on an ongoing and amazing treasure hunt, buying hundreds of artworks and amassing a contemporary collection that catapulted the gallery into national prominence. I worked as a consultant for the gallery during those years, writing a seemingly endless series of news releases about the artists and the acquisitions. Those were heady times.
On buying trips, Knox and Smith hobnobbed with artists and dealers in New York, Paris and elsewhere. They visited Clyfford Still’s home in Maryland and Knox scampered up to the hayloft in the barn, territory no collector had before been permitted to enter. There he inspected Still’s storehouse of pioneering field paintings, paintings the artist had refused to part with. Still was so charmed by the duo, he gave---yes, gave---a group of 21 paintings to the gallery and the Knox reputation as a champion of the contemporary was dramatically enhanced.
But Knox never rejected the old. He especially treasured the English paintings like The Lady’s Last Stake by Hogarth, Cupid as a Link Boy by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and others, many of which were early Knox family gifts. Interestingly, he shared with me a fascination with the contemporary look of the Cycladic idol from 3000 BC. The gallery may have sold pieces then, but you can be sure it never would have sanctioned a fire sale of the kind now on the table.
When he arrived, Grachos professed affection for the collection. Today’s board members probably agree but believe they are right in approving the dispersal of the pieces. With no potential major donors in sight, they must feel drastic action is needed to raise money for acquisitions. It’s a risky business when you dump the established in favor of the unknown and trendy, and then cross your fingers to await the judgment of history.



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