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Monday, March 05, 2007

Albright-Knox ignored a lesson of history

By Dick Hirsch
As we have all learned as students of public affairs, the coverup can sometimes be worse than the crime or the episode. So it was with the Nixon bunch and the Watergate burglary, with President Clinton and his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky and with Scooter Libby, the assistant to Vice President Cheney, for his role in the leaking of information about the CIA agent-wife of a Bush Administration critic.
And so it is with Louis Grachos, the director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Board of Directors of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, the body that has governed the gallery since its founding in 1862.
They all engaged in a coverup over a period of months, a conspiracy of silence, to arrange the auction sale of some 200 artworks from the permanent collection of the Albright-Knox.
By any legal definition, that is not a crime. It will be remembered as an episode. Museums do have the right to sell pieces from their collections for various reasons. Sometimes a curator might decide a particular painting or sculpture is so similar in content and execution to another work by the same artist in the collection that it can be sacrificed without negative impact. That piece could be sold and the proceeds used for a strategic purchase to fill a gap in the collection. On other occasions, a museum might have questions about the authenticity of a work and decide to dispose of it. Selling a work is an accepted practice in the museum world and seldom does it come to public attention.
But the scenario at the Albright-Knox is different because of its size, involving the auction of a substantial number of mostly older works. The claim is that the items---among them Greek, Roman, Asian, Egyptian and others---have little or no relevance in the collection of an institution that has gained international prominence for its foresight in purchasing the art of today and tomorrow.
That was the explanation and as soon as the plan was announced it inflamed the passions of countless art lovers, none of whom could have known precisely what they were screaming about, since the museum never defined what was planned by declining to release the list.
What a classic public relations snafu that turned out to be. The simple truth is that the Albright-Knox is clearing out its attic.
Why didn’t they explain that in the beginning? It would have calmed the raging waters. History tells us that Buffalo people cling to the old and are suspicious of change. Remember the enormous fuss over Fort Makowski, that proposal to build a low brick wall around Niagara Square? Or how about the plan for the Peace Bridge?
Somebody on that board should have alerted the group to the dangers inherent in their strategy, not the act of cleaning the attic, but the failure to explain it promptly and fully and to provide a list of the works to be sold.
Who knows, they may have even arranged an exhibition of those pieces so the public could see exactly what was going. I know people who were apprehensive since the initial announcement, worried about the fate about certain favored works.
When the list was finally made public, three months after the announcement of the planned sale, people looked and found it was primarily things that haven’t been seen in years. That isn’t a reflection of their quality; rather it is a commentary on their relevance in the Albright-Knox collection. Since that is just about what the gallery has contended since the outset, can we agree that immediate full disclosure would have made the process less painful?
There is still strong opposition to the sale, the most vocal group being lead by Carl Dennis, a poet and professor of English at the University at Buffalo. They have insinuated they may take legal action to try to block the auctions.
Meanwhile, the gallery predicts it could raise at least $15 million that could be used for the purchase of contemporary works. The gallery has a $58 million endowment, some of which can be used for acquisitions, but in a rising art market officials felt the need for more cash. At this moment, there are no benefactors of the stature of Seymour H. Knox or A. Conger Goodyear, so the board decided it had to use a different money-raising technique. But it kept the details of the plan to sellå a secret, providing one more example of a coverup that became worse than the episode.


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