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In-depth with outgoing Albright-Knox Director Louis Grachos

Albright-Knox Art Gallery Director Louis Grachos in 2011. Photo by Sharon Cantillon

Earlier this year, Albright-Knox Art Gallery Director Louis Grachos announced he would be leaving the gallery for a new job heading up the newly formed AMOA-Arthouse in Texas. In early November, I sat down for an extended exit interview with Grachos in preparation for my profile of him in today's Spotlight section.

Our conversation was wide-ranging and Grachos was characteristically articulate about a range of subjects, from his mandate at the museum to Buffalo's culture at large. He made many frank, insightful, instructive and perhaps surprising statements during our talk, so I am reposting it below:

Colin Dabkowski: When you first came, when you were hired, what was the feeling among the board of directors, the museum and the community about where the Albright-Knox was and needed to go?

Louis Grachos: I was lucky in that the board and staff had just gone through a strategic planning process. For me, that’s what excited me about coming to Buffalo. I knew the collection. I loved my experiences here as a high school kid and eventually a college student. But what really drove me was the idea that the museum was ready to sort of reassert itself as a modernist and contemporary institution that was really interested in community engagement and accessibility. I mean, these were like spelled out, which was great. It got me really thinking about what we could do.

The other [opportunity] was working with the collection in different ways and that was something that excited me. I also felt that I had all the right kind of energy to do all those things, because they’re the things that, as a professional, really excited me. There were a lot of good reasons to come back to this part of the world, but it really was about the museum and the potential. And that drove me.

I liked the challenge of, having spent seven years at SITE Santa Fe, to come back and actually manage a collection or steward a collection. And that was thrilling.

I’m sort of interested more in the general feeling of there having been mission drift as you mentioned in your interview with Douglas Dreishpoon [in the ‘Decade’ catalog.] Was that palpable? Was it like: ‘Please come revive our institution’?

It was more like, ‘Wow, this is a great text book, but we need to engage a community more.’ And that was something that, you could hear it from the interview process and that things hadn’t shifted and changed very much. The thing that was a little bit disconcerting for me was that there was this reliance or hope that somehow the touring blockbuster shows were the answer. And my point was: Wait a minute. We’ve got one of the great collections in the world. People who love and know modern and contemporary art will come from great distances to see this collection, so why not start that way? And why not start going back to the philosophy where we really were hoping to engage artists again, and that sort of artist-centric phrase, was one of the things I thought we needed.

We needed to have engagement from the artists in the program again. When you go back to our golden age – we’ve had great patrons and great moments of great acquisitions – but when you really look at our history, the golden age was really ’56, ’56 to ’73, and that was that confluence of Martha Jackson, Sidney Janis, Mr. Knox and then the hiring of Gordon Smith, who was very much an artist’s director. He really engaged relationships. The great stories of him and the staff going to New York with Mr. Knox and some of the other patrons and really making decisions quickly about artwork coming into the collection really served the museum well.

If you look at the energy – and not just the collecting, but the commitment to performances and the collaborative spirit that Mr. Smith really believed in, and that resulted in the collaborations with UB and the Philharmonic and the Creative Associates and some of the things that really came to fruition in the ‘70s, which you saw in Heather [Pesanti’s] show [“Wish You Were Here.”]

In our situation, he was doing those in ’65 and ’68 with the Festival of the Arts programs. I saw that as important to go back to, learn about it, and see what it would mean today. When I interviewed [for the directorship] and saw the lonely “In Western New York” show, it was, the artists were terrific, but you could just tell the institution didn’t care about this show. It was flat and it was kind of relegated to the junior curator, etc. etc. So then you come into a community and learn about the great traditions of Hallwalls and CEPA and the various university art museum galleries. That’s when we sort of came together with “Beyond/In Western New York.” So that was one of my first observations was like, let’s try and do something together, and bigger, as we have done in the past. And frankly, I still think to this day, the model – ’05, ’07, ’10 – were really outstanding.

What I love about Beyond is that it can morph and change and grow and shrink and do anything we want it to do. The inherent integrity of that process is that it did bring all the curators together….

That first show, the quality of the show just went right up and it got everyone excited. And then ’07… ’10, even the last one I thought, although I would go back and rethink some things with the team, I think it did a lot of good things.

Colin, there are people on my board who are third generation Buffalo and they had never been to the observation tower at City Hall. I don’t think they really saw the beauty of that architecture and the interior. Jackie’s talk when we brought the group up and she, the two of them actually spoke about the work and the project, it was really, you could see that my group hadn’t really thought of Buffalo the way she did or experienced Buffalo the way she did. To be able to bring some of that work into the collection was a great step.

And now you see the show across the street, and that’s just an example of the reverberations [Beyond/In] can send.

Bruce Ferguson when he came in and started, he was so enthusiastic about the model and really pushed out young curators to go and travel and see other biennials. My point is that two or three of the curators went to New Orleans to see Prospect:1, they saw McCallum/Tarry’s installation, they found out about the Buffalo connection, it became part of our show in a very integral and site-specific way and now they’re in the collection at the Albright-Knox and showing at the Burchfield-Penney.

It’s also the opportunity to have a young, someone like Cori [Wolff, of Buffalo Arts Studio], to have the opportunity to go and see these biennials. That format really empowered that and that was a positive.

The idea of the Albright-Knox playing a bigger role in terms of collaboration with other local arts institutions and the community at large and the idea of being artist-centric – the link there I see is not just this altruistic thing, although it’s very genuine when it came from Smith and Knox and it’s very genuine when it comes from you – it’s also driven by economic forces. In the ‘60s, there was more money if you adjust for inflation than there is now, but still not as much as other bigger cities. So, this artist-centric approach of building relationships was also very economically smart.

It is something that I really hope the next director continues and even grows it beyond what we’ve done so far. The sad thing is that now, after all is said and done, we’re back to square one fighting for culture in a political landscape that is completely willing to give Mr. Wilson, Ralph Wilson, $200 to supposedly secure our future in football in Buffalo. Well, it’s a bunch of crap. And the reality is [Erie County Executive] Mark [Poloncarz,] who is totally supportive of cultural institutions is now faced with having to deal with that battle all over again year after year.

You’re driven by economic forces that happen to coincide with your curatorial and general philosophy.

Exactly. But also the willingness to look at ourselves and honestly say: Look, we’re not the Metropolitan [Museum of Art], we’re the Albright-Knox, and really build out of the strength of that. That’s what I read out of the strategic plan that was really empowering. Because I said, OK, this makes sense now. That’s why I thought, ok, now I think I can contribute to the Albright-Knox, because that’s kind of where I’m coming from and the way I want to work with artists and community.

To have partners like Ed [Cardoni] and Lawrence [Brose] at that time and Sean [Donaher], Joanna Angie was like a real leader in that arena with the [Buffalo] Arts Studio. It led me to a number of conclusions. When I look back and think about the great achievements I’ve seen in 10 years, I know it’s like tiny baby steps, but it is about a city starting to recognize that it has this cultural heritage that’s unique and important. And I think you’re starting to see that glimmer of: OK, it’s not just quality of life. It could be something bigger and more important and more interesting.

I have the privilege of seeing it through an artist who lives in Barcelona who comes and sees our community, or a very sophisticated artist living on New Mexico who comes and sees how the city is kind of a history of American cities and it’s in a smaller way a history of American architecture. So there’s that legacy. The cultural history of our community and the assets of our community are giving us some hope that maybe we should start thinking about ourselves differently.

I know this sounds grandiose, but let’s not define ourselves as a blue-collar town, Rust Belt, no economy and no future, and we prefer the Buffalo Bills and the Buffalo Sabres, and that’s all we are. You’re starting to see a very different dynamic now. It’s very much – I’m not overplaying it – but you’re starting to feel that the hockey dads and hockey moms know that the Albright-Knox is a good thing and that maybe their kids should go see it and understand what it is.

It was actually my wife Ann who pointed this out to me about three weeks into our being in Buffalo. She was meeting at that point mainly the kind of people you would expect a museum director to meet, which is our funders, our board of directors, and she made an observation: She said, ‘Louis, I don’t think these folks know what the Albright’s all about.’ That’s exactly what she said to me. I said, ‘What to you mean?’ And she said, ‘Well, I don’t think they get what the collection means and what its history is.’

I thought about that, and it was really on the heels of having to deal with the Phillips Collection, which I couldn’t understand. It was an incredible lift financially, and my perspective was that even if you really needed to have Renoir’s “Boating Party,” you could borrow that, but why would you spend millions of dollars to bring a show of another collection, again rooted in a patron-driven collection, where our collection is way stronger. It just didn’t make sense to me. It was like, why did they do that. And we had to deal with it because it had a real impact on us financially.

It took me a bit of time, but we slowly weaned ourselves off that philosophy and that’s what drove the idea of Remix the Collection and really encouraging someone like Heather, whose interested in Robert Therrien to grow out of the collection and do a show, or Doug doing a Ken Price show, his interest in our holdings in Ken Price growing into something bigger. And that was really the turning point, I think.

I know there are people out there who are saying, Oh, I wish we could have a [Dale] Chihuly show or a French Impressionists show. I think that can happen, but I thought we needed to dedicate at least five years to getting back to publishing, growing the collection, reinterpreting the permanent collection and presenting it in a way to our audiences in a way that if you come four times a year, as I’ve said publicly, I want you to be able to see different things.

I think as a result of lower admissions fees and those blockbusters, one of which is maybe good and they other is bad, attendance used to be a lot larger. So can you help me explain why attendance has dropped since the early ‘90s and if that seems to be a problem to you, or if it’s where it should be?

I’m looking at more of, how you’re serving your community and your audience. And I’ve learned to sort of mistrust facts and figures from 20 years ago, frankly, to be honest with you. I truly believe that if you dedicate yourself to a concerted educational effort for your community – and we’re doing that in different ways. We’re investing.

I don’t meant to sound grandiose, but when we decided to really push for the Artschool program, which came out of address our issues around serving our school-age kids, we realized a number of things. One is, yes, we were serving inner-city schools well, a very small number, less than 5,000 people a year. But we also realized that people who were living in Akron and people who were living in the affluent suburbs of Clarence, those kids weren’t coming to the Albright-Knox. And so this new program really empowered us to reach out and at least start the process of investing in the future.

Again, going back to my first six months in Buffalo: Everyone that was my peer had told me that their first touch with the Albright was with the school program, and that had all but disappeared.

For instance, in the ‘90s, my school never came.

And now your teacher can get you here at least twice a year. It’s a kindergarten through grade 12 program and they’re very important, the teen program is very important to us. So that was the starting point, to really re-start the process and say: Look, we’re investing in the future. So I’d rather see my resources go towards that than bringing in a show that might bump up our stats for a three-and-a-half-month period, and our membership, but the renewal of that never really happens because you’re not really investing. You’re sort of driving the expectation of, OK, we’ve done the Phillips Collection, what’s next? It’s the Rodin show. That was my next step. OK, we’re going from Phillips to Rodin.

And you could see the staff was just motivated that way. It was all about special exhibitions. It wasn’t about, what are we going to do about the collection? How are we going to grow this collection? How are we going to teach our community more about our collection?

I challenged some of our curators: OK, we have the great Giacomo Balla in our collection. Why not think about a futurists show? Why not feature him as an artist, an historic artist and why that’s a historic painting. So it was about a culture change internally.

People didn’t like artists coming in and messing up things here or being involved in the installations. And so when my president at the time said, Louis, you just got here, you should really do a show. That’s why I started thinking of “Extreme Abstraction.” How do we connect contemporary art trends going on today with this collection? And that abstraction show was a way I think to engage. But if you remember that show incorporated a number of things. One was site-specific projects, commissioned works, and then inviting three artists to curate out of the collection: [Jim] Isermann, John Armleder and John Beech and then inviting Pae White to do all the graphics.

So you can imagine the chaos for that show. Because no one on staff was working with artists that way. The registrars weren’t willing to take orders from John Armleder who wanted that 1959 Kessler that was in storage that no one had seen for 40 years because we didn’t know if it worked. In all cases we were pushed. Leo’s piece became a permanent piece. Isermann’s courageous installation of the Link with the Op collection. Pae White doing the graphics. These were like treading on territory that a staff person wasn’t used to dealing with. That’s what I mean about artist-centric.

The other thing that was amazing was this complete shock in the community that we used the entire campus. And I’m saying, shock?

I wondered about that as well. I wasn’t here for that but I read the articles about and the idea that you would remove the sacred whatever for a minute… I was surprised as well.

Laura Fleischer told me that when I moved a painting in the east corridor, it had been on the same nail since 1978.

I think a number of things that would challenge those numbers are our Gusto at the Gallery program and our current First Fridays program. We served in that time-frame, over 250,000 people. And I have to say, to me that was more meaningful. First of all, we could never bring a show here and draw 250,000 people in three or four years. Any blockbuster in Buffalo could draw maybe 70,000, 80,000, which sort of creates the problem: can we sustain an expensive touring show at that level? So my investment was to reengage our museum to a broader community, to bring people in who hadn’t been here, who hadn’t been at the Albright-Knox for a long time and really create a feeling of accessibility.

My own in-house assessment of how the community saw us [was] that we were kind of a place you don’t go into. I remember in those days even when I was interviewing, kind of a gruff guard as soon as I walked in immediately said something to me, I can’t remember what it was, I’ve got to go here or I’ve got to go there. It was like, hmm. It was too formal, too rigid. I wanted people to feel comfortable with the idea of coming here. I’m pretending to be able to convert everybody to modern and contemporary art, but I think as long as they feel open to it and not feel talked down to about the collection. Between education and our curatorial practices shifting, we tried to mediate that.

Do you think that there are new areas, new methods of education yet to be explored? To me, translating the experience of having an amazing experience in front of a work of art is very difficult thing to do and a catalog doesn’t necessarily do that for most people.

I’m old-fashioned, in that I know, just watching my son – how he learns about the world is so much through digital images and the internet, where he doesn’t and hasn’t evolved is like standing in front of the Pollock for a long time. And that, as you know, in museum terms is probably about four minutes.

I think the experience of the object, or even with video and time-based work, you’ve got to be in the space and experience it. Sometimes we do that well and sometimes we don’t in terms of encouraging people to understand that relationship between the true one-on-one experience with art and artworks versus just the pure information. It’s part of that process of making people feel comfortable – that they don’t have to know everything about an artist or an artwork to be moved by it. Instead of making someone feel dumb, like, I don’t get this, are these people telling me that I’m just not smart enough?

That’s extraordinarily complex, based on the kind of work you’re talking about. With conceptual work, you have to have material or else you are going to feel stupid, and if it’s not conceptual, too much material is a bad thing.

Yeah, I totally agree. And I think that’s something we talk about all the time, and I think that’s an area where the Albright-Knox needs to grow and be much more engaged. And how we do that is going to be driven by, yes, resources but also the willingness of the professional staff to engage in those new strategies.

Maria [Morreale], on my staff, for example, is someone who I really love hearing from because she’s not coming from an art history background, she’s coming from a different world: understanding how people get attracted and learn. A lot of her research led to visual learning and how important that can impact whatever discipline you’re in and whatever your interests are and how it can really help you in your life and your profession. Those strategies are valid.

I remember my first art experience, it was vivid and it was lasting and it’s had a transforming impact on someone who really would never [have been] exposed to art. My background was essentially, poverty, post-war European immigrants to Canada who were just so happy to have opportunity to work and to have a life that was safe. So I grew up in that culture and my parents were too busy working to even think about leisure, let alone taking us to a museum. They just didn’t have the background.

So, growing up in Canada – which I have to say is still a pretty great place – is that the school system provided those opportunities for us as kids, so I was exposed to it. And I had the good luck of having good teachers from a very young age on. I always have the belief that if you expose kids to art, good things happen. Really good things happen.

You don’t go to a museum and become an artist, but you can go to a museum and learn and it can inspire something else. And I think that’s the thing that I think is a major role for a public institution.

And the great thing about us is that we don’t have to participate in market, in the sense that when we acquire work for the collection, I don’t care what the value is. I mean, we want what we want for the collection, but the reality is, I’m not worried about, is this going to be worth $2 million next year versus $500,000. So when we think about our collection, we’re thinking about, OK, what is a curator in 50 years going to think about this object or this digital work?

This brings up an interesting point, which is this whole idea of the ‘long curve.’ I like the [“Decade”] catalog, but the only thing I don’t like about it is when [David] Pagel sort of declares that this period is just as relevant… You can’t predict that. Then Doug [Dreishpoon] goes to say the complete opposite. So when you’re out there looking at work and buying work, of course you do not know how it’s going to be perceived 50 years from now, but you have to go on faith anyway. Can you help the public understand how you think about what art will look like to people in the future?

That’s something I think about all the time. In addition to that, I think about how it will integrate in our current collection. And so what I’m looking for is, OK, is this artist really pushing his medium and his expression in an interesting way?

What I’m looking for is, OK, we have a responsibility at the Albright-Knox to extend and look at artists that are working in abstract ways because of our legacy. So what is this guy doing differently, and what’s interesting or not interesting? So, in 40 years, you can imagine a curator saying, well, this object’s really interesting because look at what they were doing, they were taking the technology of the day and essentially trying to turn it into something that’s an abstract painting. To me, that’s a valid work to come into the collection.

The other thing I’ve learned about this collection is that although the elite objects of our collection are very high-profile, textbook as I mentioned, you could use them as teaching the 20th century and hopefully early 21st, but on the other hand, the layers beneath that are really interesting.

I want to try to separate the rhetoric from the reality of [the 2007 deaccessioning.] It seems from the outside, well, so many complained about this that it must have had practical negative effects on the gallery. I don’t know if that’s true or if it’s just a lot of bluster and it’s been relatively positive. What were the practical negative effects, first of all?

The practical effects were essentially, it did two things. One was unconscious and one was real. One was, it allowed the museum to reaffirm its mission but it also put us back into the realm of being able to grow the collection. Our ultimate fear was, we did not want to be a static, time-capsule collection. That was the basic premise.

What it did unconsciously is that it really for the first time – and the person who wrote about this best is Bruce Jackson – it really brought the debate to the community of what this institution really represents. He said in his comments, which I thought were really perfect and right on is he said, well the community at large sort of knew that it was a modern art museum but it was never really debated in the community and frankly that it should be.

So whether, as an art critic, you can say, Grachos, did you reaffirm a mission or did you redefine a mission for the institution? My opinion is, either/or, it was the right thing to do. A lot of my colleagues will say, Well, time will tell if you made the right decision. And my point is, no, I don’t need to wait for time to know. We know we made the right decision because we have decided absolutely that we are what we are, which is a modernist and contemporary institution for this community and frankly serving the broader community outside of Buffalo because of the level of the collection.

It also empowered us – you talked about economics early on – it ensured that we would be able to make good decisions as professionals on what to bring into the collection and not do what other communities have had to do which is rely on patrons. We were lucky with A. Conger Goodyear and Mr. Knox because they brought great sophistication in one case with Mr. Goodyear and great enthusiasm and resources with Mr. Knox. And those are lucky things. Now if you go to the Nelson-Atkins, for example, and you look at how they approached collecting 20th century or contemporary art, it’s very different than what we did. And the director there will tell you that – and not for a positive. They wanted to make sure that the artists living and working during the time frame were solid artists that were historic artists before they started really acquiring their work. Whereas we did the opposite: we really went in on the front end.

What we’re looking for, what we want to bring into the collection is all the areas of the artwork, [all] mediums. And we had to do some catch-up especially with time-based art. We want to try and represent what we think are the best and most innovative artists out there working in whatever media they’re working in. And that’s the flag that you have to carry when you’re thinking about growing the collection. But I’m not trying to identify the next Pollock every time I go to the galleries. That doesn’t happen anymore. It’s a different world.

The reason I asked the ‘long curve’ question, what that is, is because people still don’t grasp the idea that you’re out there on the edge or close to the edge bringing back material that is unlike, in many ways, anything people have seen before. So naturally there’s a blowback to that. What I do want to know is in what ways, if any, has the deaccessioning, the negative comments about it not just here but in the art world at large, made life at the Albright-Knox more difficult?

I want to answer that, because there are two things that impacted the institution. One was the fear I had was: Is this going to lead to donor erosion? And that when you look at some of the smart writing about deaccession and the negative impact [it says]: are you going to start losing donations, are you going to lose the trust of your patrons who might be considering giving, loaning? And my answer to that is absolutely not because if you look at what happened after deacessioning, we’ve had historically two of our biggest gifts of artworks to the museum and frankly on an individual basis, other patrons and other artists have donated works to the collection and that is a real endorsement in my mind.

If you follow the donor erosion attitude or position and you say that, OK, that means that people are going to stop giving us things, people aren’t going to trust us… I think people finally accepted the fact that we took a stand on what our mission was. I have complete confidence that A) we did the right thing because we know what we want to be, from all the internal discussions. And it hasn’t impacted the kind of gifting that’s happened historically to the institution.

Now, having said that, there is a danger in monetizing the collection. And this is where a lot of my colleagues gave me a lot of push-back personally, just from professional to professional: You’re taking the easy route out by selling art objects and unless you’re telling me – this is the kind of question I would get – unless you’re telling me that absolutely it’s only going to go towards acquiring new art, we’re going to have a problem with that. And so, the fears of selling our Pollock to build a wing or to stabilize a budget is a real fear in the art world. And that’s where it gets really dangerous in terms of what we did. The counterpoint argument is, well, come on Grachos, monetizing your collection is the easiest thing in the world, you’re letting your trustees off the hook.

My point was, well, yes and no, because what we’re doing now is we’re really sort of reaffirming who we are. And yeah we have challenges economically, but that’s going to come afterwards. That’s going to have to be the board and our community realizing that we have this asset, we have to fix the buildings, we have to be a better institutions.

By the way: fixing the buildings is one thing, but one of the things you talked about   earlier is being a better-equipped facility to educate, to make a better experience for a visitor. And those are the kinds of things that are leading to the next big challenge for the gallery.

I think in the 10 years, these are my broad observations: We’ve made the museum much more accessible. We’ve engaged in some serious commitment to community outreach and education. We’ve defined what the mission is in a very assertive way, in a clear way. And we’ve ensured that we’re going to grow the collection.

The big challenge for the future is, what do we do with these architecturally beautiful buildings. We sit on this historic Olmsted park. How do we become a better museum for the community? A lot of those issues can be resolved by addressing our facility, and that’s something that we’re really excited about. The commitment to moving forward with the master plan with Snohetta so maybe in 10 years we’re going to have a facility that looks and operates very differently. That would be the dream.

Not to harp too much on the deaccessioning, but aside from blowback from your friends or colleagues…

…It was a rough ride in the community during that whole time frame and it was important to do two things: One was to demonstrate why we deaccessioned, which is, not the only reason, but it has a lot to do with my energy level too, but I wanted to send the signal to the world that we’re growing the collection. We’re not going to sit still. If there’s a Rachel Whiteread that we think we want, we’re going to go for it and we made that very clear. On the other hand, on a personal level it was really tough, because it opened up the discussion across the country.

The president in San Diego was asking his director, ‘Don’t you think we should be deaccessioning?’ It opened a can of worms. Not just me. But because it became a high-profile event, it really opened that discussion up. And you know, it’s a tough thing for any museum director to deal with. It was a tough thing for me, because our DNA is not about letting things go, it’s about collecting things and caring for them. So it was a tough, tough call. But I can safely tell you that this institution has not been damaged by this process on any level at all, and that’s for the record.

Our fundraising is at a historic level. Our donations of artworks to the collection is at a very healthy… and if you look at the annual report, you’ll see, we get a number of donations annually. So there are no signs that it really hurt the institution, outside of that sort of battle for defining who we were and what we were.

In this day and age, in terms of education, I know, between the Science Museum and some of the other collections in our community, the ability to always be able to borrow artworks from the collection – I never felt that we were compromising the program, and that was something that we all were concerned about. Wow, this is a great artwork to teach about figuration today and do we still have enough in the collection to be able to do that. And I think through the small sculpture program, some of the collaborations we’ve been doing, we’re sort of demonstrating that we’re not handicapped in that way.

I never want to do it again. From death threats to ridicule to being shunned by museum directors that I’ve known all my life, all my professional life: It wasn’t fun. But in the end I was committed to the idea that, OK, we’re really driving the stake in the ground... There’s no one on the horizon that’s like Mr. Knox or Mr. Goodyear. That’s another thing. And so, as a person who’s interested in culture, in Buffalo, living and working in Buffalo, you want to see your museums growing.

I mean, even the Frick in New York, for example, has dedicated to a much more fluid program because they felt that they couldn’t just open up the salons the way Mr. Frick had set up and just leave it at that. They wanted to be a vital institution in the New York landscape, and so they started programming, they started to change their mission. And so, I go back to what I would argue: No, I don’t need history to make me feel good about deaccessioning because I think we did the right thing.

During the conference two Saturdays ago for the “Decade” celebration, Amy Cappellazo [of Christie’s auction house] made the point that, well, you know institutions like the Albright-Knox are no longer relevant. It’s all about the market. It’s all about artists’ careers.

I know -- I don’t care if they’re Matthew Barney or Tim Hutchings --, if you give them the option of being, let’s take a high-profile collector like Jerry Speyer who is the chairman and MoMA. If you ask the artist, ‘Where would you rather have your work, the Albright-Knox or in Jerry’s collection?’ It’s a no-brainer. No artist in their right mind would ever devalue being collected by a public institution because of all the reasons you expect. And Jerry Speyer might sell his entire collection in two years, and you don’t know. That work could be anywhere after that.

Another point is, [during] my sort of maturing as a curator, the pinnacle collectors were Eileen and Peter Norton, who invented Norton Securities, was really a groundbreaking collector, he supported artists who were dealing with gender issues, race issues. He supported kind of a young generation growing up, and no one ever would have thought that that collection wouldn’t end up in public institutions, and it was sold off at auction last year. That’s a quality generation collection, just gone.

But this brings up the idea of the word ‘public’ and what that means for a museum that is largely privately funded and gets half a million bucks a year form the county and maybe some other grants in there. But things like the Sabres show [‘Forty’] that probably never would have happened before and other areas where we’re starting to see the traditional mission, those lines and boundaries between public and private are disintegrating even here.

Yeah. Look, I took a lot of flack for that hockey show. But this is the way I saw it going into it, and the first thing I did was I told all the curators that they were exonerated, that whatever happens, I’m gonna take the heat on this because it is crossing that boundary and you’re absolutely right to point that out. But the Sabres made that show happen in an easy way for us but we still took on half the cost to put that show together. It wasn’t like it was just a rental that we were given or they paid us to do it; it wasn’t anything like that.

What it meant for me was, we had that whole confluence of events going on. We had the World Juniors, we had the 40th anniversary [of the Sabres], and we had the legitimate tie-in with the Knox family. And, you know, my sort of excitement about just really doing something that would bring, again, like the Gusto at the Gallery strategy, bring something to the gallery that would attract a broader spectrum of our community, which it did. The case I like to point out – and they’re a great hockey family – their son came to the show, it was a mother and son, they came to the show. She was marveling, had forgotten how great the collection was – I’m not talking about the Sabres show, I’m talking about the rest of the building – and how she called her husband, who is a state trooper, who had never been to the Albright-Knox, who grew up in West Seneca. And he came, and his comment was, ‘Wow, this place is huge. I didn’t realize what was going on here.’

I’m not as cynical about it because I did it out of just pure enthusiasm for engaging community and frankly I would even confess maybe it was a little sentimental. But was it about blurring the lines between a corporate sponsor and the Albright-Knox? Not really, because that show has no impact on that hockey team and its potential. It’s what it is, right. Let’s face it, they’re a gorilla in our community like the Bills and M&T Bank is going to think nothing about investing $4 million into advertising with them but they’re going to think long and hard and be very scrutinizing on how we spend a $150,000 grant for the Albright-Knox. There’s all this stuff going on, it’s not that simple.

Frankly, the aesthetic of the show was more about celebrating journalistic photography.

But the idea is, in general, not even about the Sabres show, the importance of having the community view it as a public institution, is that important going forward?

Colin, we talk about making the place free all the time. I mean, that, your article raised really good discussions internally, because we learned from Gusto the power of inviting people to a program and not having to charge them and the benefits of that in terms of [building] new audiences. And, hopefully, my colleague in Houston got a corporation to sponsor admissions. I thought that was a great idea. I superficially talked to some of our corporate folks… and no one was really willing to get to that level. I’d love to invite Blue Cross/Blue Shield or M&T or First Niagara, for $500,000, I could make the argument that boy, you’re going to get great profile, being the corporation providing free admission to the Albright-Knox. It’s a great marketing thing for the, just pure marketing. But no one’s willing to get to that level. And that’s kind of what we’d have to get to at the very least.

No small amount of cash, especially when you consider the task of raising your operational budget every year, which everybody describes as ‘Sysiphean.’

It is. It is tough. But that’s kind of what we do. You look at every single organization in our community, and that’s what they’re doing. I just listened to an interview on NPR on the CEPA Auction, the Visions program. I mean, it’s, you just have to keep doing it over and over again.

My metaphor for the community, too, and I’m very sincere about this, is, when I was interviewing for the job which was ironically, I think I accepted the job in late November or mid-Novermber, and I remember going to the Martin House and [former director] John Courtin took us through, and it was the townhouses were still up, the Martin House itself was in a shambles, there was debris everywhere. The Barton House was intact. The gardener’s cottage wasn’t part of the complex yet… And when I go by now, and I do spend a lot of time there, I always bring visitors to see it because it’s a point of pride for a community that in a decade has made tremendous inroads in making that a viable, important restoration project. And it does drive a kind of sophisticated cultural tourism. It’s a good sign for the community, as is Canalside and what’s happening there.

I mean now that that sort of seems to be on track, and the Zemsky’s project at Larkin, the restoration of our hotels: these are really good signals for the community I think.

Colin, I enjoy sports more than anyone. In fact, I would say in my field, if you had 150 museum directors, I’d probably be in the 2 percent that actually like sports beyond just like your board members invite you to games and stuff. I really enjoy sports and I have a lot of respect for athletes, the way I respect artists. But, you know, this is where the community has to step up and challenge the fact that – and fortunately, it’s now resolved with the Sabres, because I think we have an owner who’s not going to ask us to pay for them the way the Bills are asking us to pay for them – and to get over this idea that somehow our entire identity of being a Buffalo person is tied to sports and Buffalo wings.

Yeah, that’s part of the landscape, but that’s not the whole store. I think we have that responsibility to push that message out, the Martin House, the other culturals, I think the universities need to play out that more aggressively. When we talk about the ‘60s, the University at Buffalo’s art department was humming. The ‘70s were humming. We need that kind of energy form the University as well supporting us.

You wrote about Daemen College earlier, and that kind of commitment to an artist community is important too. But if you UB engaged in a much bigger way, it would be so phenomenal.

It’s nice to see Jonathan Katz doing things at Hallwalls. That’s a start.

We’re hoping that’s a signal that this community is really redefining itself in a good way.

For you personally, what did you learn during your 10-year tenure that you really didn’t know before. What are one or two of the lessons you learned about yourself, about the collection, about how you do your job that Buffalo taught you?

What it really taught me was the importance of trying to expand outward and make art more accessible to more people, and also, the effort in making people feel comfortable about art experiences is such a valuable and worthwhile endeavor. Someone told me this the other day: ‘The thing is, I tour through the museum with you and I always feel good about the tour, because you don’t dumb it down, and you don’t make me feel like I don’t know anything.’ For me, that lesson in terms of reaching out to community and being accessible was really important. It’s also, I’m essentially a shy person, too, so it’s hard for me.

The important thing, what I learned through deaccessioning is to really stick to my guns and even though it was torture for weeks and weeks and weeks, it was really important to maintain the stamina. And I think in a way that’s the lesson for the arts community and for all of us: Someday we’re going to have dedicated funding for the arts. Until this economy catches up with the quality of our organizations. And it also is a challenge on our private citizens to be much more aggressively supportive of our public institutions.

Our private citizens have to sort of step up. And I have to say, that’s an area that we’ve made some major progress. The trustees have been growingly generous and four or five families are becoming really good collectors of contemporary art, and that’s a good sign. So I think that patronage is important, but I think we have to work hard at pushing the agenda for change what Buffalo should look like to people we’re trying to attract to it.

So my 50-minute tour of Buffalo includes going form the airport to the Martin House to the Sullivan Building to the Sarninen building [Kleinhans Music Hall] to the Richardson Towers to Burchfield Penney, Historical Society, through Lincoln Road and the Olmsted Parks as much as I can and now I can include Canalside and the Larkin [District] as places that are good signals of growth and revitalizing. Or the fact that we can put people up at The Mansion or the Hampton Inn is a good thing.

It really makes me mad and disappointed that we’re still, 10 years later, talking about giving the Bills $200 million. And they’ll tell you, oh, you don’t understand… It’s like, what are you talking about? We have to battle for $5 million for 50 institutions. And Ed just sent out an email, we’ve got to start the whole process again. And again we’re back to defending ourselves. Who is going to have vision and the capability to say: OK, we have these assets that have to grow and we have to ensure that this amount of money every year is going to be there every year for these institutions. It’s going ot take some courage, and it would be nice for Mr. Wilson to maybe say something like that.

Yeah right. Good luck with that. We’re also talking about for-profit and non-profit here. I’m sure that will enrage you further.

It’s crazy. The one thing that, just to get back to your original question, blurring the boundaries between market and so on: What is great about deaccessioning is that we don’t have to worry about that.

We’ve empowered ourselves as an institution. That was the beauty of the deaccession – you know, in all honesty, we had no idea. We knew it was going to be successful, but not the way it was. And now, like any director that comes in here, any curator, is going to have the kind of institutional freedom that other institutions don’t have. I know it. Even the Walker has to be very solicitous to individuals.

And that’s time you’re not spending working on education, it’s time you’re not spending talking to artists and developing relationships.

It also gives us the opportunity to take our resources and put it in those areas versus collecting and also compromising with the collection. So Amy’s totally off. She might think we’re irrelevant, and yeah, I’m not going to go buy a Warhol for $40 million as an institution, but I don’t care because I have a great Warhol.

That’s the one side of deaccessioning that I think my colleagues are starting to understand that we as an institution now empowered ourselves in a way that separates us out. So I could argue the same thing as well… you sort of entered and monetized certain parts of the collection, but OK now we’ve got the resources where we don’t have to really compromise that anymore. The thing is, as this institution grows, as the endowment grows, the recourses for acquisitions is not going to dissipate, it’s going to get stronger.

So in two years, if things continue to move the way they have, the curators and the director will have a substantial amount of resources to acquire. And that’s empowering, it’s really phenomenal. Like the [Robert] Irwin for example that just went up. What a great thing to be able to do, to work with an artist who’s a legend, literally, who’s transformed the way we look at art and experience art, we started our commitment to Irwin in 1963, ’64, and in 2012 we were able to commission him to do a great piece for the collection that’s site-specific, as he calls it, site-context.

I think that’s what deaccessioning really did. And that’s empowering. And by the way, that’s why we’re going to have a phenomenal new director, because where I’m sitting right now, there are very few opportunities of the quality positions that we have here now. Our trustees recognize that as long as we’re in this position with this collection and the capacity to grow, we’re going to always be able to attract a great director. I’m not saying I’m a great director, I’m just saying that, let’s put it this way: we’re going to have a really good group of candidates to select from.

Do you know the group? Not that I’m asking you to tell me who they are.

No. All I know is the process is moving along beautifully and I have every confidence that it’s going to be a great selection.

People are wondering, why go from the Albright-Knox…

To nowhere.

To nowhere. Not nowhere exactly. But OK. Put those questions to rest.

You can believe this or not. I really think people who are involved with institutions, public institutions, private institutions that are about creativity or have an artistic focus, I think energy and vision are key. I think in 10 years I’ve been able to sort of exercise and make contributions and I think it’s important for me to get reenergized in another challenge, and I think it’s important for the museum.

I’m saying that going to an organization that’s newly merged, historically complicated and there really is only a minor collection. But there’s something in that model, the idea that I can actually help create a new institution and a new model in a city that’s very different than this one was really energizing for me. And I think that’s important, for me and for the Albright-Knox.

Here, I think it’s time to move on and I do think the content, the work of the museum is in a very healthy state. There’s the challenge of a building project coming up over the next 10 years, and the new director has to have the kind of energy to want to take that on.

In all honesty, it’s not what really drives me. There are colleagues of mine who love the idea of buildings and architecture and dealing with space and stuff. It doesn’t motivate [me]. But that’s the thing that has to happen next. We have to address it. Kids have to have a much better experience coming in to the gallery and having the exposure to a kind of technology, a kind of understanding of the collection that is going to be resolved through space and technology and that’s where we need to go.

I believe all of that 100 percent, but I also have kind of a theory, a secondary theory that you can blow out of the water if you want. It seems to me, and I’m not an expert on what it’s like to fundraise for the Albright-Knox and keep it going year-to-year but I imagine the philanthropic environment, the funding environment in Austin is better.

It is and it isn’t. You and I could sit down and put together a list of millionaires and billionaires in Austin right now. But there isn’t a historic place, institution where that becomes a no-brainer. I think you’re right, there’s incredible potential, and that’s my challenge is to try and galvanize some of that potential.

The other thing that really makes it a tough fundrainsg environment in Austin is, the University of Texas is a goliath. It’s huge. But there is incredible potential financially and there are I would say four or five families that really could transform the cultural community in Austin if they chose to. If I could help our new institution become a model that would make it attractive for those four or five families to become invested in it, then it could become transformative. I’ll be totally honest: absolutely.

When I go into a café in Austin, I’m the oldest person. And I’m not exaggerating. If we went to a restaurant in Austin together I would be by far the oldest person in the room. That’s just the way it is. And that’s energizing for me. I love that.

The other thing that I thought about carefully, Austin is, whether you’ve been there or not, it’s a place where people want to go, especially artists. I felt, well, I can’t promise an acquisition or I can’t necessarily be overly ambitious especially on the front end, but at least I know that artists that I really respect will want to come and do something there. It’s all off the beaten path. Because, Houstin, Dallas, Forth Worth, have established art communities that are really vibrant right now. So it is exciting.

A colleague of mine, Amada Cruz, just took the job at Artpace [in San Antonio] as director and she’s someone I have enormous respect for. She was a great curator. So I’m feeling there’s a good family of museum people in Texas in general. Most of my supporters financially at SITE Santa Fe were Texans.

I don’t know what it’s like on a day-to-day or year-to –year basis here, but my guess is that the financial worries of pushing the rock up the hill detract from what you want to be doing, which is engaging with artists, etc. Any director’s job is to do that, obviously…

And we have a lot of work to do there, there’s no question…

But that’s not something you’ve felt overwhelmed by?

No. In all honesty, Colin, the amount of board giving, the consistency of our foundation support and our corporate support has been really solid. I’m not worried about things falling through. And that took a while to build that, so I think we’re leaving at a good time. But I do think it is about, a little bit about energy and it’s a little bit about a new landscape to really get someone here that really will enjoy the strong opportunities in terms of content and art, but also embrace the challenges of taking these two great buildings and doing something with them that will be different – and that might mean an expansion and it might not. I don’t know.

But I think it’s a good tenure. Ten years is a good [amount of] time for any museum. And you’re learning and have learned about the community too, and you and I could probably sit down and say, it’s time for X to go too. And it’s nothing about not being competent or not being an outstanding director or curator, but it’s about the realities of cultural, the cultural arena is that those things are important.

When I go to Austin, it’s going to be a new landscape for me that will hopefully get me to think differently and to apply what I’ve learned here and try and create something different there also.

I think that applies everywhere. Every so often, no matter how intelligent or effective somebody is, new blood is a good thing.

It’s going to be interesting and exciting and we’ll see what happens. It’s a new adventure. My nature is that I really like change. I know there are folks who have a real problem with shifting and changing and transition. I’m the opposite. It’s just my DNA.

 --Colin Dabkowski


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