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Selling the family jewels

Most of the people I’ve talked to in Buffalo about the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s impending sale of 200 works from its (formerly) permanent collection seem deeply ambivalent about it. They hate to see all that nice, old stuff go, but, then, they think it’s important for the gallery to stay current in order to attract visitors and maintain its reputation as a “world-class” art museum.

They seem to have an idealized conception of the art world and the Albright’s place in it, a notion that I’ll argue doesn’t apply anymore.

In the middle years of the 20th century, gallery director Gordon Smith, backed by megabucks aesthete Seymour Knox, scooped up a treasure trove of postwar abstract expressionist paintings before just about anybody else knew their worth. They were the first to buy Clyfford Still and one of the first to buy Henry Moore. Kandinsky, Gorky, DeKooning, Motherwell and, of course, Pollock all joined the collection.

According to the 1962 Time magazine article that reported on the name change of the Albright Art Gallery to the Albright-Knox, their purchase of the Pollock was particularly astute. Knox, the writer gushed, “got his Pollock before the artist’s sudden death sent Pollock prices skyrocketing.”

That same article also famously pronounced the gallery’s collection of abstract art as “second to one”—the “one” being the Museum of Modern Art’s. For some reason, Buffalonians have always been inordinately proud of this “second-best” designation, and the story of how we earned it has become the stuff of civic legend.

I think that the museum’s current director, Louis Grachos, is playing off that heroic legend in order to sell his plan to sell off a frighteningly large chunk of the museum’s patrimony so he can fund his insatiable appetite for new acquisitions. I think it’s a rotten deal and it breaks my heart to think of the lasting damage this one man’s passing vanity will have on an institution I have cherished all my life and will continue to cherish long after he’s moved on to some other position in some other town.

Basically, the people who think it’s a good idea are buying into Grachos’s argument that the gallery’s “core mission” is “acquiring and exhibiting art of the present,” which I’ll show is a groundless assertion. And he’s using the gallery’s mythic reputation for making canny acquisitions to justify his eagerness to go off on a spending bender.

“These works—wonderful as they are—are outside of our mission,” he told Richard Huntington in the Buffalo News puff piece announcing the sale. “Their deaccession will enable us to continue in the forerunner position that we’ve had in the past. We will be able to aggressively develop the collection of contemporary art and perhaps fill gaps in the modern collection.”

You can practically see him rubbing his hands together as he describes the deal. But before we rush out to sell off the family jewels, let’s take a close, hard look at the facts of the deal, the ones we’ve been shown so far, at least. To my mind, you sell the family jewels when you’re on the verge of starving to death, not to feed your gambling habit. And that’s what Grachos is proposing: exchanging a sure thing (priceless works of art that are already in the collection) for a long shot (extremely expensive works of art by the “present” artists he wants to chase on the open market). What will the true value of the pieces he buys be over the long run? That’s anybody’s guess.

Keep in mind that we don’t even know what exactly the gallery intends to sell yet, aside from a few specific examples that have been fed to reporters. Here’s what we do know is going: the Artemis and Stag sculpture, an ancient Roman masterpiece that’s expected to fetch $5-7 million; a granite Shiva of the 10th or 11th century described by Sotheby’s as “the most important Indian sculpture to ever appear on the market” ($3 million); a Shang Dynasty bronze wine vessel ($2-3 million); a sixth-century limestone chimera funerary sculpture ($1.5-2.5 million); and various unidentified “Egyptian objects and Old Master paintings.”

Yes, I said “Old Master paintings.” Which Old Master paintings? Don’t know. The Albright-Knox hasn’t said. Maybe a Rembrandt or two, who knows? Not that it really matters anyway, since they fall outside the gallery’s “core mission.”

By my count that leaves about 195 other unidentified pieces to go. A spokesman for the gallery told me the list hasn’t been finalized with Sotheby’s, and the museum doesn’t plan to release the list of works that have been tendered so far.

Okay, so we don’t know what’s actually on the block. What are we supposed to get in return for these irretrievable masterpieces? “More than $15 million,” says the Buffalo News, which will “almost double the current acquisitions endowment of $19 million to $20 million.” I guess $20 million is not enough to feed Mr. Grachos’s habit.

And what are we going to get for our money? Not to worry. Grachos assures us that, “It will do nothing less than ensure that we will be able to purchase works by the greatest artists of our time.” Not “the greatest artists of all time,” mind you, he said “our time.”

Ah, the greatest artists of our time! Let’s see, that would be…um, er, well…He did say something about maybe picking up an Edward Hopper. Not exactly an artist of “our time,” but a great artist nevertheless. Anyhow, I’m sure Grachos knows who the greatest artists of our time are.

I can’t wait to find out, can you?

Based on the premise that what’s past is prologue, maybe we can look to Grachos’s recent “Extreme Abstractions” show for a glimpse of our future. A reviewer for the journal Art in America was enthusiastic about the show. She wrote: “Many of the works by younger artists not already in the [Albright-Knox] collection have been loaned by artists and dealers—they are, to be blunt, on the market.” Oh, so Grachos likes to show works that are for sale. That’s not so uncommon these days. Let’s see what else this observer, whose choice of words is more judicious than mine, had to say:

“In the space of a few weeks, between the opening of the show and the writing of this article, the museum had already acquired, according to Grachos, ‘at least a dozen’ additional artworks in the exhibition, and he has his eye on a good number of the rest.

I don’t know whether it’s a common practice for a collecting museum to so aggressively seed commercially available works in a large exhibition, but it has most certainly yielded a terrific harvest for Grachos, who could readily demonstrate the compatibility of his selections with the collection as a whole to various museum officials and trustees as he led them through the show.”

What’s ironic about Grachos’s salesmanship is how he leverages the strength of the permanent collection to sell the importance of his new acquisitions, then puts the permanent collection under wraps, or now, entirely out of reach. He put a large swath of the permanent collection into storage to make room for “Extreme Abstractions,” his vanity exhibition which provided an attractive stage set to pitch the museum executives who have to okay his purchases.

The Art in America reviewer noted that the show constituted “the most radical upending of the museum’s installation in memory,” though Grachos did leave enough golden-oldies out on the floor to help cinch the deal: “While there are a number of recent acquisitions that, in my opinion, might not hold up on their own, their interaction with the architecture or judicious placement near more interesting works creates auspicious circumstances in which to reassess them.”

It’s comforting to think that our new acquisitions that “might not hold up on their own” can at least be propped up by the works already in the collection, that can stand on their own (so long as they remain in the collection) for our “reassessment,” if not actual enjoyment. I guess if we’re really hard up for cash we could always unload those, too.

It’s probably not fair to heap all this obloquy on Grachos’s head alone. It’s a little like blaming the coach for all the big-bucks politicking that has soured professional sports and made a mockery of such quaint notions as “fair play,” “good sportsmanship” and “team loyalty.” After all, he’s just playing the game the way it’s come to be played. The ones who are really to blame are the museum’s trustees whose job it is to safeguard the collection but are instead abetting him in this thievery.

Tom Freudenheim, a Buffalo native and 40-year veteran of the museum game, including a stint as assistant secretary of museums for the Smithsonian, wrote about the Albright-Knox/Sotheby’s deal for the Wall Street Journal. He deplores “the constant buying and selling that characterizes what used to be called ‘collecting’ but that has now obliterated whatever lines once differentiated the roles of curator and dealer.”

What’s exceptional about this particular deal, he told me on the phone, the reason it’s garnering international attention and a fair amount of opprobrium, is its size, the shear number of high-quality pieces that are being sold off all at once.

What really ticks Freudenheim off about the whole sordid business is the failure of the museum’s trustees to uphold their tax-supported mission to preserve the collection as a public benefit. The News reports that the deal received the unanimous support of the Albright’s board of directors. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Freudenheim said:

“The message is, once again, that those entrusted with the sacred task of safeguarding our public patrimony have become as irresponsible as the money-grubbing executives who have given corporate America such a bad name. The works of art in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery don’t belong to the directors and curators, who move in an out of communities as job opportunities present themselves. Nor are they the property of the trustees, who are meant to hold them in trust for the people of Buffalo, but who now show that they cannot be trusted.”

As Freudenheim says, the foxes have taken the henhouse. Grachos assures us that he “will never touch 19th and 20th century work,” which is not all that reassuring when you consider what that still leaves up for grabs. We all have our favorites, but Freduenheim calls attention to a “small but significant” group of 18th-century paintings that were purchased by the Knox family for the museum in 1945 (including pieces by Hogarth, Reynolds, Gainsborough and others) and the Mesopotamian “Mountain Deity,” ca. 3,000 BC, that was purchased in 1950.

Grachos’s account of the collection’s history is selective and misleading. His claim that the museum’s “core mission” is the purchase and exhibition of works by present artists is given the lie by the history of these and many other acquisitions. As Freudenheim said, gallery publications over the years have enthused over the purchase of antiquities, and “clearly the Knox family, which bought the group of 18th-century English paintings, didn’t find any conflict between ‘old’ art and new.”

The value of the objects the Albright plans to peddle far exceeds any monetary value or exchange value their sale would bring to the gallery in terms of new acquisitions. Generations of Buffalonians past and future have had and will have their first encounter with art culture at the Albright, and there will be many who never travel to New York or LA or Rome or Cairo to experience these kinds of objects firsthand. It is a cruel and short-sighted decision to deny them an opportunity that, quite literally, changed my life, and changed it forever for the better, and enriched me beyond measure, in a way money and contemporary photography will never do.

Those objects represent a tangible, palpable link to a past that can only be accessed personally and immediately by being in their presence. Just spend some time with the tiny but potent, 5,000-year-old “Mountain Deity” that Freudenheim cites and feel your sense of place in the infinite and eternal cosmos get a bit of a jolt. Does it matter to me in that moment that the statue does not fit into a larger, coherent context of Babylonian sculpture as represented in the collection? Not a jot. But my appreciation of the ancient craftsman’s handiwork harmonizes perfectly well with my love of the creations of Rodin and Brancusi and Picasso.

Ancient in my memory and in the collective memory of the culture, these priceless works of art are irreplaceable in every sense of the word. That there should even be a question of rummaging them off is to me absurd. That the director and trustees of the gallery didn’t give the community they are entrusted to serve an opportunity to debate the deal before it was signed, and won’t even tell us exactly what is on sale, is unconscionable. So much for their vaunted “openness.”

The Carnegie’s Richard Armstrong added to his remarks in the News that “the decision to deaccess is a very shrewd, strategic clarification of the Albright-Knox’s mission—very timely and endlessly empowering.” He notes how some of the works on sale have not been on display for 10 years or more, and sneers, “if the food chain is getting along nicely without it, why mourn?”

Well, let me tell you, the “food chain” is not getting along nicely without them, thank you very much—as if our patience in waiting for these prized objects to be returned to public view were a mark of indifference, not forbearance. And now he thinks we should just roll over and allow them to be pawned off to the highest bidder, removed from our sight forever? No one knows how many of them will end up stashed away in private collections.

Why mourn, indeed, when the collection we have known and cherished all our lives is “deaccessed” to the ever greater Buffalo catalogue of Things That Aren’t There Anymore.

Art is long and life short. Grachos and his confreres may stumble across the next Jackson Pollock on one of their shopping sprees, but I doubt it. Pollock was big; bigger than life. A genius? Sure. It doesn’t seem there are many people of his stature around these days, least of all in the rarefied atmosphere of the art world. Meanwhile, we know for certain what the stuff over on Elmwood Avenue is worth. It has proven its worth throughout the centuries.

Buffalo, this deal stinks. We’re getting screwed…again. Are you just going to lay there and take it…again? Tom Freudenheim said that trustees in other cities have been sued to prevent this kind of travesty from happening. Does anybody else around here smell a lawsuit?

Patrick Klinck


A wonderful thing happened on Tuesday, Election Day. We threw the bums out. It’s been a government of secrecy, arrogance and deception, manipulating the facts for their own ends.

A not so wonderful thing, but in some ways similar, happened on Friday the 10th. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery announced that it is selling much of its antiquities collection. The “deaccession” of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery antiquities comes as a shock to many in the art community. Louis Grachos has put his ‘secret’ plan to sell off the antiquities of our community art gallery into motion before any public input can be heard. The gallery has the impression that it’s not a part of this community. Grachos acts like many CEOs of today’s business corporations. We are supposed to accept that he knows what is best. The board of directors goes along with the (CEO) director. (That’s unusual?) The oversight committee appointed by Grachos agrees. (No surprises there). Meanwhile we are getting our layoff notices or our pink slips delivered with the morning paper. No more African, Oceanic or Pre-Columbian art for us. We read about it in Friday’s Buffalo News. It’s a done deal, on the calendar for Sotheby’s next March.

Grachos says that these collections “are outside of the gallery’s mission” and are rarely shown. An arrogant “appointee” to the oversight committee, Richard Armstrong, considers this “an elegant and open way” to sell the collection. What is open about a coup d’etat? That’s like Bush government transparency. He adds that much of the collection hasn’t been shown for a long time. Therefore the “food chain is getting along nicely without it.” There’s a neat case of circular thought. (If we don’t see the body bags, we can’t object.) We can’t miss what is hidden in the stacks. Isn’t it Grachos who decides what to show and he who fills the halls with interminable, boring minimalist art? Is it this excuse for art, that he’s really planning to purchase with his new endowment and shouldn’t the gallery at least bring these pieces of “deaccessible” art out into the light for public input before the guillotine falls?

What about this mission statement? If the gallery wants to show and collect today’s artists does it have to be exclusive of showing other art? None of the past directors had that problem. It’s sad that Grachos doesn’t know that art is a series of building blocks, that the future and present is built on the art of the past. Artists are often inspired by past art, as some of the impressionists were after seeing ancient Asian art. The gallery has also received funding for education. I assume that art history is part of that. Grachos sees the gallery as fashion ramp. Trot out the new designs, live only in the present and ignore history. He’s being presidential but not very wise.

We don’t live in New York City where there is the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, one dedicated to the past the other to the near present. In Buffalo we have only this venue to see these priceless pieces. Selling our antiquities is to deprive us, and the future Buffalo generations, of access to the first hand experience of seeing them or any early art. (Many people don’t or can’t make the pilgrimage to the Met.)

The African collection was mentioned as one of the parts of the collection to be “axed.” How is that going to be accepted by our African-American community? It was said that the gallery possesses 6,500 pieces of art. Well! Bring it out! Let’s see it for a change.

The Albright-Knox is part of this community. Their history is a part of Buffalo’s history. They sit as a shrine in a public park, tax free, partially funded by community tax dollars and by local contributors and members. But the people who run the gallery are elitists. If the gallery wants to be a national or international museum, and aloof from this community, then let them get their funding from New York City or Paris, not the Buffalo and Erie County working stiffs. The county legislature and the city should threaten the AKAG with loss of funding if it doesn’t consider this community before it makes these rash decisions. Instead of axing our great collections, let’s throw these bums out.

Ben Perrone


I am sure a lot of talk will be generated by Louis Grachos. plan to auction off art that doesn’t reflect the gallery’s mission statement. Is it a bold and brilliant move that will move the gallery forward? Or is he playing the devil’s advocate, plundering our history and our treasures ? If objects haven’t seen the light of day in 10-plus years maybe we should be directing our energies down a different avenue altogether. A committee can be put together and form plans to build a new wing…we could take a cue from the Metropolitan Museum in New York City and store work for all to see. I am sure there are still people in Western New York who have the resources to see a thing like this through.

Joe Verrastro