In 2007, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery made one of the most radical moves in its 150-year history.
Its decision to sell more than 200 valuable antiquities and other objects from its collection stirred up a painful controversy in this community from which the sting has yet to fade. But the money
from those sales, some $70 million dropped into the gallery's coffers after a series of high-profile auctions at Sotheby's in New York City, also ushered in one of the busiest periods of collecting the Elmwood Avenue institution has ever seen.
Many of the results of the 2007 sales are on view in "Decade: Contemporary Collecting 2002-2012," which opens in the gallery today.
Back in 2007, the gallery's leadership and supporters argued that the sales were necessary to bring the Albright-Knox back in line with its historical mission to collect the best art of its time. In the 1980s and '90s, when collecting slowed to a relative crawl, that mission was at risk.
Vocal opponents of the decision argued that the decision was a violation of a sacred public trust and a betrayal of the community to which they believed those works belonged. And what's more, the loudest of those critics claimed, the art of today was almost universally terrible.
It's an argument that still rages locally, across the art world and among the general public. And with "Decade," the Albright-Knox is making its most visible, vocal and forceful argument yet that the decision was correct. The shock-and- awe survey of the gallery's major purchases since 2002 is a bold declaration of the museum's renewed desire to be a major player in the international art world and to position itself as close to the vanguard of culture as possible.
Outgoing Albright-Knox Director Louis Grachos, who bore the brunt of the community's outrage over the sales, characterized them as integral to the success and reputation of the gallery and its now rapidly expanding collection.
"It was really an opportunity for us to decide where we wanted this museum to be in the future, and we wanted it to be a museum about what's happening today," Grachos said. "The decision, as painful as it was, looking back, it certainly was the right one."
Chief Curator Douglas Dreishpoon, who organized the exhibition along with Grachos and curator Heather Pesanti, was somewhat more cautious in his evaluation of the sales.
"What the ‘Decade' show represents is an accelerated emphasis on contemporary art, which almost literally comes off the deaccessioning project," he said, using the museum- jargon word for the 2007 sales. "I don't know and I can't speak for some people who felt like the objects that were leaving were part of their heritage, because in actuality they were. History will prove the decision right or wrong and I don't think we're able to predict that yet. But what we can predict at this moment is that the Albright- Knox has almost rediscovered that part of itself that was dedicated to the art of its time."
Many of the objects in the show are a direct result of the gallery's increased purchasing power, including pieces such as Nancy Rubins' jarring sculpture made of silver canoes outside the gallery's west entrance and an elegant piece by Felix Gonzalez-Torres jointly acquired with London's Tate Modern in 2010.
The exhibition is also a de facto highlight reel from what Dreishpoon has become fond of calling "the high-octane tenure" of Grachos, who will depart the museum for a new job in Austin, Texas, later this year. It also caps off a trio of exhibitions designed to mark the gallery's 150th anniversary year, which also saw the major shows "The Long Curve" and "Wish You Were Here."
When Grachos began his directorship in 2003, he immediately set his sights on expanding the collection to include work by important artists from the 1980s and '90s, as well as contemporary artists taking part in the 21st-century renaissance of abstraction. These initial efforts resulted in a major acquisition of an important sculpture by Robert Gober and the still buzzed-about exhibition "Extreme Abstraction," out of which the gallery acquired some of its largest and most visually arresting pieces—such as Liz Larner's massive green orb now on view in the gallery's Clifton Hall building and Jim Hodges' undulating sculpture in its courtyard.
As Grachos' tenure progressed, and the 2007 sales bolstered the gallery's endowment for new artwork by nearly $70 million, the museum began buying much more nimbly. It has lately turned its attention to filling out its anemic collection of new media work and completely refreshing the look of the Albright-Knox campus—soon to be the site of major new commissions by Andy Goldsworthy, Jason Middlebrook and Jaume Plensa.
That entire trajectory has been plotted in "Decade," a show that serves as the culmination not only of Grachos' time at the Albright- Knox, but of his entire career up to this point.
"‘Decade' is an example of looking back 10 years, but it's also about looking forward. It's about artists that are still very much alive and working and creating—and an opportunity to grow this collection for the community," Grachos said. "I think the community deserves a collection that's moving forward and not static. And that's what this is all about."