In the past 20 years, many high-profile American art museums have undergone major expansions, from the striking Daniel Libeskind-designed additions to the Denver Art Museum and Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum to the Cleveland Museum of Art’s ongoing $300 million expansion project and the upcoming overhaul of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
During that same period, Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery has greatly expanded its collection of contemporary art while maintaining its status as a repository for many of the most important works of modern art in the world. But the amount of physical space at its disposal, spread across two historic buildings on the edge of Delaware Park, stopped growing when the Gordon Bunshaft-designed addition was completed in 1962.
This week, after putting forward various tentative ideas to address its space problems over the last few years, the gallery took an important step toward solving that pressing problem. It has hired the Oslo-based architecture and design firm Snohetta to create what the gallery is calling “a master plan for growth.”
“If we have a world-class collection of modern and contemporary art, we really need a world-class facility,” said outgoing director Louis Grachos, who wraps up his decade-long tenure at the gallery at the end of the year. “It is a real issue. We do have this incredible collection, and we want to show more of it. We want to be much more professional in terms of the visitor experience, to make that experience richer and deeper.”
The space issue at the Albright-Knox is not just a local concern, but one that is acknowledged across the American art world. Last year, Denver Art Museum Director Christoph Heinrich told me in an interview that the Albright-Knox’s unparalleled collection deserves more space to breathe.
Grachos and the gallery’s architecture committee selected Snohetta from a short list of six international architecture firms, whose names the gallery declined to release. For Grachos, the Norwegian team rose to the top of the pile because of its track record for what he called fluid and poetic solutions to difficult space problems.
A case in point is the firm’s plan for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which will break ground on its $300 million expansion next June. Grachos said that he was particularly impressed with Snohetta’s approach to concerns about space and flow within the museum’s existing 1995 building and to the difficult task of integrating the expansion into the dense surrounding neighborhood.
“They are many of the same challenges we have here. We have these two iconic buildings, which I consider historically important, and then we sit on this park,” Grachos said. “So it’s going to take a kind of design sensibility to understand how to make the existing experience better, make these buildings better, and to figure out ways to make our operation flow in a much more cohesive way so the visitors’ experience is richer.”
The greatest challenge for the Albright-Knox is, of course, a financial one. There is simply not $300 million kicking around in Western New York’s anemic philanthropic community. So Snohetta may necessarily have to focus on low-cost, high-impact solutions that may or may not include a significant expansion. That long dreamed-of expansion, the gallery has said, could be on-site or in an entirely new location.
“In 10 years if we can see the kind of progress that’s been made with the Darwin Martin House, for example, that’s what I would see as a successful address of the facility issues,” Grachos said. “Hopefully this plan will lay out for us how to really get to that finishing line.”