In 2002, after almost a century-and-a-half of stunning growth, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery was in the midst of an identity crisis.

Here was one of the most respected modern and contemporary art museums in the world and Buffalo’s cultural flagship – with a collection praised by critics the world over for its extraordinary depth and quality – that seemed, after nearly 150 years, to be growing stale.

During the previous decade, the gallery’s once-ravenous appetite for bold new work from the outer limits of the art world been reduced to the occasional nibble at the heels of more ambitious collectors and institutions. Its collection of peerless artworks by Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol and many others – literally text-book examples of the great artistic achievements of the 20th century – often took a back seat to blockbuster touring exhibitions that were threatening to bleed the Albright-Knox’s modest budget dry.

The grand old institution on the edge of Delaware Park was in danger of becoming a crumbling mausoleum for past glories. This glimmering beacon of culture in a city from which the international spotlight had long ago departed was beginning to lose the adventurous spirit of its legendary patrons and directors.

The gallery’s board was aware of this, and so in 2002, desperate to reverse the increasingly evident signs of decline, it decided to do something drastic. The board hired Louis Grachos to be the museum’s 10th professional director, a man neither the museum nor Western New York will soon forget.

Grachos will complete his controversial and transformative term as director at the end of this year before taking over the newly formed organization AMOA-Arthouse in Austin, Texas. He is heading to Texas, he said, for the opportunity to build a new organization from the ground up.

He also said it is time for new blood at the Albright-Knox, noting that the next major goal of the gallery – to expand its space so it can exhibit its rapidly growing collection – does not excite him as much as working directly with art and artists.

“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,” Grachos said. “But I think it’s a good tenure. Ten years is a good [amount of] time for any museum.”

According to Albright-Knox board president Leslie Zemsky, the search for the new director is well under way, and the gallery hopes to have Grachos’ successor selected by Jan. 1.

In many ways, Grachos’ daily duties as director of the Albright-Knox were only part-time. His other job – arguably even more important – was as the most visible and active leader of Buffalo’s cultural community. As the man responsible for the city’s most prized cultural treasure, he was a de facto spokesman for the city itself. He took it as a deeply personal mission to counter the false notion of Buffalo as a glacial hinterland hobbling along on its love for chicken wings and memories of a bygone industrial heyday.

Richard Armstrong, director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, former director of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and a key adviser to Grachos during his time at the Albright-Knox, praised him for solidifying and expanding the gallery’s international reputation.

“It’s one of the spirited, lively places. I think people look to it, for not only a commitment to living artists, but also for the almost peerless quality of the collection. It’s one of those obligatory places,” Armstrong said. As for Grachos’ approach to the job, he added: “I’d consider him gifted, unusual and a great exemplar of a leader.”

The legacy

During his 10 years at the gallery, Grachos lit a fire under its collecting program, and integrated the gallery into the community through ambitious collaborations with rock bands, dance companies, poets and other museums and galleries.

But his tenure here will likely be defined by one thing: Grachos’ fostered the board’s decision in 2007 to sell more than 200 pieces of valuable pre-Modern art from the collection. The money raised would help it remain competitive with the heavy-hitters of the modern museum world, setting the gallery’s sights – and those of its nostalgia-addled city – firmly on the future.

It cannot be denied that Grachos’ directorship was, for better or worse, anything but transformative:

• Between 2002 and 2012, as a result of the 2007 sales, the gallery’s endowment for the purchase of new artworks grew from $19.2 million to $85.9 million.

• More than 1,100 objects entered the Albright-Knox collection through purchases and gifts in those years, one of the busiest periods of collecting in the gallery’s history.

• Among those objects were joint purchases of major artworks by Rachel Whiteread, Bruce Nauman and Felix Gonzales-Torres with Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of Modern Art and Tate Modern, as well as major commissions from artists like Sol LeWitt and Andy Goldsworthy.

• The gallery’s school education program, which Grachos relaunched under the name “Art’Scool,” expanded from about 7,000 students in 2002 to 17,581 this year.

• In a successful program aimed at building new audiences, Grachos fostered a series of free weekly “Gusto at the Gallery” festivals, which have since been scaled back to the monthly “M&T First Friday” affairs.

• The Albright-Knox campus has been radically transformed, with new sculptures by Nancy Rubins, Jaume Plensa and Liam Gillick, and forthcoming pieces by Jason Middlebrook and Goldsworthy.

New course

When Grachos, then 45, arrived at the gallery in early 2003 to take the reins from longtime director Douglas Schultz, the board had already begun to chart a new course for the institution. It had developed a strategic plan to quicken the languid pace of collecting and to engage more directly with the community.

Even the seed for the 2007 sale of the pre-modern art pieces had been planted by board members during the previous decade. With his mandate firmly in place when he stepped into his new office, Grachos immediately set about demolishing the calcified structures of the gallery’s culture and reconnecting it to the progressive ideals of legendary former director Gordon Smith, gallery namesake Seymour H. Knox and others.

“My own in-house assessment of how the community saw us [was] that were kind of a place you don’t go into,” Grachos said, recalling an unpleasant experience with a gruff security guard when he came in for his first interview. “It was too formal, too rigid. I wanted people to feel comfortable with the idea of coming here.”

Starting with that notion, Grachos and his board embarked on a mission to shock the gallery into a new consciousness of the rapidly expanding universe of contemporary art, to make it a serious player in that universe, and to integrate its work and its collection more deeply and genuinely into the regional community.

One of his first targets, he said, was the budget-draining, blockbuster touring exhibitions that had defined the latter half of its previous director’s 19-year run. The most recent one was an exorbitantly expensive 2004 show from the Washington D.C.-based Phillips Collection.

“There was this reliance or hope that somehow the touring blockbuster shows were the answer,” Grachos said. “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?”

So Grachos scrapped the blockbuster approach and focused his energy on mining the Alrbight-Knox’s own peerless collection of modern and contemporary art. He launched the successful “Remix the Collection” series, which encouraged curators to dream up innovative exhibitions drawing exclusively from the gallery’s holdings.

His next major move was to re-evaluate the gallery’s periodic regional art show “In Western New York,” which he transformed into the successful regional biennial “Beyond/In Western New York” with the help of many leaders from the local visual arts community.

“When I interviewed [for the directorship] and saw the lonely ‘In Western New York’ show, 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,” he said. Looking back at the gallery’s history, which featured two lauded collaborative events known as the Festival of the Arts Today in 1965 and ’68, Grachos encouraged the entire community to get in on the project.

The results of the Beyond/In shows continue to echo through a wider visual arts community that is as cohesive and productive as at any point in the city’s history, including the city’s much-lauded avant-garde heyday of the 1970s.

In 2005, Grachos organized the exhibition “Extreme Abstraction” with curator Claire Schneider. It was an explosive presentation of the latest experiments in abstract art-making from across the world and drew international attention to Buffalo, throwing the gallery’s staff and audience for a loop.

For the show, Grachos reinstalled the entire 1962 building – a shocking move at the time – including the temporary removal of one painting, Max Ernst’s “Age of Forests” that had hung on the same nail since 1978. The result was a critical and popular hit that spurred a period of near-constant innovation and expansion.

Another immediate priority for Grachos was to reinvigorate the gallery’s languishing school program, which had first brought him to the gallery on a school trip from Toronto when he was 13.

“Everyone that was my peer had told me that their first touch with the Albright was through the school program, and that had all but disappeared,” he said. “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.”

The launch of the gallery’s Art’School program expanded the gallery’s reach from 7,000 or so students from Buffalo’s city schools to nearly 18,000 students yearly from rural, urban and suburban districts across Western New York.

So long, Artemis

The new curatorial philosophy, the new collaborative spirit, the major expansion of the gallery’s education program: All of these changes were merely warm-ups for events that would test Grachos’ fortitude and recast the gallery’s mission and its reputation.

In early 2007, to the shock of many in Western New York, the gallery announced its plans to sell more than 200 works of art from its collection that it claimed fell outside its central mission to collect contemporary art. The sales, it was argued, would enable the Albright-Knox to compete in an increasingly cut-throat art market in which it would otherwise have been doomed to irrelevance.

The pieces on the auction block included ancient works of Egyptian, Chinese, Indian and Hellenistic art. Among them was a prized and incredibly rare bronze statue of the goddess Diana and a small stag. That statue, known as “Artemis and the Stag,” became the emblem of the intense debate over the sales, and drew a record price for an antiquity at auction at that time – $28.6 million.

Despite the outcry, the gallery – which had not made a good-faith effort to publicly vet its decision with the public – emerged from the sales almost $80 million richer.

“I can safely tell you that this institution has not been damaged by this process on any level at all,” Grachos said. “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 into the ground. There’s no one on the horizon that’s like Mr. Knox or Mr. Goodyear.”

Others in Buffalo and far beyond disagreed with the decision and continue to do so. Asked to evaluate Grachos’ tenure, Carl Dennis, the respected Buffalo poet and one of the leaders of an opposition group called Buffalo Artkeepers, sent this statement:

“If Mr. Grachos had pushed the Board to seek out advice from the members of the museum before agreeing to the sale in secret and sending the items off, I think a good compromise might have been worked out,” Dennis wrote. “So many illuminating juxtapositions were lost that would have made our museum a unique experience, different from other museums like it. So many opportunities for people to learn about the reach of art were sold away.”

Longtime gallerygoers and some artists with a taste for the established art of the past century have also been critical of Grachos, characterizing what the gallery has purchased under his direction as frivolous and uninspiring compared with the earlier works of modern art upon which the bulk of the gallery’s international reputation rests.

Nathan Naetzker, an artist whose work was included in the Albright-Knox’s section of Beyond/In Western New York 2007, also criticized the gallery’s direction under Grachos.

“Some of the items were irreplaceable treasures – proven cultural icons that would never lose their value – both culturally and monetarily,” he said. “What we replaced them with are temporal at best. Recent outcries in the art world, from low and high... are finally casting light on what many have known all along; that the contemporary art world is exceedingly corrupt.”

Others in Buffalo’s art community praised Grachos’ commitment to expanding the gallery’s role in the community.

“For collection, curation, and facility, the Albright-Knox was top-shelf before Grachos arrived, but I also believe the public dialogue surrounding visual arts, the role of museums and galleries, and cultural institutions has become more visible, substantial and diverse,” local artist and frequent gallerygoer Joel Brenden said, voicing an opinion common among Grachos’ many supporters. “This is thanks in part – ironically perhaps – to the deaccessioning of select elements of their collection, but also to the broader palette of events and programming Buffalo has seen under his direction.”

For his part, Grachos admitted in a revelatory interview in the catalog for the museum’s current 10-year retrospective, the gallery’s public airing of the sales “should have happened sooner than it did.”

From the board

Reviews from the gallery’s board, perhaps predictably, were glowing.

“There’ve been [10] directors since 1905 including Louis, and frankly every single one of them I think has done a good job. One of the most legendary directors was Gordon Smith, in the era when he worked with [Seymour] Knox to bring in the Abstract Expressionist collection and the Pop collection,” said Albright-Knox board member and former president Charles Banta, in a sentiment that was echoed by Zemsky. “I feel Louis has achieved a similar status and success. I think he’ll be considered one of the most important directors in the Albright-Knox’s history to date.”

Looking back on his career at the Albright-Knox and his countless collaborations and conversations with the cultural community at large, Grachos was optimistic about the path the regional cultural community is on. “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.”

Grachos denied that his decampment for sunnier financial climes in Austin was motivated by Western New York’s notoriously difficult funding and philanthropic atmosphere, though he did issue a parting challenge for his board members and the community at large to be “much more aggressively supportive of our public institutions.”

“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,” he said. “It’s just my DNA.”