The U.S. ambassador’s talk Sunday at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery was billed as a chance to hear about new museum technologies and the role of culture in economic development.
Instead, Bruce J. Oreck, ambassador to Finland, talked about a challenge in boardrooms, offices, schools and homes as well as museums: how to overcome someone saying no.
Oreck talked about a crumbling 100-year-old former apartment building that housed a collection of embassy offices in Helsinki. He heard “no” many times when he talked about renovating the building.
The project was first pitched during the height of the economic downturn.
Oreck logged about 250,000 miles in dozens of trips between Washington, D.C., and Helsinki to personally address concerns about costs and security.
After getting approvals and spending more than $125 million on the embassy retrofit project, the United States unveiled the Innovation Center earlier this year.
“In 36 months, we went from ‘no’ to ‘done,’ ” Oreck said.
Oreck called the new structure “unrivaled” and one of the most energy-efficient embassy buildings in the world.
How he and others succeeded should be a lesson for others who hear no.
“Stop hearing the word ‘no,’ ” said Oreck, who bears the name of the widely known vacuum company his family once owned.
Rather, treat that answer as “not yet.”
“ ‘Not yet’ means I keep the power to touch, move and inspire,” Oreck said. “If I can touch, move and inspire, I can overcome your fear.”
An ambassador since 2009, Oreck holds the equivalent rank of a four-star general. So getting government officials to meet with him does not usually pose a problem. But they do not have to say yes to him.
“There’s no great secret here,” he said.
Oreck said he worked to cultivate personal relationships with those in power, learning more about them and their objections so he could make a personal connection.
“If I hear ‘not yet,’ that forces me to listen to you,” he said. “What are your fears?”
And what he hears back reveals the path he needs to follow to touch, feel and inspire, he said.
“Eventually, you can wear down anybody,” he said. The ambassador is a friend of Janne Sirén, who had been director of the Helsinki Art Museum in Finland before becoming director of the Albright-Knox last month. The two met at embassy functions and other events in Finland.
“Buffalo has definitely lucked out,” Oreck said of Sirén’s arrival at the Albright-Knox.
The two said they became friends through their shared interests in the outdoors, the environment and culture.
Sirén said he has been warmly welcomed since starting at the gallery five weeks ago.
“I haven’t encountered many no’s yet in Buffalo,” he said.
Sirén said Oreck’s message can be just as valuable for those who are inclined to say no when, for example, they look at an unconventional art exhibit. It might be difficult to understand at first. And some might be tempted to quickly dismiss it.
“Have you given it the time of day?” he asked.
Even if they say “not yet,” he said, they can eventually understand more about the exhibit and come to appreciate it.”