On her way into work at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, deputy director Karen Lee Spaulding often takes a moment to pause and admire one of her favorite works of art.
It might be Arshile Gorky’s riotous canvas “The Liver is in the Cock’s Comb,” Jim Hodges’ massive sculpture in the gallery’s courtyard or Elsworth Kelly’s “Chatham XI: Blue Yellow,” which mirrors the team colors of the Buffalo Sabres. Though her schedule through 36 years at the gallery has never been less than breathless, Spaulding has always maintained a deep and daily appreciation for its peerless collection and its place at the vanguard of Buffalo’s cultural life. After a long and successful career, she will leave the Albright-Knox in October for a new post as vice president of philanthropic support at the John R. Oishei Foundation. Her behind-the-scenes work as the gallery’s second-in-command, always anchored by a deep sense of duty to the works that surrounded her, spanned the tenures of four directors, hundreds of exhibitions and a major period of growth for the collection and the gallery’s international reputation.
Her quiet and constant presence there, beginning as the director of the fledgling publications department in the late ’70s and ending with her recent stint as interim director, was far from glamorous. It did not often register in headlines or pop up in public conversations about the gallery. But it is one of the major reasons the gallery has been able to maintain and build upon its status as one of North America’s top art museums.
Spaulding, much to her credit, is that rare art-world administrator who prefers to remain behind the curtain and support the work of others. Her commitment to that role enabled the gallery’s former director, Louis Grachos, to act as the public face of the institution and to focus on bringing bold new work into the collection and amping up community involvement.
“My best work and my success is when I can support other people in doing their best work. That’s very important to me. I love to see people and organizations thrive,” she said. “I believe that when everybody does their best work, the organization thrives, and you can feel it. It’s palpable.”
While the Albright-Knox runs an extremely tight ship even by art museum standards, the culture Spaulding built at the gallery has allowed it to soar to new heights – and to attract the likes of newly appointed director Janne Sirén, formerly director of the Helsinki Art Museum.
Spaulding said her decision to leave the gallery was unrelated to Sirén’s arrival. “We want to make it very clear that I could have stayed and worked with Janne for another 20 years, truly,” she said, adding that the gallery “hit the jackpot” with its new director. “I think, personally, it’s important for an institution to have new eyes, new perspectives.”
Spaulding’s move away from the gallery, which plans to fill her position but has not yet announced a search process, also bodes well for the future of the John R. Oishei Foundation and for Western New York’s nonprofit world. Her role at Buffalo’s largest foundation will be to support organizations after they receive Oishei grants to ensure that the foundation’s money goes as far as possible. “I believe all of our small and large not-for-profits have people who are passionate and who do amazing work,” she said. “Each of them has specific challenges within their organization, and it’s going to be my role to listen really carefully, and then when I think I have an answer, I think I’ve got to listen some more.”
Before she departs, the deputy director has quite a lot of work to wrap up. She is putting the finishing touches on a national tour of highlights from the gallery’s collection that will launch next year and putting together a huge glossary of terms for her eventual successor. And before her tenure ends, you can bet she’ll be pausing more often than usual before one of her favorite pieces of art. “Every one of us feels that it’s an enormous privilege to walk through the doors and to be surrounded by these extraordinary paintings that people come from all over the world to see,” Spaulding said. “That’s what I’m going to miss most of all.”