Seymour H. Knox Jr., a pillar of Buffalo banking for nearly 70 years, a philanthropist and honored American art patron, died early today in his Buffalo home. He was 92.
Knox used his wealth and keen eye for abstract painting and sculpture to mold the Albright-Knox Art Gallery into one of the world's foremost contemporary art museums.
Under his leadership, the gallery, which marked its 125th anniversary in 1987, gained international recognition for the quality and daring of its holdings. The modern collection is widely regarded as one of the nation's best.
Among the many honors conferred on him in recent years was the National Medal of the Arts, awarded by President Ronald Reagan in 1984.
A former Marine Midland Bank board chairman, Knox combined business and cultural interests with a love of sport that helped him become a champion polo and squash player as a young man and later influenced his sons, Seymour H. III and Northrup R., who brought the National Hockey League's Buffalo Sabres into existence.
Knox was born Sept. 1, 1898, into one of Buffalo's most enterprising families. Fifteen years earlier, his father, Seymour H. Sr., and his father's first cousin, Frank W. Woolworth, had opened a "five and 10 cent" store in Reading, Pa., that was the genesis of the F.W. Woolworth chain.
The Main Street store in downtown Buffalo, which opened in 1888 as part of the S.H. Knox chain, was among the first in what became a worldwide retailing empire of thousands of outlets operating under the Woolworth, Woolco, Kinney Shoe and Richman Brothers names.
Seymour Knox Sr. was the first chairman of Marine National Bank, which resulted from the merger of two Buffalo banks in 1913 and eventually grew into today's far-flung Marine Midland empire.
Seymour Jr. was 16 when his father died in 1915 at age 54, but he followed in his footsteps after graduating from Yale University in 1920.
He was elected to the Woolworth board in 1926 and served until reaching mandatory retirement 45 years later, in 1971.
But banking was his true early calling. He became a director of Marine in 1921, vice president in 1926 and chairman from 1943 to 1970. It was that year that construction was under way on Marine's 38-story Main Street tower, which dominates the Buffalo skyline and in which Knox maintained an office until his death.
Knox's energetic business leadership was matched by a passion for polo, cultivated on the rambling East Aurora estate where his father, beginning in the 1890s, had bred champion trotters and pacers as a hobby.
A diminutive man known to close friends as "Shorty," Knox led his Aurora team to the U.S. championship in 1932 and later won a tournament in Europe and barnstormed in South America. His ranking as a seven-goal-handicap polo player was one of his proudest accomplishments, along with the eight-goal status later achieved by his son Northrup.
Knox also was a top squash player and invited many of the nation's best to compete on the East Aurora estate, where he also raised prize Aberdeen Angus cattle in much the same way that his father had bred swift harness horses.
His love of polo, which he reluctantly gave up in the 1960s, was transcended in later life by a consuming interest in art.
"Buying for the gallery, going to the gallery, were his great passions," recalled Seymour III.
Seymour Knox Jr. credited A. Conger Goodyear, a Buffalonian and family friend who went on to become the first president of New York's Museum of Modern Art, with stimulating his art interest in the late 1920s. While other prominent Americans worked to build great private collections, Knox quietly went about building a public gallery that would join the first rank of the world's art museums.
"Art," he once said, "should be acquired to be seen and enjoyed, not to be stored in a warehouse. There is no point in buying more for myself. Where would I put it?"
The Knoxes' interest in the gallery, the nation's sixth-oldest public art museum, dates to 1915, when Seymour Sr. established a foundation and donated works of art. Through the Seymour H. Knox Foundation, the family over the years has given millions for the construction of additions to the museum and the purchase of art works to fill it. The foundation underwrote the establishment of a Room of Contemporary Art in 1930, the gallery library three years later and the modern north wing, opened in 1962 at a cost of $1 million.
Seymour Jr. personally gave the gallery hundreds of paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints whose market value is in the millions. The bulk of these gifts were in the contemporary vein -- abstract expressionism, constructionism, assemblage and pop art, areas in which Knox developed a keen interest after age 50. Some were works of younger artists forging in new directions, while others were by such "old masters" of modern art as Picasso, Gauguin and Giacometti.
"His outlook," former Buffalo News art critic Jean Reeves once said, "was always youthful and adventurous, and he was unfailingly receptive to new ideas and techniques."
Knox, who joined the board of the museum's governing organization, the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, in 1926, became president in 1938 and was re-elected every year until 1977, when he became chairman.
Soft-spoken and unassuming, Knox assumed responsibility for gallery purchases after 1946, when the funds donated by the family 16 years earlier for the Room of Contemporary Art were exhausted.
Up to that point "I'd put money in from time to time and call the committee together," he recalled later. "It was hard to get agreement on what we would buy."
"Finally, I decided that if I was giving the money I should have more to say about what we bought -- with the help of the gallery director, of course."
In Gordon M. Smith, who became director in 1955, Knox found a person of similar tastes and adventuresome spirit, and they set out on an intense search for large, important works in the contemporary field. They were pioneers, choosing the works of painters such as DeKooning, Gorky, Pollock, Motherwell, Guston and others before they gained public acceptance.
As modern art became more respectable -- and a good investment risk -- the stakes rose. Knox and Smith often found themselves bidding against businessmen and business institutions instead of museum people for the best pieces.
Charmed by the adventurous pair, the irascible abstractionist Clyfford Still sold them two of his paintings, the only ones he had ever sold to a museum, and then in 1964 presented 31 of his works to the gallery. The gift was one of the most extensive collections ever presented by a living artist to a public museum in the United States.
In 1965, the Knox Foundation subsidized the controversial Buffalo Festival of the Arts Today, a review of avant-garde trends in the arts that focused nationwide attention on Buffalo and turned the city's reputation as a stronghold of artistic conservatism on its head.
Knox once said he aimed to find "the best example" of each artist's work. But he freely admitted: "Who knows which is best? We're bound to make some mistakes."
A hands-on executive, Knox kept the gallery staff moving, insisting that pictures be rehung often to keep the museum alive, and frequently taking a hand in the work.
The respect he commanded became apparent in 1961, when the board changed the institution's name from the Albright Art Gallery to the Albright-Knox.
His influence in cultural affairs extended far beyond Western New York.
Gov. Nelson Rockefeller named him chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts at its inception in 1960, and under Knox's 15-year stewardship the organization brought professional art, music and dance programs to all parts of the state, fostering grass roots cultural activity.
His philanthropy extended to the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and he flew to museum and exhibition openings around the country. He also traveled widely in Europe, looking at old and new art -- always with an eye to works that might enhance the Albright-Knox collections.
Education was another of Knox's longtime interests. He joined the Council of the University of Buffalo, which later joined the state university system, in 1920 and was its chairman from 1949 until 1969. Over the years the Knox family had been one of UB's principal benefactors.
In awarding him an honorary doctor of arts degree in 1962, the university praised his "unfailing devotion to the cause of education and the arts" and "immeasurable contributions to cultural life and educational opportunity" in Buffalo.
He was a past president of the board of the Aiken Preparatory School in Aiken, S.C., where he maintained a winter home for many years, and in the 1950s was appointed by President Eisenhower to a presidential committee on higher education.
Knox at various times was a director of the New York Central Railroad, American Steamship Co., Hewitt-Robins Inc. and Niagara Share Corp., trustee of the Buffalo Museum of Science and Yale University Art Gallery and member of the Yale University Council.
He received Canisius College's Distinguished Citizen's Achievement Award, the Buffalo Club's gold medal for civic leadership and the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society's Red Jacket Award for civic service, all in 1962, and the Frontier Press Club's Distinguished Citizen Award for 1964.
The Buffalo News named him a Citizen of the Year in 1952 and in 1987, calling Knox "one of those rare individuals whose achievements warrant recognition more than once."
Knox's wife of 48 years, the former Helen Northrup, died in 1971.
Besides his two sons, Knox is survived by six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
Funeral plans are incomplete.