On Thursday night in Denver, members of the city’s art crowd got glitzed up in 1950s cocktail attire, made their way to the second-floor galleries of the Clyfford Still Museum and pretended for a few hours that they were in Buffalo.
The occasion, complete with period-appropriate jazz and hors d’oeuvres, was the sold-out opening of the Still Museum’s “1959: The Albright-Knox Art Gallery Exhibition Recreated,” a partial remount of one of the most important art exhibitions in Buffalo’s history.
The show, made up largely of Still’s grand abstractions, is a teaser of sorts for the much larger “Modern Masters: 20th Century Icons from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery,” a long-planned national tour of the gallery’s most prized artworks that begins March 2 in the nearby Denver Art Museum.
By this time next month, Denver’s cultural community will be steeped in the illustrious legacy of Buffalo’s flagship cultural institution, as will San Diego, Milwaukee and Bentonville, Ark., later in the year and into 2015 as the tour makes its way across the country. The exhibition of Albright-Knox highlights, which emerged from the gallery’s 150th anniversary exhibition “The Long Curve,” coincides perfectly with the rising national recognition of Buffalo’s rich history and its improved cultural and economic fortunes.
More specifically, for all but the most affluent and ambitious visual arts fans, the two Buffalo-focused shows in Denver provide rare glimpses into an important collection and history that they would otherwise never see face-to-face.
For Dean Sobel, director of the Clyfford Still Museum and curator of the Denver Art Museum’s version of “Modern Masters,” the two high-profile takes on Buffalo in the city’s Golden Triangle Museum District will expose visitors to one of the country’s top collections of modern art.
“It really was historically the apex of his career,” Sobel said of the 1959 exhibition now on view in his museum. “There’s the great Still 1957 painting in the Denver Art Museum show, and our exhibition really provides this kind of moment, almost like a second audio track where you’re going to go really deep into the history of the Albright-Knox, the history of Still’s relationship to that institution.”
The idea of sending Buffalo’s masterpieces on the road is not universally loved, not least because the tour will deprive local gallery visitors of some of their most cherished friends for more than a year. (During a recent visit to the gallery, I saw many of the museum’s vaunted artworks packed up in blue crates in the pristine sculpture court, which made me feel a bit like a kid watching his older siblings go off to college.)
The ballooning number of collection-based “best of” shows has drawn criticism from such prominent art writers as Blake Gopnik and Tyler Green, who argue that such shows endanger the artwork itself and devalue the museumgoing experience by packing in crowds and baldly trying to monetize great works of art.
In a March 2013 article in the Art Newspaper, Gopnik wrote that such exhibitions are less about introducing important art to new audiences than about “spreading the lending institution’s prestige or paying for its renovation, drawing crowds to the borrower and, of course, flattering collectors.”
While Gopnik makes an important general point about the turning great paintings and sculptures into fundraising tools at the expense of their educational function, each tour of a museum’s collection highlights deserves to be evaluated on its own merits. In the case of the Albright-Knox and especially in the case of Denver’s smart, dual-pronged approach, the benefits seem to me to far outweigh the downsides.
“Sharing these collections with others is a very, very good thing,” Sobel said. “It’s such a hidden gem. I see a real reason to do it, in terms of drawing attention.”
Most critics would probably agree that a “greatest hits” compilation – whether in music or visual art – is not necessarily the best way to explore an artist’s or institution’s canon. But for those who don’t have the opportunity to walk past the Albright-Knox’s epic de Koonings and Pollocks and Picassos and Stills on a daily basis, there is intrinsic value in sending out such a traveling presentation once every century or so.
Despite the fact that Buffalo’s national profile is on the rise, it still does not rank as a must-visit cultural destination on the order of cultural metropolises like Denver or Miami. Though art experts pay it plenty of attention, Albright-Knox’s collection remains one of the most underrated in the country.
For that reason, Buffalonians should be proud that the rest of the country is finally getting in on the secret.