The ground beneath the Albright-Knox Art Gallery is rumbling.
Committees have been convened. The word “expansion” seems to be tripping off everyone’s tongue. And a “master plan” for the growth of the gallery was completed earlier this year by Snohetta, the architecture firm responsible for the redesign of Times Square in New York City and the $350 million expansion of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
At this point, one might reasonably wonder what the Albright-Knox is up to. Or, at the minimum, what wonders might lie in the much-ballyhooed master plan the gallery commissioned with such fanfare in 2012.
Over the past few months, I have asked and asked. And each time, my request was met with some polite variation of an answer you might expect from the NSA rather than from a publicly financed art museum: You are on a need-to-know basis. And you do not need to know.
As it turns out, though, we really do.
Here’s why: Art museum expansions like the one the Albright-Knox is now cautiously contemplating are worth huge sums of money. For context, the St. Louis Art Museum’s recent expansion cost $160 million, the Art Institute of Chicago’s 2009 expansion cost $300 million, and the expansion of Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum in 2007 cost $200 million. Renovations to Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, by comparison, will run about $130 million.
Even smaller renovations and repairs, which the gallery could conceivably undertake before it gets to an expansion, are likely to require significant public contributions. That’s in addition to the more than $500,000 in operating support the gallery gets every year from Erie County taxpayers.
Invariably, a large chunk of that money will come from taxpayers. And so, when master plans are being vetted and new committees are being launched, any institution that hopes to win public financing fairly in the future has an obligation to allow the public into the process as early as possible.
One easy way of doing this would be to release a summary of the Snohetta plan that avoids revealing details that might complicate some future design competition – a professed concern of gallery director Janne Gallen-Kallela-Sirén’s – but reveals the general direction Snohetta has plotted for the gallery.
But as it is, Sirén is willing to offer only frustratingly vague snippets. In a phone interview the day after Christmas from his native Helsinki, he said that the plan considers whether and how to update the gallery’s marble floors, its heating and air conditioning system, flow of visitors, and shipping and receiving operations. Beyond that, he’s staying mum and speaking in characteristically poetic circles around the issue on everyone’s mind: whether the gallery will build more space for its rapidly growing collection.
“There never was an intention of making public a master plan for growth, which is not a plan for a design but rather a strategic working document for the internal use of the institution,” he said, “a document which, of course, will become very important, should there be a next chapter.”
It seems strange that the gallery would proudly announce its commission of one of the world’s great architecture firms to produce a plan for its growth and later insist that the plan was never meant to be viewed or interpreted by the public. And while there may certainly be good reasons for keeping parts of that plan under wraps, so as not to send the international architectural community into a tizzy or to ensure enough time to plan what is likely to be an major capital campaign in the event of an expansion, there are many more good reasons for releasing its key elements.
A major outflow of public information should always precede a major influx of public money, a rule that benefits the community at least as much as institutions hoping to avoid nasty and protracted controversies.
In 2007, as the Albright-Knox board and management prepared to sell more than 200 items from its collection, it failed to plan well enough for the predictable and damaging controversy the move caused. By being more proactive and open about its plans and treating public input as integral rather than decorative, the gallery and its embattled director might have avoided a great deal of ill will that still lingers in some quarters of the community.
The gallery’s new director did not experience that harrowing period for himself, so he may not understand how deeply the community’s interest runs in even seemingly quotidian affairs at the gallery. He did, however, endure his own bruising battle with the residents of Helsinki as he tried unsuccessfully to bring a publicly funded outpost of the Guggenheim Museum there. Bad memories from these two distinct and extremely unpleasant public controversies should be enough to prompt the gallery to take proactive steps to be as open as possible about their plans, as soon as possible.
But for the moment, Sirén and the members of the gallery’s recently formed campus development committee are staying quiet.
“The organization first needs to understand what are its possibilities, what it is ready to commit to, and then, depending on those decisions, engage the community in a very public way,” Sirén said. “The potential for that sort of broader public dialogue is certainly one of the options.”
But if the gallery doesn’t want to repeat the same painful public relations mistakes it made in 2007, better transparency is not just one of the options. It is the only option.