on October 9, 2013 - 5:12 PM
, updated October 10, 2013 at 1:23 AM
The Albright-Knox Art Gallery has received an $11 million bequest from the estate of longtime board member and Buffalo arts patron Peggy Pierce Elfvin, possibly the largest single gift in the museum’s history, the gallery announced Wednesday evening.
The gallery is expected to officially accept the gift this afternoon during the annual meeting the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy’s board of trustees, which oversees the Albright-Knox.
“I think that Mrs. Elvfin’s enormously generous gift is significant on a national and international scale, not just in terms of Buffalo,” said Albright-Knox Director Janne Sirén, who began his tenure in April. “I see this somehow as a symbol of the aspirational phase in our city’s history and a very positive signal.”
Bequests on the order of Elfvin’s are rare anywhere in the museum world, let alone in Buffalo, where the largesse of captains of industry was thought to have largely dried up years ago. According to Elfvin’s friend Robert J. Kresse, a Buffalo attorney, much of her money came from the estate of her father, who made his fortune in the asbestos industry.
Elfvin, an active figure on Buffalo’s cultural scene for decades who was married to the late U.S. District Judge John T. Elfvin, died last October.
Unlike the money from the sale of some 200 works of art in 2007, which is restricted to the purchase of new artworks, the Elfvin bequest will be used to shore up the gallery’s operating endowment and help ease the persistent deficits that have plagued the gallery for at least the last decade. As of Sept. 30, with $8.6 million of Elfvin’s bequest already committed and the rest on the way within six months, that endowment now stands at $36 million. The acquisitions endowment is now $94 million, bringing the gallery’s total endowment to about $130 million.
According to an Albright-Knox news release, the money will “endow the position of the Albright-Knox director in perpetuity,” and the position will now officially be known as the Peggy Pierce Elfvin Director.
Sirén said the bequest will help the gallery chart a path for growth. With the exception of last year, when the gallery ended up in the black, Sirén said the gallery’s annual deficits have ranged “from tens to hundreds of thousands.”
“It’s another step toward stability and I think it puts us into a position where we can look toward the future,” he said. “It’s much more viable to look to the future when a structural deficit is addressed in a significant manner.”
By all accounts, Elfvin was fiercely committed to the gallery. She was a member of its board in various capacities from 1975 to 2005. For two years in the 1950s, she served on the gallery’s staff as a public relations assistant and in later years ran a popular series of tours as a volunteer.
Elfvin was also a longtime supporter of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, where she served on the board’s executive and women’s committees and was named Philharmonic Woman of the Year in 1977.
Gallery staffers could not come up with an example of a larger single gift in its long history. And while $11 million is a great deal of money, Sirén stressed that the institution still faces big challenges. Its buildings and campus are depreciating at a rate of between $500,000 and $700,000 a year, and major repair work is needed on the marble floors of the original 1905 building, the roof of Clifton Hall and elsewhere.
“I would say that to a large extent that this bequest mitigates and brings us closer to a balanced budget in terms of the structural deficit,” Sirén said. “It does not, however, take or address the issue of depreciation which on an annual basis amounts to more than half a million dollars.”
Sirén praised Elfvin’s commitment to the gallery and said she made her gift with a full awareness of the city’s reawakening and the potential of the Albright-Knox to play a leading role in that revival.
“I think culture begets culture,” Sirén said. “I think culture gives an individual as well as a community a sense of identity that is larger than the place that individual or that community occupies in the world at large.”
Kresse, a longtime friend of Elfvin’s, echoed Sirén’s thoughts.
“She was very much involved, she knew what she was doing, and she did not tolerate fools lightly,” he said. “What she got out of her history, her legacy, her family was: You’re lucky you had it. Just make sure you justify your life by knowing what you’re doing and putting your mouth and your money together. That’s very unique individual in terms of having been prepared for dealing with this wealth appropriately, and she did.”
The board is also expected today to appoint a new president, Thomas R. Hyde, a longtime board member and partner in the Buffalo law firm Hodgson Russ LLP. He will succeed Leslie H. Zemsky, who has helped lead the gallery through a period of major transition since 2009.