In a small gallery inside the crowded Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, on a late June afternoon, throngs of visitors assembled before Sandro Botticelli’s painting “The Birth of Venus,” craning their necks around their fellow gawkers and raising their iPhones high above their heads to crop out the crowd.
They had come to pay tribute, to appreciate or merely to take a bragworthy Instagram in front of one of the most famous paintings in the world, a potent and achingly beautiful symbol of the Italian Renaissance and its extraordinary fusion of cash and creativity.
The madhouse scene repeats daily in the Uffizi’s dozens of other galleries, in front of Michelangelo’s remarkably vivid “Doni Tondo,” Caravaggio’s strange and spellbinding “Bacchus,” and across town in the gallery tailor-built for Michelangelo’s “David.”
A few weeks later, on another weekday afternoon, a small trickle of visitors made its way through the grand neoclassical galleries of Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery to see the exhibition “Sincerely Yours: Treasures of the Queen City.” The show is the second stop on what already has been an extraordinarily successful national tour of the gallery’s greatest hits, a brief chance to hang out with some of the city’s most famous cultural objects before they head off to pick up more accolades in San Diego, Milwaukee and Bentonville, Ark.
Each of those visitors could have had a long private audience, if they wanted it, with some of the greatest works of 20th century art and their 19th century precursors. Those works, from Giacomo Balla’s boundary-breaking 1912 painting “Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash” and Matisse’s transformational “La Musique” to Clyfford Still’s jagged, jaw-dropping abstractions and Andy Warhol’s “100 Cans,” define the art of the 20th century just as the Uffizi’s collection defines the Renaissance.
The international art world has long recognized this, a fact confirmed by the appearance of the Albright-Knox’s works in innumerable art history books, in lectures the world over and in the traceable influence those paintings and sculptures have had on the divergent trajectories of modern art.
“There are few museums in the world that can re-create the rich and revolutionary stories of modern art with the same depth as the Albright-Knox’s collection makes possible,” the wall text for the exhibition reads. “We encourage you to find your own narrative!”
In Denver, a reported 80,000 people filtered through the exhibition, recognizing the rare chance to see some of the most important pieces of modern art ever created. But many Western New Yorkers don’t yet seem to recognize the cultural treasures that reside in the gallery’s collection on a scale commensurate with their beauty, their prominent position in the pantheon of human creativity or their force in shaping the way our world looks and feels today.
This is natural, to an extent. It will take a few more centuries before the visionary partnership between Albright-Knox benefactor Seymour H. Knox and Gordon Smith, who together brought in so many artworks of great importance, will take on the respectable patina of the Medici family’s influence on art and culture in Renaissance Florence. And the story of modern art – so rich, complex and constantly being re-evaluated – is in many ways more difficult to get a handle on.
But it also speaks to the work the gallery and its curators have cut out for them in terms of making the labyrinthine story of modern and contemporary art seem to art world neophytes as relevant and riveting as it actually is. If that trickle of visitors is to become a flood, the gallery’s storytelling about itself, its digital outreach and its ability to connect its collection to the daily lives of Western New Yorkers will have to improve.
Under director Janne Sirén, the gallery has made important strides on all these fronts. These range from the gallery’s experiments with online tours and digital timelines to the county-funded appointment of public art curator Aaron Ott, whose job, perhaps more than any other at the gallery has the potential to genuinely ramp up public interest in its growing collection and its potential as a flagship for the region’s cultural ascendance.
There seems to be little doubt the gallery’s new leadership sees both its challenges and assets clearly. The ongoing national tour seems almost guaranteed to collect the kind of cultural cred this still-insecure city seems to require in order to recognize its own worth. And with a healthy endowment for buying new art and a top-secret expansion plan seemingly on the horizon, the gallery is well-positioned to take advantage of that recognition.
But right now, it’s a good time to set all those questions aside, take a trip to the gallery and spend some quality time alone with our old friends Rothko, Pollock, de Kooning and Picasso. Other cities will soon bask in their glow. But through Sept. 14, and after the end of the tour in 2015, they belong to us.