Great institutions only remain great by learning from their mistakes.
And, like most major museums, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery has made a few.
There was the botched rollout of the 2007 sale of about 200 pre-modern artworks from its collection, a process that reinforced the notion of the gallery as an elite silo disconnected from the concerns of the public. There was a misguided 2010 exhibition of corporate photography funded by a Buffalo Sabres owner, which disregarded gallery’s central mission. And finally there was the inexplicable, NSA-level secrecy with which the gallery held onto its expensive 2013 master plan, the first details of which only began to dribble out this week.
So it was hardly surprising that when the gallery announced plans to launch a major expansion project last fall, some reacted with healthy skepticism about how the process might unfold.
But judging by the gallery’s behavior since its September announcement, it seems that many of the hard-learned lessons from its checkered history with public relations and outreach are finally sinking in.
Exhibit A is the gallery’s decision to hold several months of public meetings, focus groups and sessions with public officials and other stakeholders in the area before rolling out its capital campaign and request for architectural proposals. Those meetings drew more than 300 people to venues throughout Erie County, where they were able to sound off about their concerns with the gallery’s current operation, its future and its place in the larger community.
It was clear from the first minutes of the first meeting that the gallery had its heart set on a major expansion. Anyone who has paid even cursory attention to the gallery during the past 15 years knows that it’s long been on the minds of leaders and board members.
So it stands to reason that the public with such enthusiasm to the choreographed bit of subtle salesmanship with which gallery director Janne Sirén opened each meeting. He started with a history of the institution and an overview of how its collection has grown and moved on to a discussion of the various challenges with flow, exhibition space and more mundane issues like cracked marble floors and the lack of a loading dock. He also took time to downplay the architectural importance of E.B. Green’s much-modified Clifton Hall, which is almost sure to come into play later on.
Armed with Sirén’s pitch, meeting attendees placed colored dots on a series of pre-written answers to key questions about the gallery’s future: “What are the AK’s biggest physical challenges?” “What would make you want to visit more often?” “How important is showing more of the collection?”
No one will be shocked to learn that there was an overwhelming consensus for adding more exhibition space and building an expansion on or near the gallery’s campus on the edge of Delaware Park.
Of course, if the gallery leaders were really after a scientific accounting of community sentiment about the institution and its future, they could have commissioned a poll of area residents with relative ease and at little expense. But while this was labeled as a public input process, it’s clear that it was at least as much about salesmanship and savvy public relations. And it has done its work so far marvelously well.
The gallery’s task when it comes to public input, after all, is inordinately complex.
On one hand, expansion projects, especially those of publicly funded institutions like the Albright-Knox, must involve the public in a way that goes beyond cosmetics. On the other, the institution must retain a healthy amount of autonomy throughout the process, lest we arrive at a mediocre final product whose chief virtue is its inoffensiveness. A pedestrian building of the sort that is currently popping up throughout the city could be just as bad or worse than the work of an egotistical starchitect with carte blanche.
Sirén and gallery staffers have clearly been doing their homework, visiting smart expansion projects at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., studying the complex fusion of architectural styles at the Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, Mass. and taking in new builds such as the Aspen Art Museum and the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver.
While the public input process is unlikely to result in any stunning changes in strategy for the gallery, it’s been conducted so far in a relatively open and thoughtful way that is at least a light-year or two ahead of the gallery’s past practices. This is heartening and it bodes well for an institution that, mistakes and all, seems intent on living up to its legacy.