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Looking to the future, Albright-Knox begins an ambitious expansion project

This one will be a big lift, but one well worth the effort. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery has created an $80 million vision for an expansion project that would more than double the gallery’s exhibition space while creating a public space rivaling that of Canalside.

What, exactly, will develop at the gallery remains a work in progress, given its unique way of pursuing its vision. Leaders at the Albright-Knox have selected five architects from around the world, all with experience building in difficult urban environments. But those firms haven’t been engaged to design the new project – at least not yet.

Their initial task is to create designs that the gallery will evaluate with a goal of picking a partner – a company whose ideas best suit the gallery and its needs. That’s when an architect will be chosen to create the new space, renovate the existing structure and help the Albright-Knox to better serve the thousands who walk through its doors.

The goal is to create 50,000 square feet of prime exhibition space, more than double the existing 19,000 feet and enough for it to be mentioned in the same breath as destinations such as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the new Whitney Museum of American Art, both in New York City. Even then, the new gallery would be able to display only a fraction of its enormous collection.

And it isn’t hard to imagine, with the plans likely to develop, that the gallery and its setting really could become a version of Canalside North. It already borders Hoyt Lake, on the edge of historic Delaware Park, one of Frederick Law Olmsted’s premier works. The expected changes to the Scajaquada Expressway could also influence the design and attractiveness of the site.

The big question is money. To raise $80 million – which gallery director Janne Sirén defined as the project’s “aspirational” cost – will be challenging. Still, that work is already underway, and with help from the right people, including the CEO and chairman of M&T Bank, Robert Wilmers, who is the campaign committee’s chairman. The plan is to attract funding from the public and private sectors, and from foundations. The winning architect will also help with fundraising.

Still, there is little value in underestimating what can be accomplished. This is a great moment in which to aim high. With the city rebounding and gaining international notice, the potential for success is surely better than it has been in decades. However it turns out, this is an exciting project for a city on the upswing. The approach is intriguing and the importance to the gallery and the city is undeniable.

Sure, it’s a big lift. But Buffalo is getting used to those.