A phalanx of public officials, philanthropists, art admirers and press filed into the soon-to-be-renamed Albright-Knox Art Gallery auditorium Friday afternoon to observe one of the proudest moments in the institution’s history.
The primary draw was the news of a $42.5 million gift from Los Angeles-based investor and Buffalo native Jeffrey Gundlach that vaulted the gallery well over its fundraising goal in the span of less than three months and ensured a major expansion would be likely be completed within five years.
Though the event unfolded under the cloud of a corruption scandal involving the chair of the gallery’s campus development committee and the fate of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s “Buffalo Billion” project, a definite sense of Buffalo optimism still pervaded.
There was also genuine astonishment at the magnitude of Gundlach's contribution, described by M&T Bank Chairman Robert G. Wilmers as a "stunning gesture of generosity," even from those who had known about it for months.
Albright-Knox Director Janne Sirén introduced Gundlach as “Buffalo’s Medici,” invoking the great patron of the Italian Renaissance. Cuomo said that while Gundlach is known on the West Coast as the “bond king,” he will henceforth be known here as “the King of Buffalo,” in addition to having his name part of the renamed the Buffalo Albright-Knox-Gundlach Art Museum. And Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz jokingly kvetched that the county’s $5 million contribution to the project would ordinarily be met with a standing ovation if it hadn't been eclipsed by Gundlach’s donation.
"I'll give you a standing ovation," Cuomo said to a smiling Poloncarz in his remarks, prompting polite laughter from the audience.
After the announcement, as Cuomo addressed reporters' questions about the unfolding scandal in the gallery's cafe and the Buffalo Chamber Players' performance of Mozart string quartets echoed through the gallery, officials and attendees chattered about the news in excited tones.
"This is not only transformative, but it’s also revolutionary," said former Buffalo Mayor Anthony M. Masiello. "This is going to elevate the Albright-Knox and the City of Buffalo to an international destination."
Many also touted the gallery's achievement as an example of Buffalo's rising reputation and as part of its broader comeback story, which is drawing young people back to town or, at least, giving them fewer reasons to leave.
One of those Buffalo re-pats is Kayla Zemsky, 29, the daughter of Buffalo economic development czar Howard Zemsky and former Albright-Knox board chair Leslie Zemsky. Both her return and Gundlach's gift were cited by her father as emblematic of Buffalo's resurgence.
"It's exciting and invigorating. I'm excited to see it thriving," Kayla Zemsky said, adding that she's moving back to Buffalo after years in New York City partly out of a desire to have an impact on a small but growing city.
Jane Hartney, another former Buffalonian who returned to the city two years ago after spending more than 30 years as a camera person for ABC News, praised Gundlach's vision and generosity.
"This is a great institution, the Albright-Knox, and boy, what a great thing that they found a guy who sees what they’re trying to do and has the dollars to bring it to fruition," she said. "I wish I had $5 million or $10 million or $20 million to hand off to some cultural institution that really contributes so much to the community."
Though amount of the City of Buffalo's contribution to the expansion project has not yet been announced, Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown praised Gundlach's contribution as sign of swelling pride in Buffalo from people across the country.
"People across the country and across the world who have grown up in Buffalo or who have received their education in Buffalo or lived in Buffalo are very proud of what they see happening in this community and they really want to be a part of it," he said. "It’s amazing how close so many people still feel to the City of Buffalo. As [Gundlach] said, people want to talk proud about Buffalo and what’s been happening for the past decade."
“I think it’s very exciting,” said Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center Executive Director Edmund Cardoni, whose organization has often worked with the gallery. “This is already a great museum, but to have the new added expansion is very exciting. This makes it possible for it to happen much sooner, within my lifetime and within my career.”