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Editorial: Protect the Albright-Knox's art

The gallery is embarking on a $125 million expansion that would add gallery space and renovate its aging buildings. That requires flexibility which, in fact, leaders of the gallery are demonstrating.

It is particularly important when looking at the Bunshaft auditorium. Many preservationists do not want the galleries and courtyard touched.

It is an absolutist position that ignores critical needs. Yes, the architecture is important, but it must also serve function. The goal must be to find middle ground that honors the building but better allows the gallery to serve the public and the priceless art within.

The plan has been set in place that would bridge old and new and allow the gallery to become more open to the public. If this original plan is wholly scrapped, the gallery might not reach its potential.

Right now, there are logistical issues that urgently need to be dealt with, as outlined in News arts critic Colin Dabkowski’s recent piece on the lack of functionality in Bunshaft’s beautiful architecture.

As an example, when workers at the gallery’s café have to dispose of waste or transport food, “they must roll garbage totes through narrow corridors, carefully navigating around priceless pieces of sculpture and some of the most important paintings in the history of art.” There is no quick ending to this task, as totes start out at the cramped loading dock on the west side of the gallery’s 1962 building. Imagine the linen waiting to be washed, the exposed and dated mechanical systems and crated artworks waiting to be installed in the gallery or carried off on trucks.

As Albright-Knox Deputy Director Joe Martin Lin-Hill succinctly observed, one does not want in a contemporary art museum trash and visitors mixing.

The building’s challenges have sparked debate over a plan the gallery announced last year to convert Bunshaft’s galleries and courtyard into a grand entry hall. This is not a question of beauty in architecture but, rather, functionality in architecture.

As Dabkowski wrote, E.B. Green’s 1905 building is a neoclassical marvel, with expansive galleries and beautiful symmetry which “dissolves into the simple grace of Gordon Bunshaft’s low-slung, modern jewel-box to the south.” Each architect seems to be addressing the other, although from different eras and yet connecting.

The issue reaches into the cramped loading dock of the 1962 building. It has narrow corridors, its courtyard walled off and the walls along its entrance are artless. Meanwhile, there is a need to add exhibition space and fix some of those shortcomings in the existing buildings.

There is a plan. All one needs to do is take a look at the work architectural firm OMA came up with. It would convert the building’s cramped galleries into a grand entry hall and place a large new exhibition space between Green’s building and Bunshaft’s auditorium. The proposition enraged the preservationist community and many architectural historians.

The gallery ended up hiring two preservation firms to guide them through a possible alternative solution. It is a process that is continuing, to the point that the gallery announced in September it was exploring alternative expansion on the north side of the campus. Such a move would be a mistake. It would not add anything to the conversation and likely appear out of place.

Those who want to preserve Bunshaft’s beautiful creation as it was some 56 years ago are essentially freezing the gallery in time. Do not scrap the whole plan. Look for acceptable compromises that would bring those naysayers along. Make the gallery as it should be: a place that is engaging to the public and safe for the priceless art it contains.

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