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The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, that hallowed citadel of modernism, is about to attempt the high-wire act of staying open while undertaking a $6.5 million, down-to-the-studs interior renovation.

Beginning Jan. 1, the newer half of the Elmwood Avenue complex will close for installation of sophisticated heating, air-conditioning and humidity-control systems.

In late June or early July, the new section, built in 1962, will resume operations, and the 1905 Greek revival structure will shut down for the duration of the 15-month project, until March 1999.

New lighting, refurbished galleries and improvements to the Sculpture Court, Sculpture Garden and auditorium also are planned.

"It's going to be a little chaotic," acknowledged Douglas G. Schultz, Albright-Knox executive director. "Most museums close their doors during construction. But we want to keep up the momentum generated by recent shows."

Modern museum standards, and the gallery's own ambitious agenda for the future, make the updating necessary, said Charles Balbach, president of the board of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, which governs the 135-year-old institution.

Balbach and Schultz will lay out the battle plan during the academy's annual meeting at 5:30 p.m. today in the gallery.

In the end, the freshening-up will let the Albright-Knox:

Lower long-term operating costs.

Meet strict new federal environmental regulations.

Conserve its permanent collection for decades to come.

Present major special exhibitions and artworks from other collections.

For the most part, the gallery will negotiate the din and plaster dust in a business-as-usual fashion.

Two exhibitions will go on as scheduled: "Impression to Surrealism," featuring European paintings from the house collection, opening Jan. 23, and works by Nancy Rubins and Sophie Ristelhueber, beginning March 20.

In addition, the gallery Education Department will continue its classes, tours and other programs without skipping a beat.

The Garden Restaurant by Just Pasta will offer a limited menu in the Sculpture Court during the first phase of construction before returning to full service at its present location off the Sculpture Garden in midyear.

In order to bottle the interest generated by recent shows and the forthcoming exhibition of works by Dale Chihuly, the nation's premier glass artist, the gallery will lower admission prices and enlist some outside help, Schultz said.

Admission during the renovation will be half-price: $2 for adults, $1.50 for students and senior citizens. Members and children younger than 12 will be admitted free.

The Anderson Gallery on Martha Jackson Place in University Heights, which stopped doing public exhibitions last year, will open its first-floor galleries for several exhibitions from the Albright-Knox permanent collection.

Those shows, including a 1960s "Op Art" -- the Albright has one of the world's best collections -- were selected to attract a wide audience, Schultz noted.

Admission to the Anderson will be free.

The 47th annual Western New York Exhibition also will be held at the Anderson next April.

The Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society will turn over its auditorium to the Albright-Knox for lectures until the first phase is completed.

The renovation will be paid for with $4.5 million from the gallery's $9.5 million capital campaign and a $2 million grant pending in Congress.

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