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Gallery is being realistic

My first reaction was a groan. But then knees will jerk when you slug them with a rubber hammer.

The more I thought about the Albright-Knox Gallery's "deaccessioning" of some of its antiquities -- auctioning them off to raise funds for future purchases -- the more I understood it.

I may groan again if the gallery's Lorenzo DiCredi is one of those auctioned off. Italian Renaissance paintings by pupils of Verocchio -- even mediocre ones -- aren't often come by in a gallery like the Albright-Knox, and letting one go does indeed seem careless.

The big trouble is the gallery has been, up to now, very cagey about releasing a full list of the 200 objects that will be offered up for auction at Sotheby's beginning in March.

I understand that, in part. Buffalo residents who have lived with the collection all their lives can be expected to groan and moan over this or that inclusion. Still, anticipating adverse reaction is no excuse for not letting the community in on everything they plan to offer up at auction.

We know they're not crazy enough to auction off post-Renaissance work like Sir Joshua Reynolds' "Cupid as a Link Boy" or Paul Gaugin's masterpiece the "Yellow Christ." But it only makes it harder to convince everyone they're of good faith if the disclosure isn't full and open and prompt.

What they're doing is, as an entire community knows, a profound move and a seemingly radical one.

What made sense to me the more I thought about it is that it's an intelligent assessment of the very nature of the Albright-Knox collection. As impressive as some of its antiquities are, the gallery was never going to be a collection that, like the Metropolitan Museum in New York, began with the dawn of civilization and inched its way to yesterday.

It's the very nature of the collection that its glory -- its international glory -- is modern, i.e., beginning in the 19th century and coming into astounding ascendance with the 20th century purchases former gallery director Gordon Smith made with Seymour Knox's money.

What makes the Albright-Knox Art Gallery one of the great museums of its size in the world is not its reflection of a more haphazard aristocratic penchant for picking up a semi-distinguished miscellany of pre-19th century art history.

It seems to me the impending auction reflects, in that sense, a profound and thoroughly sound understanding of the kind of museum it is and its very place in the world.

If I have my doubts -- and I do -- it's a skepticism about the future nature of art in the world.
The whole stated point of the deaccessioning is to provide for the purchase of contemporary art in an era where Buffalo's shrinking supply of aristocratic philanthropists has long since seemed to prefer to attend to the sporting world.

But that still assumes the future of art is the kind of brokered artifacts that can be purchased by a museum. What if that kind of art was, in the most general aesthetic sense, doomed long ago and only persists as a kind of posthumous commerce for commerce's sake?

What if the art of the future involves computers and everything else that might de-centralize art away from objects and artifacts and back into life in a way that artists have been struggling to imagine for the last 100 years or so?

What if, then, the ancient commerce that turned into art is now being sold off to purchase art that has no future except as commerce?

I hate to be drearily philosophical about all this, believe me.

It seems to me, though, the Albright-Knox is making sound decisions about its nature as a museum. The real question of the future, though, is what will museums themselves mean?


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