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Millions for masterpieces Will the Albright-Knox go on a major shopping spree or be frugal when it comes to spending its auction proceeds?

After two profitable auctions of its highly sought-after pre-modern artwork, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery is now $20 million richer. By the time the remaining auctions are over in June, the gallery stands to gain at least $10 million more.

It's not exactly chump change, but compared to the wildly inflated modern and contemporary art market, $20 million can look more like 20 bucks.

So, what can the Albright-Knox do with its sudden influx of cash? Don't expect gallery officials to blow it all at once on another Jackson Pollock or Andy Warhol.

The Albright-Knox does not plan on making any immediately significant changes to its acquisition process, said Director Louis Grachos. The plan is to continue its practice of bringing in about 30 to 40 new works of art per year, including gifts.

"I think the pace will be the same," Grachos said. "We'll be able to be a little bit more responsive to things we need for the collection, but we'll still operate under a pretty solid budget. We don't go beyond our means, we're very careful about it."

To stay afloat and build on its reputation, the Albright-Knox must compete against hundreds of other institutions and individuals with more money and equally refined sensibilities about exactly what art matters.

"The contemporary art market is probably one of the broadest and deepest out there," said Amy Cappellazzo, a former Buffalonian and co-director of the international post-war and contemporary art department at Christie's auction house in New York. She said that today's hot market is perpetuating itself, as collectors looking to cash in are dragging their collections out of storage and onto the market.

In November, an auction of post-war and modern art at Christie's, which sells more modern and contemporary art than any other single entity, earned a record $491 million for just 78 pieces of art, including five paintings by famed Austrian painter Gustav Klimt. In 2006 alone, worldwide auctions of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art earned more than $1.1 billion.

Grachos said he'd like to leverage the increased endowment to re-establish the gallery's contemporary art collection by buying "significant work by what we feel are key artists of our time." To indicate just what he considers significant work, Grachos motioned to the sculpture currently in the Albright-Knox courtyard, a 9-ton stainless steel structure by artist Jim Hodges that the Albright-Knox acquired for a price in the mid-six figures.

That work, which the gallery bought in 2006 and will pay for over several years with help from five private collectors, represents the kind of piece Grachos hopes to buy more of in the coming years. Grachos, the curators and the art committee of the Albright-Knox hope the sculpture, and indeed all of its acquisitions, will be viewed as seminal or key works in the eyes of future art historians.

The gallery has its eye on a number of contemporary artists not yet in the collection whose works may end up there soon. Grachos mentioned Jorge Pardo, a New York-based sculptor, and a pair of video art pioneers, Bruce Nauman and Gary Hill, that he said could help bolster the gallery's currently spotty collection of key film and video work. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, an artist whose work dealt the AIDS epidemic and has been gaining renown since Gonzalez-Torres died from the disease in 1996.

>Working with a budget

The gallery's annual budget for purchasing new work will be bolstered by as much as $2 million, depending on the result of the final four auctions. That's no small amount, but considering that work from many well-known, midcareer artists is pushing seven figures, experts say the gallery will need to utilize other tactics to keep up with more financially powerful museums.

"If you don't have all the money in the world, then you have to be extra smart," said Cappellazzo. "It takes a little vision and foresight to see artists who are really making outstanding contributions to art history before that's confirmed by the broader public."

"Most museums don't have the acquisition budgets of the Museum of Modern Art or the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The best collections of the last 30 years have all been assembled privately, mainly," Cappellazzo said. "That wasn't true back in the day when Seymour Knox was doing his buying. It's almost performance anxiety for any director moving forward to live up to the previous collection, to live up to doing that and buying the same great works in your own time."

Grachos says he's up for the task.

"Part of your training as a curator or any kind of art professional is instinct," said Albright-Knox Associate Curator Holly E. Hughes, remarking on the uncanny ability of Seymour Knox and former gallery director Gordon Smith to make clairvoyant purchases that turned out to be exactly the kind of key works Grachos talks about buying today.

>Investing in art

But beyond instincts, Grachos said, years of research, travel and constant vigilance on the subtle changes in the art world are all necessary to make wise art-purchasing decisions. In recent years, those decisions have brought several significant pieces. One, an enormous inverted cast of a staircase by Rachel Whiteread currently on view in the sculpture gallery, was a joint purchase with Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Art -- a practice becoming more common among museums of the Albright-Knox's size and financial means.

Carolee Schneemann, an artist with a career retrospective currently running at CEPA Gallery, has sold some of her work to the San Francisco and New York museums of modern art. As an artist who has been working since the 1960s, Schneemann says the contemporary art market has lately taken on some of the more gruesome aspects of the stock market.

"Art has become a glamorous commodity and an entertainment," Schneemann said, adding that art collectors are "investing money in what looks like it has good futures."

In all the fervor of the current art market, Schneemann said, the quality of the works can become secondary to the price.

But at the Albright-Knox, Grachos and Hughes said, a thirst for new art is backed up by years of studying and preparation before the gallery decides to buy an artist's work.

"As a museum, it's not just about discovering the new, it's about tracking careers of artists," Grachos said.

That means plenty of traveling for the gallery staff to international exhibitions and art fairs in Switzerland, France, London, and now increasingly Latin America and Asia. In a market that has become significantly more global even in the last five years, trips to New York and London aren't going to cut it, Grachos said.

In addition to the millions of dollars the gallery will make from the auctions, it also plans on developing other sources of funding from private collectors, working harder to encourage donations and exploring more joint ownership possibilities for works that are either cost-prohibitive or that one institution wouldn't be able to exhibit year-round.

For Cappellazzo, who sees as many small museums and cash-strapped collectors as she sees billionaires at Christie's, the auction windfall can't be the only factor in preserving the gallery's reputation as one of the nation's best collections of modern and contemporary art.

"Just because you have the most money doesn't make you the smartest," Cappellazzo said.

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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