It will be 10 years for Louis Grachos by the time he steps down as director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and it could hardly have been a more eventful decade: historic exhibits, outreach innovations and, most controversially, a decision to refocus the museum's purpose. Western New York was the beneficiary of Grachos' passion. His successor will have a big act to follow.
Grachos announced on Thursday that he has agreed to become the executive director of the AMOA-Arthouse of Austin, Texas. He will leave Buffalo at the end of this year, giving museum leaders a long lead time to identify a successor.
Grachos' announcement was met by a chorus of community praise for the leadership he has shown since taking the job in January 2003. Leslie Zemsky, president of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, which oversees the gallery, said he had "energized and engaged" the entire region. Ed Cardoni, executive director of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, cited his "openness to collaboration and commitment to contemporary art." And Donna Fernandes, Buffalo Zoo president, cited projects like the Friday night programming that helped make the Albright-Knox "more accessible to the average Buffalo citizen."
Grachos' most lasting impact – and his most controversial action – was to sell some 200 popular objects from the collection to raise money to fund the endowment for contemporary work. In the end, the sale in 2006 and 2007 added $67 million to the gallery's fund for new acquisitions, but also stirred resentment.
Such is the price of leadership. An institution – or a person, for that matter – arrives somewhere by setting a course and taking action, not by drifting. Grachos and the museum board set a course that should benefit the institution for decades to come.
But Grachos did much more than that. He launched the "Remix" program in an effort to better exhibit the gallery's collection in a limited space. He began the "Rockin' at the Knox" fundraiser and the weekly "Gusto at the Gallery" on Friday nights. He shepherded 2005's historic "Beyond/In Western New York," which became one of the largest collaborative visual arts events in the region's history, and also spearheaded the gallerywide exhibition "Extreme Abstraction," dedicated to contemporary abstract art.
Grachos, who came here from Santa Fe, is heading back South for an opportunity that he sees as unique, but the move is bittersweet. "I obviously leave with mixed emotions," he said. "It's been such a wonderful privilege to steward the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the collection. It's a tough position to walk away from."
That, we suspect, is how many Western New Yorkers feel about it, too. It was a privilege to have Grachos here, and he will be missed. But opportunities await. Austin has done well for itself.