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Art gallery has ambitious wish list

Albright-Knox Art Gallery wants to double its gallery space, reduce or eliminate its surface parking lot along Elmwood Avenue and potentially allow pedestrians to walk from its campus on the west side of Elmwood to the Burchfield Penney Art Center on the east side “uninterrupted by traffic.”

These are just a few of the items on the gallery’s architectural wish list, which is coming into clearer focus after the initial public input phase of its expansion project ended earlier this month.

Albright-Knox Director Janne Sirén said he wants to double the exhibition space to show more of the permanent collection at the same time as temporary exhibitions, introduce a way to move art safely in and out of the building and create a visitor entrance that is “more generous in the way it invites the public in.”

He also said the gallery wanted to create “a more hospitable public space experience, address the question of the parking lot that none of us that I have spoken with likes, and work hard to find solutions, in terms of the landscape, to create an east-west dynamic that activates the two sides of the park.”

“And wouldn’t it be wonderful,” he added, “if the landscape on the west and east side of Elmwood Avenue would somehow be a bit more contiguous? That you could actually walk from that side, uninterrupted by traffic, to this side, and beyond?”

In a meeting in the gallery’s auditorium at 6 p.m. Monday, Albright-Knox officials will announce the results of public meetings and focus groups, in which more than 300 residents and community stakeholders offered wide-ranging opinions on the future of the gallery and suggestions for its expansion process. The gallery plans to launch a website where residents can continue to offer suggestions throughout the expansion and fundraising process.

The upshot from the public meetings: 82 percent said they were in favor of expanding on the current campus, while 18 percent advocated for an off-site location. No one suggested things stay as they are.

“Where we are now is at a point where we can solidly say that this campus needs attention,” Sirén said. “We cannot allow it to fall to a state of benign neglect. We need to do something. What that something is, is an ongoing process. Our thinking about it has been impacted by the public discussions.”

Among the chief concerns of those who attended sessions was the lack of exhibition space for the gallery’s rapidly growing collection – Sirén said the gallery needs to double what he calls its 20,000 square feet of “prime exhibition space” – a desire for longer hours and more social spaces, and a frustration that favorite works are often not on view. The gallery’s function as a point of civic pride was also a major takeaway from the sessions, Sirén said.

For the first time, the gallery Monday will also share limited excerpts from the master plan and space study it commissioned from the architecture firm Snohetta and consultant Brightspot and has kept tightly under wraps since its completion in 2013.

That plan includes rough outlines for how the gallery might transform itself under various scenarios: labeled “life support,” “sustainable growth,” and “expanded program.” Without proposing specific designs, the master plan’s most ambitious scenario suggests extending the Albright-Knox’s original 1905 building west toward Elmwood Avenue and the renovation or replacement of Clifton Hall with a structure that would consolidate the museum’s disconnected administrative offices.

Sirén warned, however, that the shape and scope of the expansion is entirely contingent on how much money the gallery can raise in its coming capital campaign and on the request for architectural proposals it hopes to send out by the fall of 2016.

Within a month, he said, the gallery expects to hire a financial consultant to determine how much money it can raise for expansion and by what means. After that capital campaign plan is complete, potentially by fall, the gallery will officially launch its campaign committee, create a timeline for the project and finally write a request for architectural proposals. That request for proposals, preceded by a more informal “request for qualifications” that could include up to 30 submissions from architects and design firms, is expected to be ready by next fall.

The presentation Sirén will present to the public at Monday’s meeting suggests that public input “had a significant impact on our thinking” by pushing the gallery to consider its contribution to the larger museum district and its function as driver of civic pride. The desire for more “social spaces,” Sirén said, was also paramount.

“The city is different today than it was in the ’50s and ’60s. American civic society is different. There’s a move back to city,” he said. “In some respects, the ideas of public space that we seek today are more analogous to the civic spaces that were built circa 1900 than they were in the 1950s.”

Among major North American art museums, the Albright-Knox is the only one that has not “done an intervention that integrates old and new in the last five decades,” Sirén said. He mentioned recent expansions at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Metropolitan and Brooklyn museums of art and the Harvard Art Museums as successful examples of fusing historical and contemporary architecture.

When it comes to the Albright-Knox’s own expansion, the gallery will have to contend with three titans of urban design who are responsible for the gallery as it exists today: E.B. Green, who designed the original 1905 building and the Clifton Hall satellite space; Gordon Bunshaft, who designed the gallery’s 1962 addition; and Frederick Law Olmsted, on whose flagship public park the institution sits.

“If we move forward with the process, whoever works in this context must honor each of those individuals and their work,” Sirén said. “This is not an empty slate. This is not a piece of clean real estate where you come with an expressionistic brush and make your signature stroke.”

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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