Jeffrey Gundlach, the billionaire investment manager whose $42.5 million contribution to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's expansion efforts stunned the city this week, left Buffalo behind at a depressing time in the city's history.
After he departed for Los Angeles in 1983, the image of a city mired in defeat remained fixed in Gundlach's mind for decades, like a snow globe filled with flakes of rust.
"I was in Buffalo in the '70s and they did these crazy things like slogans to try to motivate people," Gundlach said, referring to the "Buffalo Talkin' Proud" tourism campaign. "They built a light-rail line ... to downtown thinking that was going to draw people downtown, heroically missing the fact that no one’s going to ride the rail line unless there’s something to go to."
But that static image of a city hung up on its own failures began to reveal hairline cracks about a decade ago, when Gundlach began making regular trips to his hometown for family holidays and pilgrimages to the Albright-Knox.
With each visit, Buffalo's civic pride and optimism became clearer to Gundlach. That sense of renewed hope reached a fever pitch during a visit to the city last July to speak to a meeting of the Buffalo chapter of the Chartered Financial Analyst Society in the Albright-Knox auditorium.
During that visit, Gundlach ventured into the Elmwood Village.
"I was there a year ago for a visit, and there was that Garden Walk they have in the downtown area, where people open up their back yards and their beautiful gardens and you get a chance to walk through those neighborhoods and see how these once nearly dilapidated homes now have all kinds of pride," Gundlach said. "This was all going on, and I found out there was this capital campaign. And I thought, this is something that would make a difference."
Inspired by the renewed pride Buffalonians were taking in their city, Gundlach applied the same analytical instinct that fueled his rise as an investment expert to the task of expanding the Albright-Knox. Once he set his mind to the project, it came together with astonishing speed.
Being part of a winner
Gundlach first met with Albright-Knox Art Gallery Director Janne Sirén last July during his visit to the gallery for a talk to financial analysts.
Though they did not discuss the prospect of a gift at that point, Sirén immediately began to court Gundlach, even sending flowers to his mother, Carol Gundlach, on her birthday.
According to Sirén, their first conversations about a potential matching gift happened in April of this year. By the end of June, after a lengthy phone conversation with Sirén in which Gundlach stressed the need for the campaign to unfold quickly, the structure of the donation was in place.
That's when Sirén, Albright-Knox Development Director Jillian Jones and Buffalo-born art adviser and art world deal-maker Amy Cappellazzo took Gundlach's lead and embarked on a campaign to meet his target of $30 million in private funds and $20 million from public sources.
In more than 100 meetings and conversations with potential donors, Sirén and Jones invoked either Gundlach's name or the size of his gift, which fueled what Sirén called "the fastest capital campaign in the history of the United States if not the world."
Depending on your perspective, the gallery's campaign could also be viewed as one of the longest in recent United States history given that expansion plans had been floated as long ago as 1999. The long-germinating nature of the expansion made it likely that Albright-Knox board members and other Buffalonians of means had long been prepared to pony up for the gallery when the moment came.
Even so, insiders agreed, the prospect that the gallery could have reached its $80 million target without an outside investment like Gundlach's was unlikely. When that gift arrived, however, the community responded with remarkable enthusiasm.
A crucial turning point, Gundlach said, came during an Aug. 8 meeting of the Albright-Knox board, where Cappellazzo made a strong pitch on his behalf that he said "made a big difference in getting people comfortable, getting people to dig a little deeper and getting them to fall in line" with the plan he had devised.
"I wanted it to be a vehicle [for] leaders in the city, families, board members of the Albright-Knox and everybody else that wants to be part of a winner," he said. "I wanted this to be the centerpiece of the cultural metaphor for the Buffalo renaissance and to do it in a way that it was as likely to succeed as possible."
As for the prospect of the gallery hitting its new fundraising target of $125 million, Gundlach was skeptical that Buffalo's philanthropic community has much more to give.
"I don't think the Albright-Knox could have raised $80 million without somebody like me," he said in a phone interview on Saturday. "I don't know if there's any more doorbells to ring."
A gift for Mom
During an interview from his Los Angeles home before Friday's announcement, Gundlach admitted that Buffalo's comeback and his affinity for modern and contemporary art were not the only factors behind his historic gift.
"I will acknowledge that, a little bit, I’m doing this for my mom," he said of his mother, Carol Gundlach, who still lives in the same modest home in Amherst where Gundlach grew up. "She’s always loved the Albright-Knox."
On Friday afternoon, a beaming Carol Gundlach posed for photos with her son in front of one of his favorite paintings in the gallery's collection, Clyfford Still's "1957-D No. 1." She attended nearby Kensington High School and made many visits to the Albright-Knox while studying at SUNY Buffalo State College.
"I’m astonished at this, that this worked so well," she said. "Although, when he puts his mind to something, you can be sure he’s going to think it through."
As for the gallery's new name -- the Buffalo Albright-Knox-Gundlach Art Museum, or Buffalo AKG Art Museum -- Gundlach said it better reflects the vital connection between the city and its flagship cultural institution.
"I never wanted it to just be some weird, grotesque transactional thing; I wanted it to be for the City of Buffalo, and so my most important goal was to say, let’s put Buffalo on the name," he said. "I believe that the Albright-Knox is shorting itself on visitors by not calling itself 'Buffalo.' "
Along with the Buffalo Garden Walk, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, even the now-beleaguered Buffalo Billion, the new Buffalo-branded museum that will emerge from Gundlach's contribution is yet another piece of evidence that the city's comeback is more than merely psychological.
"There were all kinds of false starts in Buffalo," Gundlach said. "And finally, it’s real."