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Editorial: Wilson Foundation's generosity adds to the rush of support for Albright-Knox

On both sides of eternity, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery has generous friends. Its most recent eye-opening gift came through a $6 million donation from the Ralph Wilson Jr. Foundation, which was created through a bequest by the late owner of the Buffalo Bills. It wasn’t the foundation’s first gift to Buffalo, nor will it be the last. But it was an important one.

The money helps to secure an ambitious plan to expand and improve the historic art gallery at the edge of Delaware Park. The $6 million donation helps to make good on the game-changing challenge grant of $42.5 million put up by Jeffrey Gundlach, a Buffalo-born billionaire now based in Los Angeles but whose heart remains in Western New York.

Indeed, it was Gundlach’s gift together with the visionary work of the gallery’s director, Janne Sirén, and its development director, Jillian Jones, that enticed the Wilson Foundation to makes its donation. It will help make a tremendous difference in Buffalo, as the Albright-Knox seeks to make itself an even bigger destination.

Wilson, who died in 2014, made himself an extraordinarily wealthy man through his ownership of the Buffalo Bills. Now, Buffalo and Wilson’s hometown of Detroit are benefiting in return, through the work of the foundation that bears his name.

The foundation will distribute about $1.2 billion, proceeds from the sale of the Bills, plus the investment income, over the next 20 years. Beneficiaries are expected  to include medical research, amateur and youth sports, hospitals, former players’ foundations, national medical clinics and other nonprofit causes.

Already in Western New York the foundation has given to Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Hunter’s Hope, Western New York Amateur Football Alliance, Launch New York, Say Yes to Education and the University at Buffalo for its sports medicine program. It has also given $2 million to the United Way for an endowment and outlined a philanthropic partnership with the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo. And that’s not a complete list.

The gift to the Albright-Knox helps to cement a plan that Sirén only earlier this year described as “aspirational.” It was going to be a big lift at “just” $80 million. With Gundlach’s challenge and gifts such as the Wilson Foundation’s, donations have already topped $100 million, with the excess to be placed into an endowment.

Wilson, the football visionary, was also something of an art collector. “In our living room, in Grosse Pointe, there were three Monets, a Manet and a Sisley. We just lived around that,” said Wilson’s widow, Mary.

The Wilson Foundation’s leaders were wise enough to structure their own grant as a challenge. It would be delivered if the gallery raised another $24 million on its own. That, it turned out, was not a problem.

It wasn’t a problem because of the network of Buffalo donors, led this time by Gundlach, whose astonishing generosity unlocked the door to a flood of other givers. In addition to the Wilson Foundation, they included the John R. Oishei Foundation, the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, M&T Bank and the Rich Family Foundation.

Together, they helped make the heavy lift at the Albright-Knox unexpectedly easy. And the good news for Buffalo, regarding all these donors, but especially the Wilson Foundation, is that there is much more good they will accomplish in Buffalo in the coming years.

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