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Robert T. Buck, former Albright-Knox and Brooklyn Museum director, dies at 79

An important piece of Robert T. Buck's legacy stands gleaming on Niagara Square, a tensile structure of polished stainless steel set against the muddy concrete backdrop of Buffalo City Court.

The sculpture, Kenneth Snelson's "Coronation Day," was installed in 1980 after several years of controversy and political squabbles over its commission and a suggestion from then-mayor and armchair art critic Jimmy Griffin that it would be better suited for the bottom of Lake Erie.

More than any other factor, it was the patience and diligence of Mr. Buck, who led the Albright-Knox Art Gallery from 1973 to 1983, that enabled the installation of this adventurous-for-Buffalo piece on such a prominent site.

Upon the completion of a model for the piece in 1979, Buck praised Snelson's work for "the delicacy of its equilibrium and harmony of forces" and called it "an extraordinary personal achievement on the part of one of our leading American sculptors."

Mr. Buck, who died March 30 at 79 after a battle with cancer, was an instrumental figure in Buffalo's visual arts scene, both at the gallery and in the community. His decade-long stint as director at the Albright-Knox was defined by a bookish enthusiasm for the work of contemporary American artists and an involvement in Buffalo's burgeoning avant garde art scene that set a precedent for future directors.

"From the very beginning, Bob Buck and his curatorial staff were welcoming and encouraging of Hallwalls and the Hallwalls artists," said Edmund Cardoni, director of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center. The open attitude of the director and his staff, Cardoni added, led to "major collaborations on joint, multi-venue exhibitions that probably made the Albright-Knox's programming more immediately responsive to the newest American artists, including women artists, than most museums of its stature, even in New York City."

During his time at the Albright-Knox, Mr. Buck organized major exhibitions on the work of Sam Francis (1972), Richard Diebenkorn (1976), Cleve Gray (1977), Sonia Delaunay (1980) and Fernand Leger (1982). He also oversaw several important exhibitions, expanded the gallery's education department and supervised the publication of the much-cited volume "Albright-Knox Art Gallery: Painting and Sculpture from Antiquity to 1942."

Kenneth Snelson’s sculpture "Coronation Day" on view outside Buffalo City Court, is one part of Robert T. Buck's legacy in Western New York. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

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Robert Treat Buck was born Feb. 16, 1939, in Fall River, Mass. He earned a bachelor's degree from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., in 1961 and went on to earn a master's degree in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University in 1965.

After a stint as a management trainee at the Chemical Bank New York Trust in New York City, he began his museum career at the Toledo Museum of Art in 1964. Mr. Buck went on to work as an assistant curator and instructor at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., and to direct the university's art gallery from 1968 to 1970.

Former Albright-Knox Art Gallery Robert T. Buck, shown here in a portrait from August 1973. (Buffalo News file photo)

At 31, he clinched the assistant director job at the Albright-Knox in 1970 under the legendary director Gordon Smith, who built the museum's world-class collection of post-war art with Seymour H. Knox Jr.

He was selected as Smith's replacement in 1973, described by Buffalo Evening News Art Critic Jean Reeves as "a young man of strong convictions, effervescent spirits, driving energy and the determination to keep the institution on the distinguished course charted by his predecessors."

"Buffalo is a sports-minded community, and on that level it's in the big leagues," Mr. Buck once said during a public debate over the gallery's role in Buffalo's art community. "The same standard must be maintained in art."

During his time in Buffalo, Mr. Buck championed adventurous American artists like Sam Francis and local artists like Duayne Hatchett. He was also instrumental, according to a release from the Albright-Knox, in securing a "vast increase in grant funding" from state and federal sources.

At the Brooklyn Museum, Mr. Buck's tenure was defined both by a period of major expansion and funding challenges.

Mr. Buck's love for art, he told The News in 1973, began when he met a particularly passionate professor at Williams College who opened his eyes to the beauty and meaning of visual art.

"I had a feeling of getting mixed up with something extraordinary, of history and how it affected people and the artists themselves; how they pulled sensations and forms together into a plastic statement of overwhelming quality," Mr. Buck said. "From then on I was never satisfied with anything else as a life purpose."

Mr. Buck is survived by his wife, Nicole, along with two sons, Thomas and Philip, and two grandchildren, Liam and Kyle.

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