What began as an ambitious goal is becoming reality.
The Albright-Knox Art Gallery has raised $131 million toward its $155 million goal to pay for its planned expansion project. As fundraising continues, groundbreaking could come late this year or early 2020, with the museum's opening now projected in about three years — either late 2021 or early 2022.
The fundraising took a major step forward Friday, thanks to a $3.3 million grant from the state's Buffalo Billion economic program. That allowed the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, the museum's governing body, to reach the $10 million mark necessary to trigger a matching $10 million grant from billionaire investor Jeffrey Gundlach.
The Buffalo-born Gundlach made the matching grant offer in November 2017. It followed his gift of $42.5 million in 2016 — the third-largest single philanthropic gift ever in Western New York — that gave the project an enormous boost out of the starting gate.
“I am thrilled to be the anchor of this project, and we are going to see it through all the way home,” Gundlach said at a news conference inside the museum, with Jackson Pollock's drip painting "Convergence" as a backdrop.
The project will not only advance the gallery but also the community's reputation, Gundlach said.
“It’s true that we are underappreciated, but it’s also true that we punch way above our weight class,” Gundlach said. “So, this is going to be a terrific situation that I think is going to be great for the city. I think the investments from the county, the city, the state, the assembly, so on, will be paid off in spades, not just in economic revenue, but in pride and reputation.”
The centerpiece of the expansion calls for erecting a new building at the northwest end of the property to double exhibition space.
The project also calls for improving logistics to move art, creating an educational wing, developing a covered courtyard and walk-through to Delaware Park, restoring 2 acres of green space by burying the parking lot, rehabilitating the front stairs of the 1905 building and adding a scenic bridge between that building and the new north building.
The gallery will be renamed the Buffalo Albright Knox Gundlach Art Museum, or Buffalo AKG Art Museum, after the expansion is complete.
The architect is Shohei Shigematsu of the Dutch firm Office of Metropolitan Architecture.
Donor prospects have been identified for approximately half of the $24 million that still needs to be raised, said Janne Sirén, the museum's director. He added that the museum prefers not to borrow money for the project if at all possible, though no final decision has been made.
There have also been no changes to the plan presented to the public in 2018.
"The basic premise of the design is where it was when we shared it with the public last June," Sirén said.
The project is in the design development phase through early May, during which final cost estimates will be made. Detailed exterior and interior renderings are expected to be shared with the public in June.
The next planning phase will take the project through the end of the year, with site work starting in the fall. Construction is expected to take two years.
Leading such a large and weighty project has challenged Sirén.
"Most museum directors have never had an opportunity to engage a project that's this challenging, large and complicated," Siren said. "It is like getting a new Ph.D. in a new discipline. I have done construction projects before, but never one of this scale and scope, and of this level of historic importance.
"This is really about historic preservation at the same time it is building a new pearl to an already very fine necklace," Sirén said.
Sirén expressed the museum's gratitude to Gundlach, and said he's fascinated by him.
"He is a polymath, in the sense he knows a lot about the Bills, a lot about bonds and he knows a lot about art," he said. "There aren't many people who have his range of knowledge across disciplines.
"He is very, very dedicated to Buffalo," Sirén said.
Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who announced the Buffalo Billion grant that upped New York State's total contribution to $18.3 million, also praised Gundlach for his generosity.
"I grew up here, and we never had someone like you leave and come back and share the wealth you've accumulated," Hochul said.
Gundlach spoke of his affection for Buffalo, the museum and the positive changes he sees in Buffalo.
He recently purchased a house near the museum, and filled the public rooms on the first floor with contemporary art from Buffalo artists.
Gundlach told a story of buying a sculpture by Anish Kapoor after being outbid for an Andy Warhol self-portrait at a Sotheby's auction a number of years ago. Finding the sculpture too large to display, he put it in storage before offering to loan it to the Albright-Knox.
He showed a picture of the statue to then-Director Louis Grachos, only to learn to his amazement that the very statue was once installed at the Albright-Knox's entrance.
"Literally, that sculpture had been sitting here at the front where that weird banana slope thing is," Gundlach said to scattered laughter. "It was just unbelievable because the probability of that happening is zero.
"Now it's installed in front of my house, and one day that sculpture will be installed at the entrance to the Buffalo AKG."