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Hundreds say farewell to Albright-Knox as art museum prepares for future

Shonnie Finnegan has been coming to the Albright-Knox regularly since 1964, almost the entire time as a member.

So it wasn't surprising that the Williamsville resident was at the museum Sunday, hours before it was to close its doors for a $160 million expansion that's expected to take around two years.

"We wanted to say goodbye to old favorites for several years," she said.

At the same time, Finnegan said she is excited about the museum's future plans for a four-story building that will serve as a new entrance and more than double the museum's exhibition space. The new building also calls for an indoor sculpture terrace that will encircle the main galleries and provide a 360-degree wraparound view of the surrounding landscape.

Finnegan also cited plans for a scenic bridge that will connect the new North Building and E.B. Green's historic 1905 building, as well as improve the museum's ability to handle and transport valuable artwork.

Plans also call for the 1962 Gordon Bunshaft addition to be used for educational purposes, with six classrooms, exhibition space and a 6,000-square-foot community space marked by a "Common Sky" sculptural canopy and restoration of east-west access. The 1905 building's staircase, lost decades ago to the automobile, will be recreated.

Parking for the new building will be underground, with the current parking lot turned into a green plaza that will be used for public events such as concerts.

Finnegan was one of hundreds of people in attendance Sunday, all of them among the 5,000 people projected to visit the Albright-Knox during its closing weekend, according to Maria Morreale, the museum's director of communications.

Inside the Albright-Knox on the museum's last day open in 2019. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

"There is a lot of love in this community for this museum and it's wonderful to see it," Morreale said. "This has been a long time coming. We have been working on this for many years, and we're on the brink of it happening, and that's a great moment."

"It's going to be bigger and better than ever," Morreale said.

Many people shared that view after examining a large 3-D model of the planned expansion.

"I think it's spectacular," said Lauren Molenda, who was at the museum with her husband, Steven, and Millie, the couple's 4-year-old daughter.

"Two years is a long time, but I can understand," Molenda said. "By then my daughter will be able to be at a good age to take art classes and things like that. We thought we'd bring her out on the last day to have a memory before then."

Jasoda Silva said she was unsure about the new building as she studied the model but that she was looking forward to seeing how it looked when completed.

"I love the way it will open as far as the surroundings, and the way it's connected to the old building as well, but I'm not sure of the scale," Silva said. "I think it looks bigger than needed, but I don't know what the program is going to be."

The model impressed Rusty Buehler, who said he comes to the Albright-Knox regularly for new exhibits.

A curvy bridge is planned to connect the new Albright-Knox building with the 1905 E.B. Green-designed building. (Mark Sommer/Buffalo News)

"The new structure looks very cool," he said, singling out the curvy bridge.

Asked how he planned to bide his time in the interim, Buehler's mother quickly volunteered, "We're hoping children."

Buehler preferred to bring up AK Northland, expected to open Jan. 17 about 3 miles away at 612 Northland Ave., off Fillmore Avenue, with 8,000 square feet of exhibition space along with special programs and events. The museum's permanent collection won't be on display, due to a lack of necessary temperature control.

Buehler expressed skepticism that the renovation will be completed in the announced time frame.

"I think it's going to take longer than two years," Buehler said.

He wasn't alone in sharing that view, but Morreale said every effort will be made to expedite and complete the renovation as quickly as possible.

"We're really focused on trying to deliver within two years," she said. "We can only anticipate at this point, but we would like to be done in two years."

When the venerable cultural institution reopens, it will be renamed the Buffalo Albright-Knox-Gundlach Art Museum, AKG for short.

On Sunday, a section of the museum's first floor was closed, the artwork having already been removed and put into storage. The gift shop, with prices marked 50 percent off, was also mostly cleared out by noon.

Closing day at the museum was also the last day for people to see Anthony McCall's "Dark Rooms, Solid Light." Here, two people stand in a cone of light. (Mark Sommer/Buffalo News)

Some of the gallery's 7,500 members on hand moved through blackened rooms upstairs and stepped into cones of projected light as they viewed Anthony McCall's "Dark Rooms, Solid Light," which was also closing.

Chicago resident Tina Weil, who had longed wanted to see the Albright-Knox, was disappointed that a Willem de Kooning painting was nowhere to be found. But she was overjoyed to see Giacomo Balla's "Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash."

"That stole my heart, completely," Weil said. "You have a beautiful collection. Each piece is really special."

Ciara Nachreiner, of Colden, was prompted by the museum's closing to visit for the first time. It was husband David's first time back in more than 20 years.

"I've lived in Buffalo 15 years and I've never been here," Ciara Nachreiner said. "So I saw in the news that it was closing and I wanted to come."

That was the opposite for Elizabeth Finnegan, Shonnie Finnegan's daughter. Like her mother, she said she felt a need to come on the last day.

"I grew up coming to this museum. I've been coming here since early childhood, so this is my first idea of what art was," Finnegan said.

She said she is excited about the museum's future.

"It will be very interesting to see how they will handle new exhibitions using the new space, because there are so many possibilities," Finnegan said.

The gallery has raised $137.3 million, leaving $22.7 million to go.

While the campus is closed, Janne Siren, the gallery's director, told members at the annual meeting held on Oct. 2 that he is continuing fundraising efforts, with much of his time looking for donors outside of Buffalo, including internationally.

An Art Truck is one of the new initiatives the Albright-Knox is launching during the construction project. (Mark Sommer/Buffalo News)

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