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Albright-Knox expansion is 'on track, on budget and on schedule'

Albright-Knox expansion is 'on track, on budget and on schedule'

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The Albright-Knox Art Gallery's $168 million expansion promised to be challenging even before Covid-19.

Despite the added challenges brought on by the pandemic, museum officials say it has had only a slight effect on the project's timeline.    

"We remain on track, on budget and on schedule in the big picture of things," said Janne Siren, the museum's director. 

Meanwhile, the museum continues to raise money to finish paying for the project, bringing in $4.2 million since the November 2019 groundbreaking. That leaves about $25 million remaining to be raised.

"Where we are with the fundraising is not a bad place to be when we have two years to finish things up," Siren said.

Construction work on the new three-story glass building on the northern end of the campus came to a halt for two months beginning in late May when Gov. Andrew Cuomo put the brakes on most construction projects due to the novel coronavirus. Since work resumed, the construction work in front of the museum, where the new building and underground parking will go, has continued without delay.

Roof, masonry and drainage repairs to the 1905 building are also moving forward.

Surrounded by scaffolding

Scaffolding surrounds the columns on the south side of the 1905 building at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020.

The changes to the museum are due to be completed in the second half of 2022, when the campus will reopen as the Buffalo AKG Art Museum. AKG stands for the museum's major contributors: John J. Albright, Seymour H. Knox Jr. and Jeffrey E. Gundlach.

The changes will include a winding bridge connecting the newest and oldest buildings, an enhanced educational center in the 1962 building and a glass-covered public space in its former outdoor sculpture garden featuring a mirrored, funnel-shaped sculpture. That space, open to all, will open onto Delaware Park, better integrating the museum into the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park where it resides.

While building and paying for the expansion are the main focus, programming decisions are also being made for exhibition space that will double in size when the work finishes.

"In particular, we will celebrate the work of Clyfford Still and Marisol in the installation of our collection upon the reopening of the museum, as well as the work of many other artists in our collection, including Frida Kahlo, Robert Indiana, Mark Bradford and Deborah Roberts," Siren said.

Several major exhibitions are planned a couple of years after the museum reopens, including one on the works of Marisol and the other on Stanley Whitney, both being put together by Chief Curator Cathleen Chaffee. The exhibitions will later travel to other art institutions.

Laura masked

"Laura," the 2012 marble sculpture by artist Jaume Plensa, is wrapped in a blue tarp on the north end of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which is surrounded by scaffolding, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020.

While the campus is closed during construction, Albright-Knox Northland, on the city's East Side, will reopen Saturday with "Swoon: Seven Contemplations." And the museum's public art program continues to sponsor murals, sculptures and other public art projects throughout the city. 

Filling the pit

One of the uncertainties with Covid-19, Siren said, concerns building materials.

"The supply chain, for anybody who works with materials, whether it may be mobile telephones or exercise machines or building materials, is a question that everybody is a little bit concerned about," Siren said. "We don't know anything concrete about this at this point."

The Gilbane Building Co. excavated 38,000 cubic yards of soil – enough to fill more than 2,700 dump trucks – from where the parking lot was located to make way for the new building, creating a large pit in front of the museum along Elmwood Avenue. Piles were driven 45 feet into the ground to stabilize the walls for the building's foundation and underground parking.

Construction barrier frame

The Albright-Knox Art Gallery is framed by an opening in a construction barricade surrounding the site, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020.

Plumbing and other preparatory work is expected to begin in a couple of weeks, with the pouring of the concrete foundation expected to begin in early fall and the erecting of structural steel this winter.

The new building's glass facade will be enclosed in 2021, with interior finishes, mechanical systems and outdoor landscaping to follow. 

The exterior repairs at the 1905 building include asbestos removal in preparation for work on the mechanical systems. Reconstruction of the grand stairs removed nearly 60 years ago, when the 1962 building was constructed, will occur in 2021.

The stairs will be located where the entrance had been to the museum's education wing, which is moving to the 1962 building. Preparatory work has begun for interior changes in that building, too, but the bulk of the work is slated for later in the process.  

At Clifton Hall, on the museum's southern end of the campus, interior renovations have been completed, allowing all of the staff offices to be in the same building.

$25 million to go

Fundraising has brought in $142.7 million of the $168 million needed for construction.  

That includes $62.5 million from Gundlach, a Snyder native and billionaire Los Angeles investor, and $21.6 million from New York State.  

Of the remaining $25.3 million still to be raised, roughly half – $12.7 million – are in "the pipeline," Siren said.

"I would say that of what's in the pipeline there are some that are high likelihood and some that are medium likelihood," Siren said. "If I were to put my best estimation on the table, I would say that we have a greater likelihood of obtaining those funds than not."

New Albright-Knox rendering

An updated rendering of the new building at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

That would leave $12.6 million to be obtained.

An additional $17.8 million has been raised for the museum's operating endowment, Siren said. 

Some of the money raised is coming from relationships forged in Europe.

Siren said the board of directors of the Fine Arts Academy, the museum's governing body, set an objective when he began in 2013 to expand global awareness and support for the Albright-Knox, given its internationally renowned art collection and celebrated exhibitions.

Siren also stressed the importance of art to society after raising the issue of how some might question raising funds for the expansion while a pandemic is causing widespread unemployment and other hardships.

"I think of art and culture as the glue that keeps humanity together," Siren said. "For me, this is an investment not in art objects per se but in our common humanity, and in a space that can bring people together, enhance our mutual understanding and be a beacon of excellence for Buffalo and Western New York for future generations.

"The circumstances are what they are, but for me the objective is clear," Siren said. "We are building Buffalo's and Western New York's future and there is no hesitation in my efforts in this regard."

Mark Sommer covers preservation, development, the waterfront, culture and more. He's also a former arts editor at The News. 

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