Buffalo Remakes its Museum in its Own Image

This article is part of our Museums special section about how art institutions are reaching out to new artists and attracting new audiences.

BUFFALO — After three and a half years and $230 million, a transformed museum here is about to open amid hopes that it will meet the expectations of a population far different from the one that greeted the original more than 160 years ago.

Founded in 1862 by artists and so-called “Buffalo boosters,” the institution known as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery has been renamed the Buffalo AKG Art Museum and expanded and renovated by Shohei Shigematsu of the architectural firm OMA. It plans to welcome the public beginning June 12.

Since receiving its first painting in 1863, a landscape by the Hudson River painter Albert Bierstadt donated by the artist, the institution has been early to acquire works by Henry Moore, Joan Miró, Mark Rothko, Frida Kahlo, Willem de Kooning, Marisol, Andy Warhol and Mark Bradford, among others, amassing a modern and contemporary collection of international renown.

But many Buffalo residents, while proud of the museum’s reputation, also “felt it was an elitist institution and not their place,” said Janne Sirén, the museum’s director. He heard this during two years of extensive town hall meetings, conducted with his staff and with Mr. Shigematsu, to solicit input on what the community wanted in the expanded museum.

“The city feels very good about how the museum has approached this,” said Buffalo’s mayor, Byron Brown, adding that the museum’s leadership was intentional in “making sure that all segments of our diverse population were heard and reflected in the new construction.”

The result is a far more accessible campus. The new gallery building with an all-glass facade, and changes to the existing 1905 neoclassical building by E.B. Green and the 1962 modernist addition by Gordon Bunshaft, all aim to break down barriers between the interior and exterior.

While abutting the edge of Delaware Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, “the existing complex was so inward-looking,” said Mr. Shigematsu. He positioned his transparent contemporary building on the museum’s former parking area — now underground — and created a new lawn in front as a welcome gesture.

“Our scheme really reinstates the idea that this museum is in the park,” said Mr. Shigematsu, who has connected his new structure to one end of the original building with a serpentine glass bridge that floats amid oak trees and offers shifting views of the campus, park and city.

In 1962, Mr. Bunshaft bridged his black-glass addition at the other end of the grand columned 1905 building with sleek white marble walls, creating an open-air interior sculpture court between the two structures, with only a single entrance to the whole museum at this midpoint.

This 6,000-square-foot courtyard was “a wonderful thought,” said Mr. Sirén, but unusable for months each year in a city regularly hammered by snowstorms. He commissioned Olafur Eliasson and Sebastian Behmann to create an artwork that would also serve functionally as a roof and transform the space into the town square of the campus.

Their canopy of interlocking glass and mirror triangles called “Common Sky,” rising from an off-center funnel and modeled on the gentle swell of a snowdrift, yields animated views of the architecture and nature outside and a dramatic play of light and shadow inside. During rain and snow, the funnel collects the elements, with an elaborate drainage system at the bottom.

“I see the work that Sebastian and I did in the bigger context of the museum essentially turning itself inside out to seem more approachable and not a fortress,” Mr. Eliasson said.

With a new entrance directly opposite the 1962 front door, visitors can pass through “Common Sky” on their way to the park or stay for music, performances and other programming being developed for the space in collaboration with a community advisory council.

Admission is free to “Common Sky” and to the entire 1962 building, equipped with five new studio classrooms, a 2,000-square-foot gallery and its original auditorium.

Bordering one side of the town square is the new “Creative Commons” area, with interactive stations for creative play that have been designed with guidance from the Lego Foundation, in its first partnership with an art museum.

“It’s an opportunity to try to redefine what a museum can be and see it as a playful experience,” said Charlie Garling, the museum’s director of learning and creativity.

For the wall spanning the new restaurant, Cornelia, on the other side of the town square, the artist Firelei Báez has made a 30-foot mosaic envisioning an Afrofuturist myth about women thrown overboard in the Middle Passage, the sea leg of the slave trade, flourishing in an underwater culture.

Another site-specific commission is by Miriam Bäckström, who has turned a subterranean space connecting the parking lot with the stairwell of the new building into something celestial. Her woven tapestry with an abstraction of concentric circles, embedded into the curvature of the architecture, provides an illusion of the infinite.

Given the museum’s history with living artists, “it would have been a missed opportunity if we didn’t truly integrate some contemporary voices into the space itself,” said the chief curator, Cathleen Chaffee. “We want people the minute they arrive to feel that they’re stepping into an artwork and not have them wait 10 minutes until they check their coat and get their ticket,” she said.

Inside the exhibition galleries, now double the space at 50,000 square feet, some 400 works from the collection are displayed chronologically, starting in the neoclassical building (with a new roof and warm red oak replacing cracked marble flooring) and wending through the three floors of the new building (named for the financier Jeffrey E. Gundlach, who contributed $65 million to the capital campaign).

Four galleries spotlight the museum’s historical relationship with the Abstract Expressionist painter Clyfford Still, displaying all 33 towering canvases by him in the collection. An adjacent double-height gallery shows contemporary artists who have an affinity with Still, including Joe Bradley, Sterling Ruby, Stanley Whitney and Harold Ancart.

Another highlight is an immersive multichannel video installation by Lap-See Lam, a shadow play inspired by her family’s Chinese restaurant in Sweden and the artist’s U.S. museum debut.

Even people just driving by the campus can see works by Alexander Calder, Robert Irwin, Ursula von Rydingsvard and Lawrence Weiner, among others, clearly visible through the glass facade on the second-floor sculpture terrace, encircling the internal cube of galleries in the contemporary building. “The Gundlach building looks the way it does because the community wanted it,” Mr. Sirén said, emphasizing its porosity.

“I don’t think we could have raised this money,” Mr. Sirén added, “if we hadn’t engaged our community and been authentic about it.”

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