There are few constants in the art world. The enduring appeal of oil paint on canvas is one. The frequent invocation of artists’ biographies to interpret (and market) their work is another. Still another, oddly specific and just as oddly consistent, is that every six decades the foremost art museum in Buffalo, New York, undergoes a transformative expansion. The Buffalo AKG Art Museum (formerly the Albright-Knox Art Gallery) occupies a campus in New York State’s second-largest city that now features buildings completed in 1905, 1962 and 2023.
The latest, inaugurated last month, was designed by Shohei Shigematsu, a partner at the New York office of architecture firm OMA, in collaboration with New York firm Cooper Robertson. It was shaped by extensive community outreach and several town hall-style feedback and brainstorming sessions with local residents. It is the centrepiece of a $230m capital campaign that began more than a decade ago and also involved major renovations and interventions within the two earlier buildings: E.B. Green’s neoclassical structure, the Robert and Elisabeth Wilmers Building, whose marble colonnade projects a turn-of-the-20th-century brand of civic pride; and Gordon Bunshaft’s mid-century Modern addition, the Seymour H. Knox Building, with its sleek if somewhat austere geometry.
Shigematsu’s addition, the Jeffrey E. Gundlach Building, extends an invitation to passersby. Sited to the north of the Wilmers Building and connected to it by a snaking elevated walkway clad in reflective glass, it broadcasts openness and transparency.
“Part of the reason we chose that site was that the museum was, ironically, surrounded by Delaware Park, so there was a long distance from the main boulevard and the city to get to the museum,” Shigematsu says. “Sometimes it’s good to have a procession, but sometimes it also creates a sense of distance for the public. So now the older buildings are still set in the park, but the new building really faces the street.”
The Gundlach Building, in addition to creating another entrypoint to the museum, features 13 new galleries totaling 27,000 sq. ft, plus an enclosed 6,100 sq. ft sculpture terrace. More prosaically, it includes a loading dock and freight elevator, essential back-of-house elements the museum did not have previously. The galleries are traditional white-walled spaces, laid out in a “plus” sign configuration, with an inaugural programme that includes a bravura display of the museum’s 33 works by Abstract Expressionist painter Clyfford Still (until 19 February 2024) and a selection from the 518 objects acquired during the four years it was closed for construction. In a clever aesthetic callback, the marble used in the thresholds between the new galleries was quarried from the same part of Vermont as the marble used 120 years ago in constructing the Wilmers Building.
Around the exterior of the new galleries, large-scale works by Ursula von Rydingsvard, Christine Sun Kim, Lawrence Weiner and others beckon passing drivers and joggers from the Gundlach Building’s terraces, which are enclosed in a glass veil. “Rather than spending too much time trying to redefine the galleries, we thought the need for public engagement through a playful and improvisational space should be our realm, so we used the galleries as the core and designed things around them,” Shigematsu says. “We made it transparent so that it can be more welcoming and communicative.”
The sense of openness and invitation conveyed by the Gundlach Building’s design is also evident in the interventions Shigematsu and his collaborators made to the museum’s earlier buildings. The most transformative has been enclosing the Knox Building’s square, open-air courtyard. What was formerly an underused sculpture garden with a lone tree is now the heart of the museum, an admission-free “town square” that serves as the main entrypoint and a thoroughfare for strollers travelling into and out of Delaware Park. And its glass canopy is not mere utilitarian architecture, but a commissioned work by Studio Other Spaces, the architecture and design practice founded by artist Olafur Eliasson and architect Sebastian Behmann.
Common Sky (2022) is an asymmetric intervention within Bunshaft’s structure, with a funnel-like glass column that descends to the ground precisely where the courtyard’s only tree previously stood. Floating just beneath this curving glass ceiling are triangular mirror panels that serve light- and noise-control functions, while also offering fleeting selfie opportunities—though the best selfies are to be found nearby in the inaugural exhibition in the museum’s new admission-free gallery, showcasing Lucas Samaras’s 1966 installation Mirrored Room (until 2 January 2024).
“The idea of inclusion is not so easy to translate into architecture,” Behmann says of Common Sky. “What we created here is not a sculpture or an object, but really a system. You become a part of this system. It’s a representation of what a human-made space looks like.” It offers, in Eliasson’s words, “the opportunity to see yourself in the sky”.
This new town square connects many of the museum’s most public-facing and community-minded spaces, from new cutting-edge classrooms, the free gallery and a restaurant with a site-specific mosaic by Dominican American artist Firelei Báez, to a space for play and interaction dubbed the Creative Commons that marks the first partnership between an art museum and the Lego Foundation. “The museum is a community resource, and as part of that we want to be a space for community well-being,” says Charlie Garling, the museum’s director of learning and creativity.
In the adjacent Wilmers Building, the architectural interventions are subtler but no less significant. Most immediately apparent is the restoration of the exterior staircase leading up to the building’s western façade, which had been demolished decades ago to make way for surface parking for cars. That has been moved below ground, restoring the museum’s original approach, with its broad front lawn and grand staircase. Inside, the cracking marble floors have been replaced with red oak and, overhead, the building’s entire roof was replaced. “This project had a component of adaptive reuse, restoration, a new building and landscaping,” Shigematsu says. “It’s a dream job.”
But the most striking feature in the campus’s oldest building is the museum curators’ showcase of their permanent collection. Chief curator Cathleen Chaffee and senior curator of the collection Holly E. Hughes—who previously had to alternate between displays of the collection and temporary exhibitions due to lack of gallery space—have brought out the biggest guns, from stellar works by Louise Nevelson, Willem de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Mark Rothko, Joan Mitchell and Jackson Pollock, to textbook pieces by Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse and Frida Kahlo, as well as surprising examples by Elaine de Kooning, Richard Diebenkorn, Jacob Lawrence and Claes Oldenburg.
As the museum’s director, Janne Sirén, points out, many of the collection’s jewels were acquired the same year they were made or shortly thereafter. “We’ve been a contemporary art institution since our inception,” he says.
Examples of that commitment to the contemporary across the museum’s transformed campus—the final elements of which are due to be completed in late August—are too numerous to mention. They include an exhibition (until 30 October) revisiting its groundbreaking 1910 photography exhibition (the first at any US museum), the restoration of Leo Villareal’s early installation Light Matrix (2005) on the Knox Building’s façade, a commission the Swedish artist Miriam Bäckström created for the staircase leading up from the new underground parking structure using virtual reality and 3D mapping technologies, and installation artist Lap-See Lam’s first solo exhibition at a North American museum, which is inaugurating the Gundlach Building’s new theatre space (until 1 January 2024).
Throughout, amid the shifting art movements and building styles—from Post-Impressionist to digital art, from neoclassical to Post-Modern architecture—the new Buffalo AKG Art Museum remains, again, a remarkably consistent place. The architecture eschews spectacular, disproportionate gestures, maintaining a human scale and a tone that privileges Modern and contemporary art.
“Radical accessibility, openness and transparency create more of an aura in our era than making something that is deliberately unreachable,” Shigematsu says. “Being iconic means not making iconic architecture, but an iconic place.”