Exploring Buffalo’s AKG

By Michelle Kearns

Published on | Last Updated

“Luminous.” “Moving.” “Sublime.” Accolades for Buffalo’s reimagined art museum and campus came in with sparkle, like the gallery’s sheer glass walls that serve as giant windows to the new world inside: a three-story invitation to come explore.

Worth every penny! The building itself is a true work of art,” wrote a Trip Advisor reviewer who flew in from North Carolina to see the $195 million expansion and renovation of the former Albright-Knox Art Gallery. 

After a three-and-a-half-year construction closure, the modern and contemporary art collection that one critic calls a “national treasure” reopened with a new name – the Buffalo AKG Art Museum — a striking glass and marble addition, generating an effusive, warm public embrace.

The press gushed. The AKG “seamlessly blends the tranquility of nature with the vibrant energy of urban life,” reported the design magazine Designboom. For Steven Litt, art and architecture critic at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the AKG’s revamp is “an utter delight,” a riveting showcase of “one of the best collections of its kind.”

The museum’s unique take, Litt wrote, presents modern art as a narrative of “the avant-garde from the rise of French Impressionism in the 1860s to works by important living artists just now hitting their stride.”

The new landscape, renovation and architecture that emerged from the museum’s century old bones now includes three connected buildings, each from a different era. The newest is the cube-like, three-story, glass and marble Gundlach Building, with its soaring, light-filled gallery spaces. Windows frame views, like paintings, and bring the surrounding Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Delaware Park inside. A sinuous glassenclosed bridge to the 1905 Wilmers Building shows off the grounds with the ripples of an elegant funhouse mirror. A sculpture garden that was part of the 1962 addition – now known as the Knox Building — was enclosed and dubbed the “Town Square” with a sparkling domed canopy of glass triangles called “Common Sky.” A wide lawn can hold thousands for open-air summer concerts and hides parking that’s been moved underground.

The expansive, connected design — with free admission to the Town Square and adjacent public spaces — was intended as an invitation to the entire community, particularly to the very young, families, and people of color and others who might not have felt included at the museum in the past. The change is working.

Within the first months of the AKG’s reopening, 100,000 visitors came, close to the 125,000 the museum used to see in an entire year. Ray Monde was one. The Seattle-based Australian paper collage artist bought a plane ticket here just to see the “jewel box of amazing art” that he first happened upon two decades ago on a trip to Niagara Falls. Puzzled about his latest trip, friends asked, Why Buffalo?

“I said, ‘because there’s an extraordinary art museum,’” Monde recalled. “I just remember seeing the collection of the museum and was kind of astounded by how carefully curated it was and how many masterpieces were in this relatively small building…It was amazing to me that this city had so many.” He didn’t realize the museum had been expanded and transformed. “It’s so much better than I imagined,” said Monde. “It was the first thing we did when we got to town. We went straight to AKG. It was beautiful.”

The well-curated art still captured him. Classics hold court with the new. A Matisse pencil sketch of Notre Dame, Picasso’s “La Toilette” nude posing for a mirror, Andy Warhol’s “100 Cans” of Campbell’s Soup, Jackson Pollock’s “Convergence,” a white, black, red and blue paint splattered rebellion, share the space with thought-provoking recent works such as “Village Series,” a sculpture of a woman with a grass skirt by Simone Leigh and Nick Cave’s “Speak Louder,” with figures draped in bedazzled black fabric with horn shaped heads.

“This says to me that someone has really thoughtfully put together the collection to go, ‘We’re not going to rest on our laurels,’” Monde says. “The collage work by Deborah Roberts, I think is particularly important, especially with Black Lives Matter,” he said referring to “That One,” a 2018 collage of seated Black boys with sad, thoughtful, and hopeful looks. “For me it’s a real reconciliation of how we can live together.” The art of the buildings captured him, too. From the “Common Sky” glass canopy to the bridge where he spotted kids delighting in the “curvy adventure” walk between the Gundlach and Wilmers Buildings. The architecture, he said, was as well curated as the art.

The museum also caught 9-year-old Buffalonian Leo Schwartz’s attention. When he was out walking his dog, he looked it over and told his mother he wanted to go in. “The shine of the mirrors and reflections off of it makes it very cool,” he said.

The museum’s reimagining includes room for concerts, theater, and artmaking, among other programming. Across the white terrazzo floor, where Leo and family stood, kids and grownups were building bright block creations in the new LEGO Creative Commons. Nearby, people were settled in with wine and cappuccino at the in-house restaurant tables and corner lounge chairs. Visitors streamed in through the entrances, from Delaware Park and Elmwood Avenue. To Leo’s mother Victoria Belniak, the vibe was European, sophisticated, and inviting. “It’s very calming in here,” she said as she paused to talk to a friend.

As architect Shohei Shigematsu crafted the new AKG design, he weighed people’s input from more than a dozen public meetings and integrated elements into a 21st century museum, which he says is an evolving concept. “The museum needed to be more open and also more undefined,” he said at a gallery talk. “Those things really inspired me.” For Leo, the museum is an adventure. He liked roaming through different, connected spaces discovering art like “Junk,” the strange talking artwork with video close-ups of eyeballs and lips. “AKG is an art destination,” the visiting artist Monde said. “I’m glad we were here before the hordes arrive because it’s an extraordinary space.”

Michelle Kearns headshot

Michelle Kearns

As a former Buffalo News Reporter, teacher & member of a university communications team, I love sharing stories about Buffalo & the unexpected people, places & happenings here. It is a thrill to make new discoveries, and take in the city - & the Cheerios air! - as VBN's new communications manager.