Change is Coming: The Grachos Years

photo by Jim Bush

On December 31 Louis Grachos will mark the end of his tenure as director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. It may be fitting that the day ends with fireworks. In a city that can often be set in its ways, the game-changing community leader has been both a magnet for accolades and a lightning rod for controversy.
Ten years ago Grachos arrived fresh from his previous position as director of SITE Santa Fe in New Mexico following the relatively static nineteen-year term of his predecessor Douglas Schultz. His first words after assuming the museum reins might well have been giddyup. A rapid succession of changes included regular reinstallations of the collection that dislodged popular favorites from their previously entrenched locations, sometimes relegating them to storage. If this wasn’t disconcerting enough for lovers of the status quo, Grachos began rearranging the outdoor sculpture that had stood so reassuringly in place for decades.
Assessing the legacy
The Grachos years saw a dramatic uptick in new acquisitions, roughly 1,200 works, including the largest commissioned scribble drawing by Sol Lewitt, a light piece by James Turrell, a print by Janine Antoni, a Bruce Nauman video installation jointly purchased with the Whitney Museum, and a highly conspicuous curbside sculpture constructed of aluminum canoes by Nancy Rubins. There were also major art donations from Natalie and Irving Forman, Dorothy and Herbert Vogel, and Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo.
Under Grachos, the gallery atmosphere became less stuffy. Admission-free Gusto at the Gallery Fridays were implemented, complete with family-inclusive activities, from art lessons to belly dancing. The Stanley Cup made a highly popular visit, along with a critically panned but crowd-pleasing Sabres photography show. Even the guards suddenly seemed more like ushers than art police.
Grachos reached out to the local art community, expanding the long-standing In Western New York regional biennial exhibition to more than a dozen local venues, and broadening its reach to a wider geographic region. But his decision to include a handful of attention-grabbing internationally known artists left some in the local art community wary about the event’s direction.
The most divisive change under Grachos was the controversial auction of 200 seldom-exhibited works from the collection, shoring up the museum’s acquisition endowment and igniting a firestorm of dissent. Suddenly, all of Western New York seemed either “for” or “against” the deaccession.
“The Albright-Knox has been an incredible experience,” says Grachos in a recent reflective conversation. “It’s about the stewardship of a world class modern and contemporary art collection with a great legacy of 150 years, and an opportunity to grow that collection.”
Grachos arranged to stay with the Albright-Knox long enough to oversee a bit more of that growth. He ticks off a list: “completion of the Andy Goldsworthy installation, a Jason Middlebrook sculpture, a new acquisition and installation by Spanish artist Juame Plensa, a Susan Philips audio piece to be permanently installed in the auditorium, and a major installation by Robert Irwin.” He’s also completing a catalogue for DECADE: Contemporary Collecting 2002–2012, the companion to the current exhibition by the same name, which could be subtitled “The Grachos Years.”

In January, Grachos moves to Austin, Texas, to become the first director of the recently merged Austin Museum of Art (AMOA) and Arthouse. Grachos clearly relishes the challenge ahead. “What makes me really interested in this opportunity is that it could be a new museum model, using the two great facilities in a much more creative way.” AMOA-Arthouse includes a twelve-acre sculpture park and villa, an art school, and a stylishly retrofitted two-story urban facility. Asked what portion of him feels excitement and how much is terrified, Grachos laughs, “Oh, I would say fifty/fifty.” The opportunity and challenge of doing something important, counterbalanced by the possibility of failure, seems to inspire him. “It’s a great motivator for any museum professional,” he says.

Jim Lambie, Zobop (Stairs), 2003. Courtesy of Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the artist.

Defining a museum mission
Similar challenges attracted Grachos to the Albright-Knox. The board of directors had defined them in the museum’s Strategic Plan for Growth. “It was all about community engagement, making the gallery more accessible, reaffirming and refining the mission to make it clear that they are a contemporary arts museum that is committed to supporting artists that are living and working today,” Grachos says. “I think the board of directors felt that there was mission drift.”
This mission drift included the tendency to rely on touring blockbuster exhibitions to attract audiences. “My take on that,” says Grachos, “was that we have a great collection and we should be teaching the community about that.” He discovered that much of the community didn’t understand the quality, focus, and importance of the collection, or the gallery’s historical commitment to modern and contemporary art. “The first forty paintings that came into the collection were by artists who were living and working [at the time]. European modernism was an early thrust. I realized early on, moving us back into a modernist/contemporary mode of thinking was going to be a challenge.”
That challenge was partly met by the infamous deaccession, the result of a lengthy process involving thirty-six community leaders, the museum staff, and the board’s art committee that added $67 million dollars to the gallery’s acquisition endowment. “It became a very contentious issue because deaccessioning had become contentious worldwide,” Grachos notes. The practice is more common than people realize. Many institutions like New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum deaccession work routinely. The director adds, “Some colleagues have told me ‘We deaccession something every meeting.’  Are we happy maintaining a time capsule collection, or are we going to be a viable collecting institution again? The decision was made that we want to opt for the future. In my mind it’s really proven to be an important step for this museum.”
A question that continues to be raised is whether the board tweaked the museum’s original mission statement. “Mission statements are a more recent phenomenon,” Grachos points out, “You have to look at the behavior of the early curators.” It’s noteworthy that the Albright-Knox has never had a curator of antiquities. Grachos sites the Cleveland Museum of Art as one that has specialists in Asian art, Indian art, and Greek and Roman antiquities, among others. “In [the Albright-Knox] history we never looked at our curatorial team that way, so those areas were never developed like most museums that have antiquity collections. As an institution evolves, the mission gets more refined, and there’s nothing wrong with a museum redefining itself. People can complain about deaccessioning all they want, but the reality is we’ve now left a stronger and more vibrant institution. It was a very difficult decision; there’s no question about that.”
Leaving a legacy
So how does Grachos think his tenure will be remembered? “We became relevant and topical again. What I am most proud of is the acquisitions that we’ve made. Once again we have dialogue.” The gallery also recommitted to using its historic collection and contemporary acquisitions as the basis for temporary exhibitions, replacing the blockbuster model. Grachos puts it this way: “Do you want to celebrate your collection or do you want to be an exhibition hall?” He jokingly adds that the only “tried and true” blockbuster themes are “gold, French Impressionism, and Dale Chihuly.”
Grachos’s legacy also is reflected in two preserved sets of correspondence which he calls his “love” and “hate” files. “My favorite [from the hate file] was the man who complained that he made this big effort to come to the Albright-Knox to see the Jackson Pollack [painting], and he came a long way, and it was like a pilgrimage for him, and he didn’t see it, and it was so disappointing.” Grachos adds a punchline—the painting was actually on display in another part of the gallery. “Which makes me ask, well wait a minute; where’s this person’s curiosity? He remembered the painting in one place and if it wasn’t there, it wasn’t there.”
Another letter elicits more sympathy. A woman who visited the museum with a European relative expressed intense anger when her favorite painting wasn’t on display. “And that’s a tragedy,” says Grachos, “I feel the same way when a colleague comes to visit and five or six things I really want to show off aren’t on display.” Grachos sees this as a “facilities issue.” The existing museum isn’t large enough to exhibit the breadth of the collection without rotating important work in and out. And regular rotation makes the gallery more inviting for multiple visits. “I found that the ones that were complaining would only come every three or four years.”
Reflecting on highlights of the past decade, Grachos cites the Auguste Rodin sculpture exhibition that was scheduled before he arrived. What he liked best about it was the gallery-curated accompanying show, Bodily Space. “It was a very fresh look at the figure. The loans were exquisite.” Extreme Abstraction, another highlight, was an extreme frustration for some visitors who were unaccustomed to one exhibition occupying the entire facility inside and out. “It’s funny because I never perceived [doing this] as a radical decision.” The gallery’s collaboration with the Saint Louis Museum and Jewish Museum on Action/Abstraction was another personal highlight.
Partnering with other arts institutions in general is a source of pride for Grachos. This includes the multivenue regional collaboration, Beyond/In Western New York, to which the museum committed considerable resources. “Beyond/In was not just about celebrating the art community, but about celebrating our institutions. We have a great complement of visual art organizations in Buffalo.”
Grachos believes it’s important for institutions like the Albright-Knox to cultivate the local art community. “I can honestly say that we made an effort to support and nurture artists that are living and working here.” It’s a community that he’s seen grow over the past decade. “But what’s not keeping up with the art community is the support for it financially,” he says, “That takes time.” He cites the emergence of new spaces where young artists can exhibit as a healthy sign. “I’m not saying they’re succeeding financially, but the idea that there are places for emerging artists in a community is important.” Grachos also believes that it’s important to include local art in the museum’s collection. “Successful directors really can’t avoid involving the regional art scene; it’s part of what makes a healthy institution.”
As Grachos reminisces about Buffalo, the words “we” and “our” occur regularly. He is clearly invested in the community, and he sees a bright future ahead for it, a future in which the arts play a lead role. “We have an incredible opportunity to generate excitement and redefine ourselves as a city through our heritage and our assets.” He lists, “the Darwin Martin House, Canalside, the Central Terminal, the Larkin Center … It’s not about the Buffalo Bills, and it’s not about chicken wings or defining ourselves as this blue collar community that’s seen better days. It’s about a community that can look at itself and celebrate its past achievements and move into the future.”



Bruce Adams is an artist, writer, and educator.


This is part one of a two-part feature on the changes coming to Buffalo’s major art galleries. To read Maria Scrivani’s interview with Dr. Anthony Bannon, who just assumed the role of director at the Burchfield Penney Art Center for the second time in his career, click here.