Meanwhile, the Albright-Knox is filling many of the best galleries in its 1905 Beaux Arts building with an exhibition of photographs of the National Hockey League’s Buffalo Sabres. The show, “Forty: The Sabres in the NHL,” is co-organized by the museum and the Sabres’ charitable arm, the Buffalo Sabres Foundation. Included in the exhibition are about 200 pictures taken over the Sabres’ 40 years by a team photographer, a photojournalist and a freelancer, plus a film-and-video installation. The Buffalo News’ Colin Dabkowski reported that a Sabres employee was involved in the selection of images and that the Sabres proposed the exhibit. Final decisions on exhibited pictures were made not by the museum’s curators, but by A-K director Louis Grachos. The video installation was produced by the Sabres. The exhibition was also “sponsored by the Buffalo Sabres Foundation.” Dabkowski explained that’s shorthand for: “The exhibition was funded by Larry Quinn, managing partner and part-owner of the Sabres.”
“Sabres” is no more than an advertisement for a local business. It is as if the Albright had rented out its best gallery spaces to General Motors for a presentation of photographs of its Buffalo-area engine plant. Even if “Sabres” was a thoughtful exhibition of worthy art, this unethical arrangement would be an acute betrayal of art museum standards, the type of pay-for-space deal that should be publicly condemned by museum associations. (We’re waiting…) Ethical considerations aside, the exhibition itself is astonishingly bad. It’s likely the worst exhibition I have seen in an American art museum of the Albright’s stature.
Nothing distinguishes any of the photographs in “Sabres” from a million pictures taken at thousands games in a hundred hockey arenas in the last three decades. None of the pictures shows any evidence of conceptual underpinning or artistic intent. They’re just snapshots of hockey games and players. There is no evidence that the creators of these pictures consciously made the decisions that elevate a picture from a capturing-of-happenstance to meaningful artwork. There is no evident documentary-project-style intent here, no evidence that an artist is using any one picture or any group of pictures in an effort to say anything except, “Look, it’s hockey.” Nothing here comes close to Catherine Opie’s portraits of football players, pictures which examine American masculinity, or Paul Pfeiffer’s nearby video sculptures, which mine our obsession with sport and its routines. [Image: Ron Moscati, not titled, 1974.]
Furthermore, the Albright-Knox’s installation of these pictures seems to underscore their status as not-art. No picture is presented as a distinct object. No artist determined the size of his picture; instead the museum presents each picture in one of several standardized sizes. (See the two installation shots below.) On the front of each photograph is a printed semi-watermark that says “photo by ‘the photographer.’” The pictures look like they were run off the posterboard machine at Kinko’s. “Sabres” is the kind of presentation one might expect to see next to Gate 16 at the Buffalo airport or at the Sabres’ HSBC Arena (where it belongs), not at the distinguished Albright-Knox Art Gallery. (In fact, the film-and-video installation would be a big hit at HSBC Arena.)
Grachos justified “Sabres” by saying it will bring into the Albright-Knox Buffaloans who might otherwise never visit the gallery — in effect that the museum expects people who come for “Sabres” will see some colored mud on canvas and become magically converted by it. That’s facile and lazy museum practice. Good art museums build relationships with their audience. But new audiences for art aren’t built with fairy dust, they’re built by meeting a community halfway, by making the case to a community that art is fun, interesting, exciting and even topical and here’s why it might interest you. As I noted yesterday, the A-K recently acquired three artworks by Paul Pfeiffer, each of which seems tailor-made to bring a sports-mad town from its passion toward the museum’s mission to inspire or motivate Buffaloans to be interested in something they might not have been interested in before. (One Pfeiffer even features the Stanley Cup, which is on view at the Albright today.) The Albright leadership’s lack of confidence in art and in its own staff is revealed by how the museum has treated its new Pfeiffers: It has banished them to a dark corner of the museum in favor of this marketing presentation. [Installation shots above and below courtesy of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.]
The Albright-Knox defines its mission as “to enhance the understanding and appreciation of contemporary and modern art, principally by developing, exhibiting, and preserving its world-renowned [c]ollection.” “Sabres” represents an abandonment of that mission. Note that the museum’s goals smartly say nothing about maximizing attendance at any cost. Were that a reasonable aim, art museums might as well do nothing but show Harry Potter movies.
Strangely, Grachos more or less admitted to the Buffalo News that a deviation from mission for this exhibit was OK by him because it is for a short period: “I’m not apologetic about it,” he told the News’ Dabkowski. “It’s a three-month period. It’s a great opportunity to celebrate a team that is much-loved in the community.” In other words: Grachos knows the show has nothing to do with art and that it’s an ad for a local business. We shouldn’t worry about it because the museum is only betraying itself for three months. But if an art museum won’t hang art, then what exactly is it doing and what is it for?
“Sabres” is more than a bad exhibition, it indicts the Albright-Knox’s stewards and decision-makers. Remember: The Albright has one of America’s ten or so best museum collections of modern and contemporary art. Only a handful of American museums collect more actively or more smartly. The museum hangs challenging and hard-to-display art with skill and thoughtfulness. It undertakes big projects with verve and flair. This all makes it all the sadder that the Albright’s board and its director do not have faith in the power of art to engage their audience, nor in their staff’s ability to connect with their region. This wildly inappropriate exhibit should prompt the Albright-Knox and those who care about the museum to examine the A-K’s leaders, from the board on down. It shouldn’t be too much to expect an art museum — especially one as fantastic as the Albright — to show art.
Related: Colin Dabkowski’s Buffalo News story on “Sabres” is a must-read. At a time when many big newspapers report on art only when they can glorify local institutions, kudos to the News and Dabkowski for raising uncomfortable questions.