Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

The Albright-Knox’s big, embarrassing mistake

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Yesterday I reported on and reviewed the Albright-Knox’s acquisition of three sports-themed Paul Pfeiffers, works that are on view now. Also up now at the A-K…

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.)

This stuff isn’t art. Questioned about the exhibition by the Buffalo News, Albright director Grachos didn’t try to defend it as such. So why is it in an art museum?

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.

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  1. Lori Zimmer says:

    I whole heartedly agree. I am from Buffalo, and visiting this past holiday was first appalled by this exhibition, which quickly turned into laughter. Why cant this museum get it together?

    I was working at Sotheby’s during the controversial deaccessioning of the the A-K’s ancient works. I am 31, and have yearly visited the museum since I was a child, and I can safely say I never saw most of the pieces that were being sold. I thought, finally, they are making a step in the right direction to have a cohesive collection and to define themselves- and highlight their already strong collection. Shortly after, amazing shows such as Andrea Zittel and Francis Bacon (which I found better than the Met’s) were mounted. New pieces were acquired, including a favorite Matthew Barney. I was impressed, finally the museum was stepping it up, making strides toward curating innovative shows.

    Yep. Then I came home in December, saw the Sabres exhibition, sighed and counted the days til my flight back to New York.

  2. Raoul Duke says:

    get off your high horse.

  3. rob says:

    I imagine the opportunity to provide something of interest to the number of international visitors in town for the largest amateur hockey tournament in the world has more to do with the timing of this installation than acting as some kind of advertisement for the Sabres.

  4. Laura says:

    How can one say something is not art? A child drawing with crayon is art. Jeff Koons’ huge sculptures of things like a balloon dog is art. A Jackson Pollock drip painting that is featuered in the very same exhibit is art. Art can be defined in various ways. Being an art teacher I have taught my students that art can be a variety of things. I strongly believe that this exhibit contained much art. Photographs that contained the basic priciples and elements of art, capturing a lifestlye, history, and so on were featured. While taking my students to the gallery I saw inspiration in their eyes. This exhibit helped link the art world to their personal lives, a goal that many art teachers strive for. Students were not only excited to see the photographs of their hometown team but it inspired conversations about photography as art and helped me introduce the art process of photography into my classroom.

    It was a ‘cool’ twist to the museum. It was a real treat for me, my family, and my students.

  5. Mikey Burgesss says:

    The only thing that’s embarrassing is your snobby and holier-than-thou blog entry.

    It’s obvious that you’re about as qualified to talk about a hockey as I am to discuss Portuguese Rococo artists of the 18th century; The only difference is that I’m not pompous enough to pretend to be an authority on things that I know very little about.

    Also, heaven forbid foot traffic spikes for a few weeks and the gallery generates some extra revenue in this tough economy. Eh, who cares about that, though, right? As long as Mr. and Mrs. Howell can look at the “real” art with their monocles and poke fun at the peasant hockey fans who found their way to an art gallery from their shanties.

    Get off your high horse is right (n/russ).

  6. Keller says:

    This just made me want to go see it—thanks!

  7. […] Really interesting takedown of the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo for "selling out" with an exhibit featuring 40 years of Buffalo Sabres sports photos: "This stuff isn’t art. Questioned about the exhibition by the Buffalo News, Albright director Grachos didn’t try to defend it as such. So why is it in an art museum?" [Tyler Green] […]

  8. Rumun Ndur says:

    Art comes about through the story with it. I have went to art galleries where they can present something simple or nondescript, with no special way of presenting it, but it is justified as art, through the story that surrounds it, what leads up to the photo.

    Hockey, especially in a town like Buffalo, is more than just a sport for many. Where you see “pictures [that] look like they were run off the posterboard machine at Kinko’s.”, many see much more than that.

    To dismiss this installation solely because it does not meet your definition of art, whether you think it lacks style or whatever else, makes you no better than people who truly can’t appreciate what art is.

    You imply those that visit the gallery to see a collection of the history of the Blue and Gold, are know nothings when it comes to “real” art, when in simply writing this piece, you became exactly what you, and actual fans of art, utterly despise.

    You’re close minded, which is exactly what can not exist within art.

  9. Megan says:

    Oh, this is icky indeed.

  10. Megan says:

    Icky exhibit; lame excuse by the director.

  11. Kate says:

    This is the Albright-Knox that you’re hoping will be a beaco of museological rectitude? I don’t intend to be as sarcastic as that sounds, but–at least to mildly-interested people from places other than Buffalo–the institution has not built itself a great reputation.

    The problem I see at the heart of your critique, if I understand your point on exhibitions as advertisements, is that exhibitions often have commercial purposes. I’m not only talking about merchandising in the museum gift store or blockbuster exhibitions to drive visitor numbers and increase membership. What about museums that exhibit artwork owned by donors (or prospective donors)? Seems like an obvious way to do business, but it has the effect of increasing the value of the donors’ collections and thus increasing the value of the tax deduction that the donor will eventually receive if the art ends up in the museum’s collection as a gift.

    Perhaps you trust the curatorial staff (hell, and the development staff) to lend the institution’s scholarly and curatorial imprimateur only to the best pieces, the ones of lasting artistic significance and the ones closely related to the museum’s existing collecting policies. But I’m more cynical than that. I see many shows based on the collections of potential donors as an easy way for museums and philanthropists to help each other out. The museum helps to increase the profile and value of the donor’s property, leading to a bigger financial reward for the donor when he or she sells or donates the art. The stakes are even higher for exhibitions of archaeological objects of uncertain provenance; getting the seal of approval from a respected institution helped to legitimize many collectors whose collections perhaps did not deserve legitimacy.

    I’m not suggesting that it would be sustainable or even desirable to prohibit museums from collaborating with private collectors. But let’s not be too quick to assume that this exhibition is singlehandedly bringing the art world into disrepute.

    By the way–I have the impression, and perhaps I am wrong, that you can’t imagine much overlap between sport and art. I was pointed here by a hockey blog, but some of us hockey fans do think about high culture now and then! If the museum did indeed cede its curatorial voice in this case (and one quote in the article you linked suggests otherwise), then I can see why there could be an ethical problem. But the facts that the photographs are reproduced in limited formats, and some of the photographers are unknown–that’s slender ground for declaring this Not Art. Then again, my training in cultural history, as opposed to traditional art history, may incliine me towards thinking of every visual document as worthy of consideration as historical evidence, even if a particular piece doesn’t appeal to my own sense of aesthetics.

    Forgive my length, my typos, and my disagreement,

  12. dave says:

    The Sabres nor the Albright-KNOX would not exist today as they do if it was not for the passion for both entities and millions spent on both by the Knox family. At then end of the day right or wrong this exhibit brings young people who would not normally come into the Albright in, and who knows they may come back.

  13. […] of hockey and bad decisions, Green wrote yesterday about a collection of great moments in Buffalo Sabres history at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo. Maybe it's because it's an […]

  14. Shirivasta says:

    Thanks for making these points. I was concerned that no one would stand up and state the obvious. Institutions serve a function in society, and it must be called out when they forget.

  15. […] of the sad things about the Albright-Knox’s bad, inappropriate “Sabres” exhibition I discussed here yesterday is that it sits on what should have been a signature moment for the […]

  16. Brett Hurley says:

    I think you fail to realize that the Knox family were the founders of the Buffalo Sabres franchise and were the original owners of the team.

  17. Anthony says:

    Without even having attended the exhibit, I question one thing… What makes you noted in the art world? Prior to seeing this article on sabresfans.com the only Tyler that came to mind was Tyler Durden. Does a fan’s perspective not matter? To you, someone who has probably never played hockey, it may not mean much. To me, someone who has played organized hockey more than three-quarters of my life, it is something to take pride in. Do you rip the Bills because they lost four straight Super Bowls, or do you give them their credit for making it there four times straight? A photo in one persons eyes differs from another. In taking your “blog” I see that you obviously don’t view the photographers pictures as art. Say that to someone like Bill Wippert who has been doing it most of his life. Go to the Sabres store and see the hoards of people who purchase still shots for 15 to 20 bucks a crack. There is plenty of historical value in watching the evolution of a franchise that has seen its highs and lows. A team that has had some of the best hockey players of all time. Incidents involving Clint Malarchuk and Richard Zednik (to you beatniks who don’t know what I’m referring to… look it up). From No Goal and May Day to the lucky drawing of Gil Perrault. The ownership of Seymour Knox, to the imprisoned John Rigas, to the current Blaise Thomas Golisano to the future of Terry Pegula. Maybe if you understood the historical value of this team to the city of Buffalo and the Western New York region and why we truly believe that we are Hockey-Town. Find another city that has thousands of people show up in the cold to cheer the team on outside the arena. Art is made by the people, and it is up to us people to interpret it as we choose. Not to have someone obnoxiously bash on the Albright Knox art gallery for having such a presentation and not for having an exhibit that doesn’t draw a crowd. How dare you question the integrity of the gallery, the people it draws and will continue to draw and the team. Just because you say “this stuff isn’t art” doesn’t mean that it isn’t. It simply means you are close minded. And with that I will be sure to email the Albright Knox to put up a few water colors to satisfy the people like you.

  18. cr says:

    I saw the show with my 10 year old daughter who is a very big hockey fan but not an art lover. She loved the exhibit and after seeing it we continued to look through the gallery. She asked later if we might become members of the gallery as she enjoyed seeing the other exhibits. She has developed a particular interest in Frida Kahlo.

    I spent $5 for parking, $20 for admission and $40 in the gift shop. The Sabres show has generated needed revenue for the gallery and, in this case, encouraged a child to explore and appreciate art. Isn’t that what any gallery should strive to do?

  19. Jason says:

    I disagree with a majority of your comments and question how well you understand the history of photography in general. You are probably caught up in modern day society where every piece of equipment has a camera, photos are a dime a dozen and all you can do is question the clarity of the picture you are staring at.

    90% of every photo taken up until current society is art. Family photos, sports stories, flowers and plants, back ground photos and scenery. All of them. Pictures then had one purpose, to tell a story. The people that took them professionally LOVED what they did because it told a story. It captured a moment in time that no one, and I mean no one, was capturing at all. To claim that it was just someone taking photos of a sporting event is so incredibly incorrect, you should probably rescind this column and call it a loss. It proves that you have no idea what photographic art is and personally I think it insults the intelligence of the individuals that lived there lives to take and cherish these photos and the story each one told them. That is what art does. It provokes a internal reaction.

    So many pieces of pottery and statues that are in our supposed “ART” society as we speak were never ever designed to be pieces of art. It was just simply a pot to carry water to and fro, and in no way was constituted as art to its creator. It was only that modern society decided to make it so.

    Art is described by Britanica as “the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others”

    I certainly believe these photos did this. You should shut your mouth and try and learn something other then modern day photography. Photography was nothing but an expression of art back then.

  20. […] music, but it does involve hockey and art, so deal.  The Buffalo Sabres rented out art museum space basically to celebrate how awesome they’ve […]

  21. […] blockbusters this fall, an strangely necessary reminder that in keeping with their missions, art museums should exhibit art, « Friday exhib: “Bellows and New York” at Toledo Blog Home Uncategorized […]

  22. […] galleries over the the Buffalo Sabres hockey club for a presentation of photographs of the team. Here’s what I had to say about it. What I wrote then about the A-K’s sin stands for VMFA as […]

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