The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, a public museum in Buffalo, New York, has been acquiring new art since 1863, when the luminist painter Albert Bierstadt, then at the peak of his financial success, gave the fledgling institution a canvas, The Marina Piccola, Capri (1859). The museum’s charter mission was then—and has remained since—to collect and exhibit works by living artists, and over the decades its directors have tried to keep pace with new styles, from Impressionism to Pop and beyond, and new media, such as photography, which first entered the collection in 1910. “What makes the collection here interesting,” says senior curator Douglas Dreishpoon, who speaks at almost a whisper but still projects a lecturer’s animated enthusiasm, “is that artworks were bought at or very near the time they were made.”
It’s a Tuesday in early September, a day that the gallery is closed to the public, and as Dreishpoon enters the Albright-Knox’s 1905 Greek Revival building, he flips on the lights to better show the holdings on display in “Remix,” an exhibition drawn from the permanent collection. In front of him is a classic Pollock drip painting, Convergence (1952), as well as a murky Franz Kline from 1958 that was inspired by Pollock’s death and acquired for the museum the following year by Seymour H. Knox Jr. The deep-pocketed board president—whose numerous gifts during the Fifties and Sixties also included the Pollock and works by Rothko, de Kooning, Rauschenberg, Johns and Warhol—was so generous that the institution decided to tack his name onto the end of what had previously been known as the Albright Art Gallery.
Dreishpoon is equally proud of recently acquired works in the collection: photographs by Olafur Eliasson, a sculpture from Matthew Barney’s “Drawing Restraint” series and a gorgeous James Turrell light installation. In contrast to the Knox gifts, these works were purchased with funds from the Albright-Knox’s restricted endowment for acquisitions, and each one represents a careful and calculated deliberation.
“We had been interested in Turrell’s work for a long time and were in discussions with his gallery,” explains Dreishpoon, who backed the 2005 purchase. “There came a point when the price structure was going to take a leap, and we decided it was time to get in.”
That dilemma of when to “get in” highlights how much the process—and the price—of buying new art has changed since old Mr. Knox’s day. In recent years the art market has been redefined by the global rush to contemporary, wherein billionaires from both hemispheres duke it out for iconic trophies and thousands of merely rich collectors swarm art fairs in search of the next emerging genius. Somewhere in that melee are museum directors and curators dreaming about something new for the permanent collection—and wondering how in the world they’ll ever pay for it.