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First look: A peek inside the Buffalo AKG Art Museum

The transformation taking place at the art museum on Elmwood Avenue is on track to be complete by spring 2023.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — For decades, the museum known as Albright-Knox Art Gallery was a peaceful, majestic setting to view the finished works of great artists. But these days, it is now an active, noisy environment, where the sculpting is done by people using forklifts and other heavy duty equipment, rather than paint or clay. 

The museum, which will now be called the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, will still be an active construction site for another year. So for now, Director Janne Siren is politely saying, "pardon our dust." 

"I know that it can be a little bit of a disruption sometimes in the early mornings and late afternoons, and I do apologize to our community for that," he told 2 On Your Side. "But I hope that our neighbors understand that sometimes it's necessary to make a little noise in order for something new to be built."

For the first time in 2022, Siren invited us behind the orange and white striped barriers that people who drive Elmwood Avenue have become accustomed to since construction began in late 2019. We took a peak at the progress so far, beginning with the massive slab of concrete that will eventually become a free public park. 

"What we are standing on top of right now is a parking garage," Siren explained. "This is the former parking lot, the former surface parking lot. This will be a green lawn, an engineered grass lawn. So you can imagine kids playing here in the summertime, snowball fights in the wintertime."

Now, imagine looking down on that scene, from the top floor of the new Jeffrey Gundlach Building. It's named in honor of the man who donated $65 million to make the project possible. With its never before seen bird's eye views of Delaware Park and the Elmwood Village, and its vast gallery space inside, the Gundlach Building is built to wow, but not intimidate. 

"Museums can be somewhat alienating spaces," Siren pointed out. "They look like these grand buildings, and people might get the sense of what's my place and space, what's my role in that building?"

The Gundlach building will be enclosed in glass this summer. It's a design Siren says was meant to invoke a sense of welcome. 

"So when you're standing on this front lawn and looking into the building, you'll see all the activity in there, and when you're in there, you'll see all the activity that's happening in the city," he said. 

But this project doesn't stop at the new building and park. Crews are also making major updates inside the other buildings on the AK campus too. With an initial budget of more than $168 million, it's the result of the largest capital campaign for any cultural institution in Western New York history. 

"Put it in these terms. We used to be a small to medium sized museum by American standards," Siren said. "We will be one of the larger art museums dedicated to the art of our time in the United States. The size of the new Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. The size of the Guggenheim, in terms of our footprint."

Pandemic-related delays will end up adding between $12-20 million to the total cost, and six months to the timeline. When it finally opens in the first half of 2023, Siren says it will be a tourist attraction drawing art lovers to Western New York, but he wants Buffalonians to be the first to enjoy it.  

"What's important to the board of directors and to me is that we open to our community first," he said. "So it's not one opening day, it's really an opening season and we want our community to be the first to really celebrate the new museum with us."

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